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‘It was not expected’ that MIT Founder Owned Slaves in 1850

themozhi / bit.ly/2C5OjmO / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

MIT is the latest in a string of prestigious universities to reveal ties to slavery that go back to the founding of the institution. The information comes from an undergraduate research course called “MIT and Slavery.” 

That course is led by MIT reference archivist Nora Murphy and history professor Craig Steven Wilder, who is author of the 2013 book “Ebony and Ivy” about the links between slavery and academic institutions.  

MIT was founded 1861 and the first classes were in 1865, which brackets the Civil War. Murphy says there was discussion among archivists and researchers that MIT founding president William Barton Rogers might have been a slaveholder. That did not prepare her to see slaves listed in his household in the U.S. census.


"It was not expected," Murphy said.


Wilder says the industrial revolution in the North was fueled, in a large part, by the slave economy in the American South. That fact has a direct link to MIT and schools like it.  


“Cotton manufacturers in New England who need skilled engineers to build factories, design machines, and maintain production, begin pouring money into engineering schools,” around the time of the Civil War, he said.

Correction: In this interview, Nora Murphy says that the 1860 census showed that MIT founder William Barton Rogers held slaves. It was actually the 1850 census. 

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“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.