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This Week in MIT History

The MIT community is currently made up of students, faculty and staff from thousands of different backgrounds and cultures. However, in the late 1800’s this was not so. The MIT community was mostly New Englanders, with a few “outsiders.” This week in 1888 marked for MIT a great leap towards today’s campus diversity: enrollment of the first black student. Although MIT did not categorize records of students by race until the late 1960’s, Robert Robinson Taylor ’92, is generally considered to be its first black student, based on auxiliary records. He was enrolled on September 23, 1888 with the largest freshman class in the school's history: 328 students.

During Taylor’s time at MIT, he did well academically. He appears to have been near the top of his class, with honors in trigonometry, architectural history, differential calculus, and applied mechanics. He held the Loring Scholarship (for students who had proven their potential through hard work and superior performance) for two consecutive academic years, and may have actually been the scholarship’s first recipient. He chose to major in Course IV (Architecture), and designed a model convalescent home (for Civil War veterans) as his final project. After graduation, Taylor was invited by Booker T. Washington to develop the nascent program in industrial studies at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. After considering offers from four other schools, and working in the architecture industry for a short time, Taylor joined the faculty at Tuskgee.

While there, the duality of his MIT education (mens et manus) influenced and shaped the Tuskgee program into one where students were trained to be both thinkers and workers. He remained at Tuskgee (excluding a short return to the Cleveland and the architecture trade from 1899-1902) for his entire career. In 1929, he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, served as the treasurer of the local colored library board. Taylor served as a trustee of the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, and of the Fayetteville State Teachers College. Taylor was a mason, a member of Phi Gamma Mu and Phi Beta Sigma fraternities, the Society of the Arts in Boston, the American Economic Society, and the Business League of Tuskgee. In 1911, Taylor delivered a speech at the Congress of Technology, convened to celebrate the Institute’s 50th birthday, “The Scientific Development of the Negro,” in which he traced the history of blacks in industry, from the times of slavery to the present, and speculated on the future of blacks in scientific industries.

Robert R. Taylor died in 1942, in the chapel at Tuskgee, which he considered his greatest architectural achievement. His widow wrote to a member of the MIT faculty, saying “(Taylor) had hoped to attend the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation this year but ill health prevented. He has always met his alumni obligations and loved his alma mater.”

Since Taylor’s enrollment, MIT has enrolled and graduated thousands of black students. Their numbers increased dramatically in the civil-rights era of the 1960’s, and again in the years following 1970, when minority-recruitment programs were developed and refined. The Institute currently offers many opportunities and programs for minority students, including Project Interphase, a head-start program for minority freshmen during the summer before they enter the Institute, as well as the many programs offered by the Office of Minority Education.