Few blacks were part of the MIT community in its early years, even though founder William Barton Rogers had shown a keen interest in issues relating to race. In 1863, Rogers had praised blacks--particularly the bravery exhibited by black troops during the Civil War--and noted "the capacity of these people for knowledge and training."(1) The earliest evidence of blacks at MIT dates from the 1870s, more than a decade later, in photographs of service staff in the old drill hall and gymnasium on Boylston and Clarendon Streets in downtown Boston. "Jones' Lunch," a small cafeteria located at one end of the gym, was run by a black caterer named Jones, with the assistance of a small staff of black cooks, washers, and waiters. Evidently there were no black faculty and no black students at MIT at the time. The first black student to attend MIT appears to have been Robert Robinson Taylor, who enrolled in 1888. Almost seventy more years elapsed before the first black faculty member--Joseph R. Applegate, a linguist--was hired in 1955.
Robert Taylor arrived in Boston in September 1888. Despite skepticism on the part of friends and relatives back home in Wilmington, North Carolina, he was brimming with enthusiasm about the prospect of attending MIT. "When it was known that I was to leave my home to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," Taylor later recalled, "many of the home people asked, What is the use? And a question of similar nature was asked by many in other places. After graduation, what? Where is the field?" These were valid, practical questions. What opportunities existed for a young black Southerner trained at a white institution in the northeast? Was it worth all the trouble and expense?
Williams, Clarence G. “From 'Tech' to Tuskegee: The Life of Robert Robinson Taylor, 1868-1942.” MIT Libraries, MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, 13 Jan. 1998, libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/blacks-at-mit/taylor.html.