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Black History Month

Joseph R. Applegate was a linguistics pioneer at MIT

Joseph Roye Applegate.Courtesy MIT Museum

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people who have made a difference in Massachusetts.

A linguist who was appointed MIT’s first Black faculty member in 1956, Joseph Roye Applegate had a 60-year career in languages. By the end of his career, he knew 13 of them and was considered an expert on the Berber tongues of North Africa.

Applegate’s teaching emphasized the problems of contemporary Africa, in which he had a deep interest. Throughout his career, he traveled to Africa multiple times to study local languages and cultures.

On one of his trips, Applegate traveled with the Tuaregs, also known as the “Blue People.” The migratory group inhabits a vast area of the Sahara and is known for dyed blue garments that protect from wind-whipped sands.

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Applegate was raised in Wildwood, N.J., where his parents ran a boarding house that often housed Black entertainers. His family moved to South Philadelphia, and he studied Spanish and secondary education at Temple University.

It was there that he discovered dance and joined a modern dance troupe. However, he abandoned dance to focus on education, calling it “a more stable option,” and began his teaching career.

Applegate was raised in a home that did not focus on race and disliked racial politics, but said he faced discriminatory hiring practices when he attempted to find teaching jobs.

After earning his master’s and doctorate degrees in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Applegate joined the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1955 to work on machine translation of languages. He then became an assistant professor of modern languages and taught linguistics with such peers as Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, before going on to direct MIT’s new language laboratory.

After a stint at the University of California, Los Angeles, he joined Howard University as director of African studies and founded the nation’s first doctoral program in that discipline.

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In Washington, according to his 2003 obituary in the Washington Post, he enjoyed Brooks Brothers clothing — but liked to wear it long after it had frayed.


Rose Pecci can be reached at rose.pecci@globe.com.