Joseph R. Applegate

Today’s morning name, of a linguist who deserves to be better known, though he received some belated recognition late in his life (he was born in 1925) and after his 2003 death. I’ll tell his story by, first, reproducing a thumbnail photo of him; and then, referencing websites about him, from some of the viewpoints that are significant to the story of his life. And finally, a note about another viewpoint that is, as far as I know, utterly missing from these official records.

The photo:

The Wikipedia entry. Very awkwardly patched together, but it tries to hit the highlights (the entry seriously needs editing):

Joseph Roye Applegate (December 4, 1925 – October 18, 2003) was the first black faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a linguistics expert who started working at MIT in 1955 and worked on machine translation. In the 1960s he started working at Howard University [a historically black research university in Washington DC] … [eventually becoming] a professor emeritus of African Studies … It was there that he started the nation’s first Ph.D. program in African Studies.

Joseph Applegate was born in Wildwood, New Jersey. His parents operated a boarding house.

Applegate received his master’s and PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania [with Zellig Harris as his adviser], after which he began his career at MIT in the Research Laboratory of Electronics in 1955. At the Research Laboratory of Electronics he studied the mechanical translation of languages. In 1959 he became the director of MIT’s new language laboratory. At MIT he taught linguistics with such peers as Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. He left MIT and worked at the University of California in Los Angeles from 1960 to 1966. In 1966 he started working at Howard University and became a professor of African studies in 1969. He was the director of the African Studies and Research Program from 1967 to 1969.

The view from MIT. From MIT News: on campus and around the world, “Professor Joseph Applegate: MIT’s first black faculty member” by Clarence G. Williams, Special Assistant to the President”, published 2/5/97:

(In recognition of African-American Heritage Month, Tech Talk presents a profile of MIT’s first black faculty member, Professor Joseph R. Applegate, a linguistics expert who came to the Institute in 1955 and worked on machine translation.)

The view from Black History sites. For example, on the BlackPast site, “Joseph R. Applegate (1925-2003)” by Robert Fikes on 2/23/07.

In summary, the hometown obit. Extracts from the Washington Post, “Professor Joseph Applegate Dies” by Adam Bernstein on 10/22/03, with a nice assortment of humanizing details:

Joseph R. Applegate, 78, a professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University and a specialist in the Berber languages of North Africa, died Oct. 18 at the Washington Home hospice. He had pneumonia.

Dr. Applegate’s interest in languages — he knew 13 — grew after he moved to Philadelphia as a child. He found the exposure to Yiddish and Italian among his classmates new and exciting, forging the basis for his 60-year career.

… in Washington, where he lived, Dr. Applegate struck a refined pose when he wished. Which is to say, he enjoyed Brooks Brothers clothing but liked to wear it long after it had frayed.

… [as an undergraduate] he entered Temple University on academic scholarship and studied secondary education and Spanish. Short but athletic, he was a member of the varsity fencing team and became interested in modern dance, even auditioning successfully for Katherine Dunham’s troupe during his senior year in 1945.

He abandoned dance for education, a “more stable” choice. He soon found himself faced with discriminatory hiring practices in Philadelphia’s schools, which upset him because he “did not accept the classification of race.” He talked himself into a high-school teaching job at an all-girls’ school but felt that the constant oversight — to make sure he did nothing improper — was troubling. It also triggered a lifelong belief in unionization, which he continued at Howard.

Add to this: Applegate, Joseph R., “Phonological Rules of a Subdialect of English,” Word (1961): 188-193. About a “secret language” — a disguised, or play, language — of two young brothers in Cambridge MA.

What comes through in this is that he was impressively smart, multi-talented, and very hard-working. (I never knew him, by the way.) But he was a Black man trying to pursue a conventional academic career at premier universities (MIT, UCLA) back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and apparently people just didn’t know what to do with such a person. He eventually found a home at a top HBCU, and created a program in African Studies because by then there was a call for such programs. So, with undiminished drive, he adapted. Not only endured, but thrived.

Now the complicated part. There is nothing at all in any source I could find that shows any trace whatsoever of a private life for Applegate. He died without any immediate survivors to cite, or even reminiscences of friends. What there is is all in the public record.

As it happens, my MIT adviser, Morris Halle, was an early colleague of Applegate’s, and a supporter of his career. Once, when a few grad students were engaged in a social moment with Morris — lunch in Building 20, or something like that, several of us expressed grave anxieties about getting a job (little did we know that Morris, supreme academic politician that he was, was already jockeying to get positions for all of us at institutions that would take generativists — yes, it was a different world then), and Morris said with one of his deep chuckles, something along the lines of “You people have no idea what difficulty in finding a job is like, I mean you could be Joe Applegate, who’s black and gay, and who would hire him?”

Well, I knew who Joe Applegate was, but I had no idea he was gay, nor did I ever hear anyone, ever, other than Morris say out loud that he was, nor have I seen this said in print, anywhere, even on sites that delight in claiming homosexuality for all sorts of public figures. But he was, apparently, out to a few friends, like Morris, and otherwise fiercely closeted, for all of his life.

And for good reason. He might get away with confiding to a few straight friends in the very liberal context of Cambridge MA academia, but being outed in the respectable Black world, where homophobia was pervasive and intense, would have been death to his career. Howard, in particular, would never have tolerated him.

I understood how a man could manage to have sex with other men while being so extraordinarily closeted. I was, at the time of Morris’s electric remark, myself in the process of learning to negotiate the very extensive world of subterranean gay sex, which embraced a certain number of Black men, but I had already learned that Black men in search of sex with men had a whole separate subterranean world, of life on the down-low. (It turns out that Joe — as I immediately came to think of him, recognizing him as a member of my tribe — wasn’t an MSM, a man who had sex with men; nor a bisexual; but a flat-out men-only gay man, but without anything in his manner that would betray him.)

So I hoped that he’d found a place in this world. But maybe not. Maybe he just suffered from pangs of desire and found release entirely in solitary sex. That’s manageable too. But I’d like to think he found connections with other men. Men who could provide him pleasurable companionship in moments away from a very demanding professional life.

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