Remarks at the Unveiling of the Stamp Honoring Robert Taylor

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Thank you, A’Lelia and Megan, for your kind introduction.  And thank you for including MIT in this wonderful recognition of Robert Robinson Taylor, a member of the MIT Class of 1892.

Robert Taylor holds a special place in MIT’s history: he was our first African-American student and graduate.  And he was also the living embodiment of MIT’s core ideals.

His father was a builder, and Robert learned that trade  -- hands-on.  But his family encouraged Robert to reach higher, by studying architecture.  He enrolled at MIT, which only two decades before had opened the first school of architecture in the United States.

You can understand a great deal about MIT from our Latin motto, “mens et manus,” or mind and hand…and from the start, Robert Taylor’s work reflected precisely this passion for deep knowledge and practical action:  As a student, he was required to complete a final project to demonstrate his fluency with architectural principles, as well as his ambitions for life after MIT.  His project, titled “Design for a Soldiers’ Home,” focused on building facilities with the noble yet practical purpose of caring for veterans of the Civil War.

In 1911, Robert Taylor -- by then an accomplished architect -- returned to Massachusetts to deliver an address for MIT’s 50th anniversary celebration. 

To explain the success he had enjoyed in his career, he observed that the most important lesson he learned at MIT was: “the love of doing things correctly, of putting logical ways of thinking into the humblest task, of contributing to build…the immediate community…and in this way increasing the power and grandeur of the nation.”

He could have been writing MIT’s mission statement.

It is especially meaningful to share this moment with President Johnson and Valerie Jarrett.  As I’m sure we will hear in a few moments, the impact Robert Taylor had on Tuskegee University is profound.  And the values that Booker T. Washington espoused in establishing Tuskegee in 1881 -- service, manual training and industrial education -- mirror those that brought MIT to life, as well.

And whether she realizes it or not, we like to think of Valerie Jarrett as a member of the MIT family…and not only because Robert Taylor was her great-grandfather.  Each spring, MIT invites a leading thinker and doer to deliver the Compton lecture -- MIT’s most prestigious lecture series.  Last March, as our 2014 Compton Lecturer, Ms. Jarrett spoke with passion and eloquence about inclusiveness in education as a key to the nation’s prosperity.

Her charge to our students inspired me then as it does today: “Your legacy will be determined by more than what you simply accomplish,” she said, “but also by what you do for society.”

As we honor the legacy of Robert Taylor, today’s ceremony reminds us that he was a builder…not only of structures, but of communities…and an architect who designed not only a campus of national importance…but a more promising future for generations to come.

Robert Robinson Taylor truly represents the best of MIT, and the best of our nation.