Linguist Joseph Roye Applegate spoke 13 languages and could read and write several others. Best known as the first Black faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Applegate created the first Ph.D. program for African Studies in the U.S.
Applegate, who became a specialist in the Berber languages of North Africa, was born on December 4, 1925, in Wildwood, New Jersey, a seaside resort community where his parents ran a boarding house that was often used by Black entertainers. When his family moved to South Philadelphia, he began interacting with Yiddish and Italian schoolmates, and that began his fascination with language.
Applegate entered Temple University on an academic scholarship and studied secondary education and Spanish. He was athletic, and while at Temple, he became a member of the varsity fencing team and began to love modern dance. He even auditioned successfully for Katherine Dunham’s troupe during his senior year in 1945 but he would abandon dance for education.
It is reported that between 1946 and 1955, Applegate taught Spanish and English in vocational schools and high schools in Philadelphia and was active in teacher unionization. After receiving his master’s and doctorate degrees in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Applegate became an assistant professor of modern languages at MIT.
He became the institute’s first Black faculty member and worked on a project studying the mechanical translation of languages in 1955. While working on the project, he connected with other well-known linguists like the professor and author Noam Chomsky.
It was from 1956 to 1960 that Applegate served as assistant professor of modern languages at MIT, teaching courses that included German and intermediate and advanced subjects in “English for Foreign Students”. In 1959, he became Director of MIT’s new language laboratory.
But by 1960, the mechanical translation project had not made headway, because “we could not accurately describe the process of translation,” he explained.
Applegate left MIT to the University of California at Los Angeles to teach Berber languages for six years. He then moved to Howard University in 1966 to teach Romance languages but soon became director of the African studies and research program. It was while there that he launched the nation’s first Ph.D. program in African Studies.
Applegate headed the African studies and research program until 1969, but some students raised some concerns while he was the leader. He said those students wanted a program that “paralleled the burgeoning African-identification movement,” The Washington Post reported. As someone who wasn’t into racial politics in university settings, Applegate worked at Howard to train Americans and those of African descent to “think and research problems of contemporary Africa,” The Washington Post added.
Before retiring in 2002, Applegate was a former chairman of Howard’s faculty senate. A professor emeritus of African studies at Howard, Applegate died on October 18 in 2003 at the Washington Home hospice. He was 78 and had pneumonia.
During his career in education, he journeyed to Africa to explore local language and culture. According to The Washington Post, the professor once traveled with the Tuaregs, Berber-speaking pastoralists who live in the Saharan and Sahelian regions. The Tuaregs are known as the “Blue People” for their blue Indigo flowing turbans and robes that protect them while moving around in a harsh climate.
“When the wind blows and the ground glass hits your skin, you could be cut to pieces if you’re not wrapped in this blue material,” Applegate once said in an interview, according to The Washington Post.
Applegate also worked as a consultant to the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Geographic Society. To date, one of his best-known works is a book chapter, “A Grammar of Shilha: The Berber Languages,” which appeared in Current Trends in Linguistics in 1970.
He also published a 71-page monograph on the language of the Moroccan Berbers titled An Outline of the Structure of Shilha, 1958.