Linguist Joseph Roye Applegate spoke 13 languages and could read and write several more. Better known as the first black faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Applegate created the first doctorate. African studies program in the United States
Applegate, who became a specialist in Berber languages from North Africa, was born on December 4, 1925 in Wildwood, New Jersey, a seaside resort where his parents ran a boarding house often used by black artists. When his family moved to South Philadelphia, he began to interact with Yiddish and Italian classmates, which sparked his fascination with the language.
Applegate entered Temple University on a college scholarship and studied secondary education and Spanish. He was athletic and while in Temple he joined the varsity fencing team and began to enjoy modern dance. He even auditioned successfully for Katherine Dunham’s troupe during his senior year in 1945, but he would give up dancing 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 unionizing teachers. After earning his masters and doctorate in linguistics from 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 to study mechanical translation of languages in 1955. While working on the project, he connected with other good linguists. known as professor and author Noam Chomsky.
It was from 1956 to 1960 that Applegate was 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 the new language laboratory at MIT.
But in 1960, the mechanical translation project had not progressed, because “we could not accurately describe the translation process,” he explained.
Applegate left MIT for 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 Africa Studies and Research Program. It was then that he launched the country’s first doctorate. African studies program.
Applegate ran the Africa Studies and Research program until 1969, but some students raised concerns while he was the leader. He said these students wanted a program that “parallels the burgeoning African identification movement,” the Washington Post reported. As someone who was not into racial politics in academia, Applegate worked at Howard to train Americans and those of African descent to “think and research the problems of contemporary Africa,” added the Washington Post.
Prior to retiring in 2002, Applegate was a former President of the Howard Faculty Senate. Professor Emeritus of African Studies at Howard, Applegate died on October 18, 2003 at the Washington Home Hospice. He was 78 years old and suffered from pneumonia.
During his career in education, he traveled to Africa to explore the local language and culture. According to the Washington Post, the professor once traveled with the Tuaregs, Berber-speaking pastors who live in the Saharan and Sahelian regions. The Tuaregs are known as the “Blue People” for their turbans and indigo blue dresses which protect them while moving around in a harsh climate.
“When the wind blows and the frosted glass hits your skin, you could be cut to pieces if you aren’t wrapped in this blue material,” Applegate said in an interview, according to the Washington Post.
Applegate has also worked as a consultant to the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Geographic Society. One of his best-known works to date 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 Moroccan Berber language titled An Outline of the Structure of Shilha, 1958.