Between 1619 and 1865, millions of Africans were transported to North America as part of the slave trade. Of those, it's estimated that one-third never made it to their destination, dying of starvation, overcrowding and disease en route. Some historians say that over 10 million lives were lost, but no one really knows.
"This is a part of American history we really need to examine and address before we can even begin to think about racial healing," said Larry Sass, who, with fellow MIT architecture student Greg Anderson, became interested four years ago in a proposed Boston monument commemorating the voyage and the many lives lost (MIT Tech Talk, September 13, 1995).
The monument, intended for one of the Boston Harbor islands, commemorates the Middle Passage -- the lower leg of the slave ships' triangular route from Europe to Africa to North America, a voyage lasting five to 12 weeks.
It was conceived in 1989 by artist Paul Goodnight and architect Donald Stull, who determined in 1993 that they needed computer animation to present the island monument's key visual concepts to potential donors and political figures. They found the help they needed at MIT, enlisting Mr. Sass and Mr. Anderson to create a CAD (computer-aided design) implementation of the project.
Their work is now featured in The Middle Passage: A Project for a Memorial in Boston Harbor, on view at the Wolk Gallery (Rm 7-338) through Monday, Oct. 20. The exhibition presents Mr. Goodnight's and Mr. Stull's proposal, along with illustrative photographs by Reginald Jackson and the CAD representations created at MIT.
Both MIT students were inspired by their work on The Middle Passage. Mr. Sass decided to pursue his doctorate at MIT, focusing on the visualization of unbuilt spaces. Mr. Anderson, who had previously been uncertain about staying at MIT and about his direction in life, stayed to complete a master's degree in architecture. He now works in the animation department at Sony Studios in California.
"They created an exceptional application of state-of-the-art animation software to visually examine an unbuilt structure," said Senior Associate Dean Isaac Colbert of the Graduate Education Office, who personally provided some of the funding for their work on the CAD project. The students' videotape of the CAD model won the Architectural Delineation Award given by Architectural Record in 1995, beating out 80 other entries -- most from professional architects.
In addition to paying tribute to the lives lost and raising historical awareness, the memorial seeks to create a bridge between Africans and African-Americans. A sister monument off the Western coast of Africa, designed by an African architect, is also planned.
"These two monuments will face each other serving as beacons to connect lost spirits and souls," said Mr. Goodnight, who's now working towards funding and construction approval. For more information, call x8-9106.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 1997.