Putting the Pieces Together

How Gregg Lange Connected Six Degrees of Princeton’s African-American History

Readers of the January 13, 2010, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly online may have noticed Gregg Lange’s article “Six degrees of Princeton’s African-American history.” In search of details for his Rally ‘Round the Cannon column, Lange ’70 has become a regular visitor to the University Archives at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, using dozens of Mudd’s collections to explore and share facets of Princeton University History. The links he has formed from those years of research, combined with keen insight, and personal connections to the parties involved helped him draw the connections that link John Maclean Jr. ’1816 to Michelle Obama ’1985.

Writing the Six Degrees column, Lange drew on knowledge gained from previous columns on the Maclean acquisition, Princetonians as presidents of other colleges, Paul Robeson, Carl Fields, and Michelle Obama. Aside from his writing, Lange is also an active member of the Princetoniana Committee (a subgroup of which purchased some of the Maclean materials) and, as a member of the Class of 1970, he knew classmate Steve Dawson. But it was not just research that illuminated these connections. Lange also credits inspiration for the article to discussions with Dawson ’70 and PAW editor Ray Ollwerther ’71.

So how did he do it? Lange described the process of extrapolating connections between these individual to University Archivist Dan Linke in an e-mail. First, he found out about John Maclean Sr. and slaves Sal and Charles in the John Maclean Sr. estate inventory in Mudd’s John Maclean Jr. Papers as part of research for the Rally Round the Cannoncolumn, “Devoted to Princeton.” Then Lange found a mention of the Witherspoon Street Church in one of Maclean’s Princeton.edu bios and through the website of the Princeton Public Library in Google’s online book project.

Next, Lange learned about Isaac Norton Rendall ’1852 when researching Princetonians who became presidents of other colleges. Lange found a mention of Rendall in the Princeton Companion‘s entry on that topic, and in following up on this lead, turned to Rendall’s undergraduate alumni file. There he found a memorial recollection from Lincoln University mentioning that Rendall taught Sunday School at the Witherspoon Street Church as a College of New Jersey undergrad.

Lange discovered the connections between Rendall, William Robeson, Paul Robeson, and J. Douglas Brown when he prepared his column on Paul Robeson entitled “What Might Have Been.”

To establish Robeson’s background, Lange went from paper based sources to digital, first turning to Wikipedia to learn about Robeson’s father William. Lange then confirmed William Robesons’s biographical data, including the fact that he and son William Jr. attended Lincoln University while Rendall was president and that William Robeson Sr. preached at the Witherspoon Street Church. This exploration unearthed further details, such as the controversy surrounding Robeson’s firing from the Princeton Church over dogmatic differences. Continuing this line of research, Lange discovered on the Rutgers Scholarly Communication Center web site that J. Douglas Brown ’19 *28 was Paul Robeson’s high school friend.

Lange learned more about the Brown/Robeson connection by examining Brown’s undergraduate and faculty files. The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library also acts as the repository for J. Douglas Brown’s papers, which include material regarding Robeson and the Witherspoon Street Church.

For the Carl Fields section Lange referred to his column “When Carl Fields came to Princeton”, where he used Fields’ faculty file, the Office of the President Records: Robert F. Goheen Subgroup, and Fields’ book Black in Two Worlds.

In these sources, Lange learned of the family sponsor meetings that would pave the way for Dawson’s attendance. Dawson, who Lange knew as a classmate, came up again when researching Princeton in Michelle Obama ’85′s undergraduate days. Reading the acknowledgements in Ms. Obama’s thesis, taking notes from press clippings, and interviewing Dawson, Lange learned that Dawson had hired Michelle Robinson as an undergraduate to assist with Association of Black Princeton Alumni on-campus events. He in turn supported her survey of black alumni that served as the core material for her senior thesis.

However, all these connections did not coalesce from six columns to one until Lange had a discussion with Ray Ollwerther ’71, his PAW editor in September 2009. Their conversation turned to all sorts of issues, such as the slaves in Maclean’s father’s estates, as well as the connections to Michelle. When the PAW’s editors decided to focus on race for the January special issue, Lange asked Ollwerther if he should write the a “six degrees” piece.

The column’s insights did not come without puzzles. Some pieces were obvious, like the connection of Princeton and Lincoln University. But some proved elusive. In the e-mail to Dan Linke, Lange said that the most interesting link was that of the Witherspoon Street Church. Lange wrote to Linke: “The mystical part was the Witherspoon Street Church: it appeared everywhere, as if by magic… The last fact-gathering I did, with Dawson, was the topper: on a whim, I asked if he knew where his community sponsor had gone to church. He said he thought she was an elder at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian, and we both found the reference online while we were talking. When I went to the Lincoln University memoriam for Rendall in his Archives file, it actually noted that he taught Sunday School there as a Princeton undergraduate. Amazing!”

As George William Curtis said in The Call of Freedom, “While we read history we make history.” Each person participates in the creation of history, and as such, we are more linked than we realize. Sometimes it takes a determined an insightful individual to figure out just how linked we are, as Lange did so well.

-John DeLooper