“How History is Made”: In Search of Princeton’s First African American Daughter

by: Brenda Tindal

Before the pomp and circumstance of reunions and Princeton University’s 265th commencement fades into memory, it is worth noting that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Class of 1972 because in many ways, this class bore witness to the revolutionary transformations taking place across the country. These students entered college during the tumult of the civil rights and women’s movements, and the Vietnam War with its anti-war protests. Perhaps, they too, were shocked by the news of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights patriarch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations. In any case, Princeton and many other universities were not immune to the changes taking place nationally; in fact, some college campuses served as theaters for such social and political unrest.

For instance, in a subtle display of resistance, the student editors of the 1972 Bric-a-Brac, Princeton’s undergraduate yearbook, deviated from its traditional format—for what appears to be the first and only time—with the issuance of a two-volume annual, in hopes that “no one will construe [their] presentation as being characteristic of any particular student or Princeton ‘type.’” To this end, they assembled images of nuns at the colleges’ athletic events; photos of the bohemian variety of long-haired, bearded, and afro wearing Princetonians; and a psychedelic iteration of Nassau Hall’s clock tower. Moreover, Robert F. Goheen, then the president of the college, concluded his term as an agent of change and arbiter of diversity, exiting Princeton with several notches under his proverbial belt, including the hiring of Carl A. Fields, the first black administrator at an Ivy League college, and the admission of women in 1969. In addition, at their commencement, the Class of 1972 observed John Hope Franklin, renowned scholar of African American history, and Alvin Ailey, choreographer and founder of one of the most noted black repertory companies in the world, receive honorary degrees from Princeton.

Vera can be seen on the left second from the top.

Missing from the 1972 commencement and this narrative of tumult and triumph is the story of Vera Marcus, the first known undergraduate African American woman to graduate from the college as a “Princetonian.” For Ms. Marcus, the latter point is particularly important. To be sure, women were part of the intellectual and social life of the college long before Marcus entered in 1969. For example, there was the founding of Evelyn College for Women in 1887; the imprint left by the wives of deans and faculty members, such as Isabella McCosh, the wife of President McCosh and beloved 19th century figure of the college; the admittance of women as graduate students in the 1960s; and the presence of young women from neighboring colleges, who participated in a year-long concentrated study in “critical languages.” However, the caveat, as Ms. Marcus explains: “what distinguishes [her] class is that [they] were admitted as Princetonians and graduated as Princetonians.”

Vera Marcus in The Freshman Herald

Interestingly, though Marcus is the first black woman admitted as a freshman* to obtain an undergraduate degree from Princeton—in three years no less—her feat remains largely unacknowledged within the pantheon of “firsts” at the college. Her emergence from the isolation of the 1960s pseudo-integrated schools of Birmingham, Alabama, to the prestigious halls of Princeton University is an extraordinary journey and it begs the question(s): Why hasn’t this daughter of Princeton assumed a more prominent place in the annals of the colleges’ illustrious history? What did it mean to embody what feminist scholars have often referred to as the triple burden of class, race, and gender, in a place that has largely been inherently white and male? During a two-day oral history interview with Ms. Marcus in April 2012, she elaborated on these matters with the wisdom and emotions that only a woman who has walked in her shoes can.

Vera Marcus: From the Deep South to the “Most Southern of Northern” Colleges

Ms. Vera Marcus grew up in civil rights era Birmingham; also known as “bombingham” due to the frequency with which white supremacists used bombs as retribution against African Americans, whom were perceived as having transgressed the South’s racial codes, thus targeting black Alabamian businesses, homes, and churches. In fact, she lived in a neighboring community near the 16th Street Church, which was bombed in 1963, martyring “4 little girls”—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. Marcus’ parents tried to shield their children from Birmingham’s cesspool of violence, corruption, and discrimination. Her father, Reverend Robert James Marcus, was a Methodist minister and held numerous other jobs throughout his life; her mother, Ammie Marcus, was a hairdresser, training under the famed “hair culturists” and business mogul, Madame C.J. Walker. Like many southern black families, the Marcus’ were not affluent, but in many ways they were “wealthy,” according to Marcus, who states:

“I came from a wealthy household, but I didn’t know it at the time. I refer to it that way because it was an intact family—a mother and a father…And my parents owned our home. And I think anybody listening to me today would know how extraordinary that was, given our housing crisis…So, for that reason, I look back at my upbringing and realize that I was very wealthy.”

Despite her parent’s protection, Marcus experienced her own share of marginalization within the newly integrated West End High, a predominately white high school in Birmingham. In many of her classes, she recalls, white students deliberately abandoning desks that were in close proximity to her. In another instance, she was not allowed to travel with her band mates to concerts outside of Birmingham because “there was no way that the officials could physically protect [her]” from the litany of threats and targeted racist violence. In spite of these moments of disempowerment, Marcus graduated from West End with a stellar academic record, making her highly competitive for entrance into a number of colleges and universities. With plans to attend Washington State University on scholarship during the fall of 1969, Marcus thought she’d made her final decision for undergraduate studies. However, shortly thereafter, she received a letter from Princeton encouraging her to apply, promising a scholarship that exceeded Washington State’s offer by $300. According to Marcus, “it was for that $300 reason that I selected Princeton.” This decision would forever change the course of her life.

In 1969, Princeton was still grappling with the racial diversification of its student, faculty, and administrative demographics; additionally, this year signaled the start of the college’s experiment with co-education. Marcus admits that she “didn’t stop to think that [she would be] in the first class of women” nor did it occur to her that Princeton’s “social foundation was the Men’s Club.” Upon arriving, Marcus realized quickly that there were still barriers that needed to be dismantled in order for women to fully participate in the Princeton experience, noting women could not join the eating clubs on campus at that time. She contends, “when I went to Princeton, and figured out [I belonged to] the first class of women, it was like, I was too busy…surviving as one of the first women to go to Princeton.”

For Marcus, the trope of isolation and social alienation was also evident in her dorm room assignment at Pyne Hall. Having had a minor dispute with her white roommate during the early months of the first semester, Marcus found herself without a roommate—an arrangement that would last throughout her tenure at Princeton. She did, however, gravitate toward the small corpus of black women at the college and was deeply engaged in theatre and dance. In fact, Marcus was the first black cast member to perform in a production sponsored by the Princeton University Triangle Club, the oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the nation. Marcus performed in the Triangle Club’s 81st Annual Production, “Call a Spade a Shovel,” a controversial showcase in 1969 that sought to deal with contemporary social and political issues that challenged American ideals and life.

During her sophomore year, Marcus also was involved in the Harambee House Players, Princeton’s first student-initiated black theatre group founded by Emmett Haines Prichard, then a senior in the college’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. During the group’s second season in 1970, Marcus helped coordinate the dance aspect of the show “How Many Broken Wings,” a multi-media presentation of black drama, music, and dance.

Though theater and dance helped Marcus escape her sense of loneliness at Princeton, Marcus also found consolation in her friendship with Dianna Toliver ’76, to whom she maintains was her “lifeline” during her college years and continues to be a dear friend to date. In terms of other black women, Marcus recalls gathering with them to discuss the complicated relationship they shared with their black male counterparts. Rather than having a sense of solidarity with Princeton black male students, Marcus observes “I personally never felt like the black men and black women at Princeton, during the time I was there, ever banded together for mutual support and consolation. I felt…they were part of the male Princeton [establishment] of the past.”  There were exceptions to the rule, however, gender rather than race, served as the most conspicuous division among Princeton’s undergraduates, according to Marcus.

As a philosophy major—Marcus’ choice of study after a brief stint as a math major—her career at Princeton culminated with a senior thesis entitled “ Black Minority Groups and the Justification of Violence.” In it, Marcus examines how the black freedom struggle espoused and employed non-violence and violence as political tactics to affront racism, asking such poignant questions as: What are the moral means of conflict resolution? What is the difference between ethical universality versus ethical provincialisms?  What is justice? How does justice find expression in the black struggle for freedom? In many ways, the study of philosophy, particularly the subject matter in which Marcus’ senior thesis is based, deeply informed the way she viewed the world. Perhaps a testament to this can be found in the 1972 Nassau Herald. Pictured wearing a light colored head wrap and a self-assured expression, it is clear, Vera Leigh Marcus had evolved from the smiling and seemingly demure young woman featured in the Freshman Herald three years earlier. This picture of a more mature Marcus, is accompanied by a profile that reads: she would most like to be remembered at Princeton for the Alabama female flavor added to Princeton’s boiling cauldron” followed by, “ Upon graduation, Vera plans to die violently.” While some may interpret these remarks as dark, bitter, or flip, Marcus was making a political statement about the turbulent times in which she lived and her willingness to give her own life “in the nation’s service.”  Whatever the meaning, Princeton left an indelible mark on who she was in 1972 and who she became thereafter.

Marcus did not become a martyr as predicted; however, she did make a difference in the world. She went participated in the environmental movement, enjoyed a career in state government, and currently has her own law practice based in Benicia, California. She is also the proud mother of Robert Vail, who recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied dance. By all accounts, Marcus’ life has been a full one; however, she remains in a liminal place with regards to her beloved alma mater; being at once a proud alumnus of Princeton University and yet disheartened by “how history is made” at the college and elsewhere. In other words, where is the narrative of Princeton’s first black woman to graduate as a “Princetonian”? Why has her story remained marginalized, if not altogether absent from the college’s chronology? Who will take on the task of capturing the full measure of Princeton’s story?

At the Mudd Manuscript library, we hope that our campaign to trace the legacy of Princeton’s early African American alumni will help answer these questions and more. Read the entire Vera Marcus interview transcripts here and here.

 
*We are indebted to Kenneth M. Bruce ’83 for pointing out that there were three black female graduates in the Class of 1971, Linda Blackburn, Terrell Nash, and Carla Wilson. All transferred in with the start of coeducation in Fall of 1969.

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