“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.”

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