Princeton’s “Saturnalia”: Commencement Prior to 1844

2020 brought changes to Princeton University’s academic calendar, some planned, and some in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. This shift to an earlier start and end of Princeton’s academic year is not its first. Its historically most drastic change in the calendar came about for a surprising reason: Moving Commencement from September to June in 1844 was intended to put an end to people staging what John Maclean called “a kind of saturnalia.”

For most of Princeton’s first century of operations, the academic year began six weeks after Commencement, held on the last Wednesday in September. If we followed this calendar today, classes would have started November 11. Students returned from their vacation for this “winter term,” which ran until April. Between this and the beginning of the “summer term,” students had another five-week vacation. They studied throughout the summer to be ready for Commencement in September.  The terms themselves were much longer than today’s, at about 19-21 weeks each, with recitations on Saturdays as well as throughout the week; mandatory attendance at chapel, religious lectures, and Bible classes on Sundays; and few breaks or holidays.

At the first Commencement of the College of New Jersey—as Princeton was then named, prior to its 1756 move from Newark and it’s 1896 transformation into a university—Governor Jonathan Belcher warned the president, Aaron Burr, to enforce “a wise Frugality” and avoid “the Too Common Extravagances and Debauchery” that tended to accompany Commencements. This first 1748 ceremony was serious and orderly, with speeches in Latin and prayer, but it didn’t take long for “Extravagances and Debauchery” to creep in.

John Beatty was awarded a Bachelor of Arts on September 27, 1769, but his diploma bears the date it was signed (October 5, 1769), rather than the date of the degree. Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC168), Box 2.

William R. Smith, Class of 1773, wrote to his friend Philip Vickers Fithian about the crowd at Commencement: “every mouse hole in the church was cram’d full.” Attendees were dressed in lace and a band from Philadelphia played. The presence of so many young women was highly distracting to Smith, who described it as “murder” for his “heart.” As time went on, more and more people would descend upon Princeton for Commencement, many of whom had no connection to the college and did not actually attend the ceremony. Because it was in the height of political campaign season, politicians took advantage of the crowds and showed up to give speeches. William Henry Harrison shook hands with throngs of supporters in 1836. Vendors set up booths along Nassau Street to sell drinks and snacks. Horses raced down Stockton Street. While graduates strained to hear their own ceremony above the din, a street festival drowned out the speakers.

The graduates had their own “Extravagances and Debauchery.” For a while, the Board of Trustees provided dinner to the students on the day of Commencement and ate in the refectory with them at a separate table. Guests and alumni were also present. In 1826, the Trustees directed the Steward “not to furnish the students with wine or ardent spirits in the Refectory on any occasion” and to stop offering the more elaborate dinner graduates expected for Commencement. The faculty thought this was not a wise decision and took up a collection among themselves to pay for the celebratory dinner, and thus the revelry continued on campus and off.

The center of student social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was what is now named the Nassau Inn, but around the turn of the 19th century it was usually referred to simply as “Joline’s,” after its owner. John Joline hosted a Commencement Ball every year that attracted people from far and wide. John Melish passed through Princeton on Commencement Day in 1806 and stopped by the ballroom, where he met a woman from Savannah, Georgia, among other guests from significant distances away. He pronounced the attire of the women as “the indication of bad taste,” saying that students called the earrings they wore “Cupid’s chariot wheels.” Melish found the French cotillion music and dancing equally distasteful. Around 1807, William and Washington Irving and James Paulding joined in the festivities. Washington Irving wrote of encountering visitors from New York, Albany, and Philadelphia in Princeton. “Students got drunk as usual.” In 1821, Richard Stockton proposed to the Board of Trustees that they prohibit students from subscribing to public balls or dances, but this move was unsuccessful.

Problematic visitors invaded the campus itself during the ceremony. Campus buildings being empty of those affiliated with the college presented opportunity for thieves, who took what they pleased from dorm rooms. Merchants set up their booths not only on Nassau Street but also on the campus grounds and on the lawn in front of the Presbyterian church where the ceremony took place. John Maclean reported having seen, in his childhood, bull-baiting occurring on campus during the ceremony. “No permission was asked or deemed necessary by those engaged in this cruel sport.” In 1807, the Board of Trustees voted to ban hucksters from selling “liquor or other refreshment, on the day of commencement on the ground of the college…”

Meanwhile, violence broke out. It was a tradition for the Whig Society to invite a guest speaker during Commencement week, which served to fuel controversy. This became most fraught when Andrew Jackson rose to national prominence. Samuel Southard’s speech in 1827 provoked what the Trenton True American called “a number of acts of violence” when a fistfight turned into a full-on street brawl. “The presidential question in some aroused the parties and pushed them forward to pugilistic strife.” The concern over Southard’s appearance was that Southard, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1804, was Secretary of the Navy and Jackson supporters said he was shirking his duties by coming to Princeton on what they saw as an electioneering trip on behalf of the Whigs in the upcoming New Jersey elections. There were many who supported the Jacksonian movement who had come to town and the campaign seized the moment for an organizational meeting. Since too many were present to fit into the tavern selected for the gathering place, Jacksonians rushed the campus and held a boisterous rally under a tree. Some residents supportive of the Adams administration tried to invite Southard to dinner, but he declined. Despite this, some of the Jackson camp threatened that if Southard were to eat dinner in Princeton, “there will be such a Jackson Festival in the little Borough, as will make the old dead that sleep on the battlefield of Princeton, to move in their graves.”

The acrimony between Whigs and Democrats at Princeton’s Commencement was ongoing. In 1835, some were livid about Nicholas Biddle’s denunciation of Jackson’s supporters. Editorials in other states expressed outrage that Biddle (Class of 1801) had been given a platform to call Jackson supporters “degenerate children.” Biddle’s words were, in the estimation of some hearers, shockingly divisive.

It cannot be that our free nation can long endure the vulgar dominion of ignorance and profligacy. You will live to see the laws re-established—these banditti will be scourged back to their caverns—the penitentiary will reclaim its fugitives in office, and the only remembrance which history will preserve of them is the energy with which you resisted and defeated them.

There seemed to be no shortage of reasons for Princeton’s Commencement to cause widespread controversy. Racism and political divisions brought violence from the streets into the church where Commencement took place in 1836, when a former student giving his name as “Ancrum” assaulted a member of the audience after yelling racial slurs. This was most likely Thomas James Ancrum, Class of 1838, who had previously organized a lynch mob against a white abolitionist in Princeton and had been dismissed from the College. Ancrum’s target was a Black graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Theodore Sedgwick Wright. Newspapers across the north denounced this event as a “shameful outrage.”

James Carnahan, Princeton’s president, responded by attempting to minimize the situation, insinuating that Wright had provoked Ancrum by sitting down when others had to stand (“a respectable colored man of New York took a seat on a bench in one of the aisles, while many others unable to find seats, stood during the whole of the discourse”) and claimed that no one he spoke to afterward had seen any violence take place, nor heard any abusive language other than “Out with the negro” (Wright had reported a more offensive term being used, and that Ancrum had “kicked me in the most ruthless manner”). The Pennsylvania Freeman expressed dismay at Carnahan’s downplaying of the events. “We frankly, say, however, that we are at a loss to know which is the greater insult, the outcry and kicks of the southern youngster or the letter of Dr. Carnahan,” pointing out that Carnahan identified Wright only as “respectable,” not as a clergyman “every whit” as worthy of the title “Rev.” as Carnahan himself. The Freeman also took issue with the implications of Carnahan’s defense. “Are the public to understand it as a law of Nassau Hall, that ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ must not be seated in their chapel, even on a bench in the aisle, if they happen to be colored, however worthy or decent they may be, so long as any white men remain unaccommodated?” They pushed Carnahan to say so, if that is what he meant, and to post signs indicating such.

By 1843, Princeton’s Board of Trustees had had enough. In their meeting that September, they voted to move Commencement, as well as the entire academic calendar, up by three months, in the hopes that a June event would be more focused on the students themselves. More distance from elections would cut down on the politically contentious crowds, while holding the event at a time when fewer people would have the availability to travel would decrease the appeal for out-of-town visitors, since unlike the early fall, June was not a time of relative leisure for New Jersey farmers. The fact that the calendar Princeton adopted in the 1840s happened to closely conform to what became the standard “academic year” in the United States was mere coincidence.

 

Sources:

“All the Decency, &c. &c.” Times (Hartford, Connecticut) 21 December 1835.

Board of Trustees Records. (AC120)

Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal and Letters 1767-1774. Edited by John Rogers Williams. Princeton: The University Library, 1900.

Hageman, John Frelinghuysen. History of Princeton and Its Institutions. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1879.

Historic Princeton: The Story of a Revolutionary Town and Guide to Princeton University and Sundry Landmarks of Interest. Princeton: Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., 1940.

Irving, Washington. Salmagundi. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860.

“Jackson Meeting at Princeton.” Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey) 10 October 1827.

Maclean, John. History of the College of New Jersey from Its Origins to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1879.

Melish, John. Travels in the United States of America, in the Years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811. Printed by the author, 1812.

Princeton University Commencement Records (AC115)

Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.” Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia) 12 November 1836.

Wallace, George Riddle. Princeton Sketches: The Story of Nassau Hall. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.

 

For further reading:

Yannielli, Joseph. “White Supremacy at the Commencement of 1836.” Princeton and Slavery website.

This Week in Princeton History for September 21-27

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, violence erupts at Commencement over politics, a student pitches the first known curve ball, and more.

September 23, 1947—A controversial chain letter begins sweeping the campus.

September 25, 1827—Princeton’s Commencement turns violent. Savannah’s Daily Georgian will report: “A vast crowd of citizens and strangers assembled, among whom was Samuel L. Southward Esq., Secretary of the U. States Navy, who is now on a visit to his friends in this state. … Although in general good order was observed, yet it is to be regretted that a number of acts of violence were committed; several blows passed between different parties of combatants; some were knocked down, and some, otherwise injured. The presidential question in some roused the parties and pushed them forward to pugilistic strife.”

September 26, 1863—In a game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Princeton’s Joseph P. Henry ’66 pitches what is claimed to be the first curve ball. The New York Clipper attributes Princeton’s 29-to-13 victory to this innovation: “In this match slow pitching with a great twist to the ball achieved a victory over swift pitching.”

Princeton’s 1863-1864 baseball team, officially known as the “Nassau Club” but better known on campus as the “Princeton Nine.” Historical Photograph Collection (AC112), Box LP26, Image No. 1978.

September 27, 1886—A letter to the editor of the Princetonian expresses concern about leaflets advertising board for students in town at a lower cost than can be offered through eating clubs potentially undermining the ability of some students to provide for themselves.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

2020 ARCH Participants Write

Learnings from the ARCH Program: Archives, Objectivity, and New Skills
By Etana Laing, Lincoln University

This summer I had the privilege of participating in the ARCH program. Coming into this experience I had a very surface-level understanding of archives; little did I know I was uncovering just the tip of the iceberg. On my journey, I made important connections between manifestations of white supremacy and academia. The program served as a conduit for a deepened understanding of hegemony and my budding passion for archives. We engaged in meaningful discussions that invited critical thinking and taught the basic tenets of archives with a framework that recognized their white supremacist foundation.

Etana Laing, Lincoln University. (Photo courtesy Etana Laing.)

In our weekly synchronous sessions, we discussed the building blocks of archives through a critical lens. We participated in conversations that fostered open, honest dialogue around issues of white supremacy, patriarchy, and hegemony, which is essential for being able to grow and create new best practices that reflect intersectional values. The ARCH program provided a counterpoint to the typical classroom setting where one is lectured to (the banking method of education to use Freirean terms). Students and Princeton staff co-created spaces of learning in office hours and group sessions. Learning in an environment that openly named the oppressive structures which are at play was paramount to my educational process. Reading Medium pieces like “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories” by Jarrett Drake and “We Already Are” by Yusef Omowale gave me the language to understand the complexity of archives and ways to utilize them for liberation. This experience allowed me to both learn the basics of archival research and the praxis to apply these lessons in a transformative classroom. 

I have connected my learnings from the ARCH program to my current course load. Specifically, within my historical methods course, we are exploring different historical theories; this week we are discussing empiricism. Orthodox proponents of this methodology believe that researchers are capable of presenting a clear cut history not muddled by human perspective. I’ve found that similar to historians, many archivists in the field subscribe to the false notion of an objective truth or unbiased recording of history. The historian J. B. Bury stated, “There was indeed no historian since the beginning of things who did not profess that his sole aim was to present to his readers untainted and unpainted truth.” This concept of “the untainted truth” also shows up in archives. In reality, it is an example of how hegemony presents itself as being neutral. The white cishet man’s perspective is the only one afforded the term “objective.” Before starting the ARCH program, I thought a lot about the myth of objectivity, but this program gave me a place to explore that idea and see what it looks like when applied to higher education. When we ignore the fact that all people come to any situation or conversation with a set of values and ideologies, we invite uncritical modes of reflection and subsequently, white supremacy (because it is the default ideology). Hegemony is overwhelmingly pervasive in the idea of an empirical truth. We are not objective beings and by ignoring this fact we ignore the ways that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. show up in academia as a whole.

As I continue my journey to becoming an archivist, these reflections will stick with me and help guide what I want my work to look like. It was extremely important for me to have a chance to talk about some of my ideas with other HBCU students and the Princeton library staff. I learned so much this summer and I am so excited to pursue a career in archives armed with this information.

My 2020 ARCH Experience
By Sierra Phillips, Tougaloo College

Sierra Phillips, Tougaloo College. (Photo courtesy Sierra Phillips.)

This summer was like none other for me—especially as it relates to acquiring summer opportunities. Going into the summer, I thought I would participate in one summer program, but a few weeks after my initial summer program ended, I was presented with another exciting opportunity: The Archives, Research and Collaborative History program with Princeton University Library. I was excited for this because I wanted to gain more insight on archives and research. Participating in the online version of the program was engaging and informative. Of course, I would have loved for it to have been in person, but I still enjoyed the experience. The staff was very organized and involved, and because of this, I got the most out of what the online version had to offer.

A particular session over the 4 weeks of the program that stood out to me was when we discussed digital archiving.I did not realize how important digital archiving is—especially as it relates to research. I learned how important it is to label folders and files to easily access needed information in the future. I also learned how websites such as Google Drive can discontinue, so it is important to save your files in multiple places to have a backup.

One of the readings I enjoyed the most was David Levy’s “Meditation on a Receipt.” It allowed me to think more broadly about what everyday items could be considered a primary source. The activity that asked us to find a primary source in my home was my favorite activity. I enjoyed this because it helped me realize that there are primary sources all around my home, but I did not stop to consider them a primary source or even a part of my history because I often look at history as something that happened a very long time ago. This activity helped me look at my life and my history and the primary sources such as family pictures that come along with it.

Ultimately, the ARCH program has exposed me to the archival profession and if it is something I would consider pursuing. I also learned also how to navigate an archive for research, especially digitally. Before this program, I have always been interested in the archival profession. I would be better able to evaluate my aptitude for this career if I had hands-on experience or shadowed someone in this field.

To learn more about 2020’s virtual Archives Research and Collaborative History program, please visit the feature story on the Princeton University Library website.

This Week in Princeton History for September 14-20

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, John Maclean defends the expulsion of students, Quadrangle Club opens, and more.

September 15, 1870—James McCosh interrupts a brawl between sophomores and freshmen on Nassau Street over canes with a shout of, “Disperse, young men, or the bailiffs will be after you.”

September 16, 1861—John Maclean writes to the editor of the New York Evening Post to explain the unpopular decision to expel some students from Princeton for attacking another student who had expressed sympathy for the Confederacy: The faculty “will not permit the utterance of sentiments denunciatory of those who are engaged in efforts to maintain the integrity of the national government; nor will they allow of any public expression of sympathy with those who are endeavoring to destroy the government,” but “it must be evident that the Faculty could not permit his fellow-students to take the law in their own hands…”

Pencil drawing of the parade local residents gave for the three students dismissed in the “Pumping Incident,” September 1861. Pyne-Henry Collection (AC125), Box 1, Folder 18.

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Princeton’s Class of 1880 v. the Class of 1881

By Carter Mulroe ’20

The freshman vs. sophomore rivalry is one of Princeton’s oldest customs, dating at least as far back to 1760 when a code of unofficial laws stated that “every freshman sent on an errand shall go and do it quickly and faithfully and return.” This was what Princeton once called “horsing,” now known as hazing. Horsing may have begun at Harvard in 1734 when freshmen were not allowed “to laugh in a senior’s face, or to intrude into his company or speak saucily to him or to ask him an impertinent question.” Typically, horsing at Princeton included making the freshmen run to class, sing songs, and other mild sophomore demands. One of the horsing games at Princeton that lives on today in a modified form is the cane spree. The cane spree once consisted of a full-on battle between the freshmen and sophomores in which the sophomores attempted to wrestle and take the canes away from the freshmen. However, it got too dangerous, so in 1876, the Princetonian later explained, “three pairs of ‘spreers’ were selected—light, middle, and heavyweight—and the contest was held on the present arena between Witherspoon and Alexander.” The background behind the cane spree was that there was an unofficial rule enforced by the upperclassmen that didn’t allow freshman to carry canes on campus.  The moment the freshmen stepped on Princeton’s campus, they were expected to show respect to their sophomore elders and embrace the hazing that came along with it. However, the rivalry between the freshmen and sophomores often started before the freshman class was even enrolled at Princeton. This was especially true between the Classes of 1880 and 1881.

At the time, candidates for admission to Princeton took an entrance exam on campus towards the end of the academic year prior to their matriculation. James Noteman Anderson (Class of 1880) collected newspaper clippings in his scrapbook that say that it was a common practice for the outgoing freshmen to sit outside the examination hall and heckle the incoming freshmen hopefuls before their examination. The rising sophomores usually all yelled out chants such “Left, Right, Left, Right” in unison as the incoming freshmen approached the examination hall. However, in 1877, when a number of the members of the Class of 1880 engaged in “disorderly and ungentlemanly conduct toward the Candidates for admission to College” near the home of the president, James McCosh, disrupting the exams “for several hours,” the faculty voted to suspend 32 of them for the rest of the semester.

In response to the suspension of the 32 students, the rest of the members of the Class of 1880 congregated for a grand demonstration and heckled every passerby on campus. Furious at the actions of the students, the Board of Trustees decided to suspend the entire Class of 1880 for the rest of the semester. As far as we know, this is the first and last time in Princeton’s history where an entire class was suspended. The next day, the outgoing freshmen met on the northwest corner of campus and carried a large violin case, draped with a black sheet to make it look like a coffin. This was a tradition that was usually performed by the sophomore class, which makes it odd for the Class of 1880 to do this while they were still freshmen. The black sheet was labeled with “1880” in large white numbers. The outgoing freshmen chanted and sang songs as they marched through campus, without much worry about their suspension.

This image from a page in James Noteman Anderson’s scrapbook shows his class (the Class of 1880) marching through campus with a fake coffin. Scrapbook Collection (AC026), Box 77.

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This Week in Princeton History for September 7-13

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Mudd Library opens, Virginia sends the college a map, and more.

September 7, 1976—Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library opens for research.

Architect’s rendering of plans for Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, 1974. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 160.

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George Morgan White Eyes, Racial Theory at Princeton, and Student Financial Aid in the Eighteenth Century

In 1779, a group of Delaware set up camp on Prospect Farm, owned by George Morgan, along a dirt walkway that separated them from the campus of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton University was named until 1896. They brought a boy with them who was about eight or nine years old. His father had named the boy George Morgan White Eyes after the man whose farm the Delaware now occupied. Koquethagachton, also known as the elder White Eyes, had just been murdered by the United States Army troops he had served as a guide, but the government hid this fact from the Delaware. The young White Eyes thought his father had died of smallpox, not of a gunshot wound to the back from a white American soldier.

Their chief now dead, the Delaware received an order from Congress: Pick a new leader and arrange for Koquethagachton’s children to be educated in the English language and white culture, so they could be better equipped to lead them as adults. Morgan was charged with the care of White Eyes and two other indigenous minors as wards of the United States Congress. It was not long before White Eyes was living with the Morgan family on Prospect Farm. His presence in Princeton would provide a local professor with an opportunity to philosophize about why some races were darker than others.

William Tennant, “A North-West Prospect of Nassau Hall with a Front View of the President’s House in New Jersey,” 1764. From this viewpoint, George Morgan’s farm was on the left side of Nassau Hall, outside the view this drawing offers. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 2, Folder 5.

Moravian missionaries had taught White Eyes English, but further efforts at assimilation were in store. Morgan hired Josiah Harned to make him trousers and enrolled him in the Nassau Hall Grammar School to prepare for college. White Eyes entered the College of New Jersey as a freshman in the fall of 1785. As a ward of Congress, White Eyes was America’s first recipient of government-based student financial aid (although Congress had stipulated that they expected a land grant in return).

Then about 15 years old, White Eyes became an immediate curiosity to professor Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was looking for evidence to support his racial theories. Some accounts say White Eyes had a white mother, but Smith thought his lighter skin had a different explanation. Smith believed that the skin color of the indigenous peoples of North America, like that of the peoples of Africa, was derived from too much sun and “savage” ways of living, saying in an essay published in 1788:

A naked savage, seldom enjoying the protection of a miserable hut, and compelled to lodge on the bare ground and under the open sky, imbibes the influence of the sun and atmosphere at every pore. He inhabits an uncultivated region filled with stagnant waters, and covered with putrid vegetables that fall down and corrupt on the spot where they have grown. He pitches his wigwam on the side of a river, that he may enjoy the convenience of fishing as well as of hunting. The vapour of rivers, the exhalations of marshes, and the noxious effluvia of decaying vegetables, fill the whole atmosphere in an unimproved country, and tend to give a dark and bilious hue to the complexion. And the sun acting immediately on the skin in this state will necessarily impress a deep colour.

It so happened that White Eyes was at Princeton at the same time as two distant descendants of Pocahontas (7 generations removed), brothers John and Thedorick Randolph (both Class of 1791). Society generally took the Randolphs to be white. Smith, nonetheless, asserted that the Randolph brothers had lost all characteristics of the indigenous people of North America (other than dark brown eyes) through their life among the people of a “polished” nation, not because their ancestry was predominantly European. John Randolph’s account of Smith’s attitude toward them might give us some insight into how Smith may have treated White Eyes:

He called us into his library and interrogated us about our Indian descent—we knew nothing more than that we derived it through our grand-mother, whom it suited him to make the daughter of Pocahontas, in order that we might be in defiance of time and fact in the fourth descent from her.

Smith wrote that he had closely examined White Eyes, whom he did not name, studying his features and physique to compare them to those of white students, in all probability summoning him to his library for inspection as he had the Randolph brothers. In all of these young men with mixed ancestry, Smith contrived support for his theories that exposing indigenous peoples to European ways of living would alter their features and whiten their skin, which he called “discolored.” Smith said he had observed this taking place with White Eyes.

There is an obvious difference between him and his fellow-students in the largeness of the mouth, and thickness of the lips, in the elevation of the cheek, in the darkness of the complexion, and the contour of the face. But these differences are sensibly diminishing. They seem the faster to diminish in proportion as he loses that vacancy of eye, and that lugubrious wildness of countenance peculiar to the savage state, and acquires the agreeable expression of civil life. The expression of the eye, and the softening of the features to civilized emotions and ideas, seems to have removed more than half the difference between him and us.

We know very little else about the experience White Eyes had at the College of New Jersey. On December 23, 1787, he and several other students were called before the faculty on an accusation of being insolent toward a tutor, after which all were admonished before their classes. Morgan thought that White Eyes might have been acting out because he’d just received news that his mother had been murdered by white men disguised as natives who robbed her of animal skins she was bringing to sell at a market, as well as finally learning the truth about his father’s murder. He urged Congress to consider that “his mistakes and misconduct have been far surpassed by white boys of his age, who have the superior advantage of enlightened and tender parents to guard over them,” and to continue to support his education. Morgan worried that Princeton itself had become a bad influence, however, and suggested White Eyes finish at Yale. Congress was unresponsive.

Frustrated by the delay in response from Congress, White Eyes wrote to George Washington for help. Again not getting a response and complaining that the government had not even given him enough clothing to keep warm in the winter, White Eyes walked to Princeton from New York to pick up clothes he’d left at the Morgans. He found that John Morgan (Class of 1789), George Morgan’s son, had taken his clothes and had totally worn them out. The Board of the Treasury reprimanded White Eyes for going to Princeton without permission, but gave him no chance to explain or apologize. White Eyes then asked for a job in service to the government if he could have no further education, and thus find a way to support himself, pointing out that he had no recourse and felt he’d been subject to a double standard:

I was not without Faults I acknowledge, but they were in my boyish days, & they not greater than what I see committed by Children of many Parents—In me they could not be overlooked—Many a time I reflect on the happy Situation of Children who have Parents tenderly to advise them—I was deprived of that Blessing.

As Congress continued to drag its feet, White Eyes wrote to Washington again, saying he just wanted to go home. “I believe they are tired of doing any thing for me & I am tired of waiting for their duty…” Washington seems to have arranged for White Eyes to have a line of credit until Congress would act so that he could buy some clothes, but the Board of the Treasury, according to White Eyes, disputed the charges and made him feel “not of as much Consequence as a Dog.” Congress finally authorized payment for the debts White Eyes had incurred on August 12, 1790.

White Eyes returned to his people in Ohio one year short of a college degree. On May 27, 1798, a white man shot him to death while White Eyes was rushing toward him with an uplifted tomahawk. He had never finished his education, but at least one account claims he kept his books and was proud of them, showing them off to visitors. This might have surprised John Witherspoon, president of the College, who apparently considered White Eyes the end of a failed experiment in educating indigenous students and further efforts a waste of time. In an essay later published after Witherspoon’s death, he wrote,

The chief thing that a philosopher can learn from the Indians in New Jersey is, that perhaps the most complete experiment has been made here how they would agree with civilized life. … On the whole it does not appear, that either by our people going among them, or by their being brought among us, that it is possible to give them a relish of civilized life. There have been some of them educated at this college, as well as in New England; but seldom or never did they prove either good or useful.

White Eyes was not the first indigenous student to attend Princeton, but our records indicate that he was the last for his century. After White Eyes, the institution would not have another Native American student for another five decades, when the Ross brothers—nephews of the Cherokee chief—arrived in the late 1830s.

 

Sources:

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118)

Papers of the Continental Congress. United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

Randolph, John. “Original Letter of John Randolph.” Albany Argus 7 June 1833.

Smith, Samuel Stanhope. An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species to which are Added, Strictures on Lord Kames’s Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind. Edinburgh: C. Elliot, 1788.

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104)

Witherspoon, John. The Works of John Witherspoon, Vol. 9. Edinburgh: Ogle and Aikman, 1805.

 

For Further Reading:

Bush, Alfred L. “Indians, Slavery and Princeton.” Princeton & Slavery.

Bush, Alfred L. “Otterskins, Eagle Feathers, and Native American Alumni at Princeton.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 67, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 420-434.

Guyatt, Nicholas. “Samuel Stanhope Smith.” Princeton & Slavery.

Looney, J. Jefferson and Ruth L. Woodward. Princetonians 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Woodward, Ruth L. and Wesley Frank Craven. Princetonians 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

This Week in Princeton History for August 31-September 6

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, alumnae celebrate the completion of a cross-country fundraising bike ride with a dip in the Fountain of Freedom, an invoice is paid for Nassau Hall’s weather vane, and more.

August 31, 1989—A champagne reception at the Princeton Public Library greets five Princeton University alumnae who bicycled across the country as a fundraiser for the Literacy Volunteers of America and Princeton’s women’s field hockey and lacrosse teams. After the reception, the women jump into the Fountain of Freedom near Robertson Hall. Altogether, they have raised more than $25,000.

September 1, 1941—After months of negotiations, Classics professor Shirley H. Weber and his wife arrive in Princeton, having left Athens about five weeks ago. He brings information about how the Greeks have been weathering the Axis occupation: “The Greek people wait and hope with a religious fervor for the ultimate victory of the British.”

Nassau Hall, 1860. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP66, Image No. 2629.

September 2, 1856—Charles S. Olden, Treasurer of the College of New Jersey, pays an invoice from Bottom and Tiffany for $1,270.05 for the installation of a weather vane on the Nassau Hall cupola.

September 4, 1931—The Princeton Herald reports that the Great Depression is beginning to cause hardships for Princeton University students, quoting Student Employment manager Richard W. Warfield ’30: “the problem will be serious during the coming academic year…Undergraduate budgets which were not reduced at all last year will be cut this year and a great many more men will be forced to help support themselves.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

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The Problem with “Firsts,” Part II: Archival Silence and Black Staff at Princeton University

This is the second in a two-part series about archival silence and the “first” African Americans at Princeton University. The first post in this series addressed the history of Black students.

In last week’s post in this series, focused on Black students, I wrote about how questions of definition and gaps in the archival record create problems if one is attempting to determine who the “first” person in a demographic is at Princeton University. Here, I consider the history of Princeton’s Black staff to further explain why I’ve learned to never trust assertions that someone was the “first” to do something and reflect on why an emphasis on someone being “first” can reinforce systemic oppression.

The Chicago Defender ran a feature story on Louise Gay Anderson’s work as a microscopist at Princeton in 1950, saying that she “happened to be the first Negro the blueblood university had ever hired on a skilled level.” Anderson would have been hired in late 1948 or early 1949, but I have located no records in the University Archives associated with her. This is not unusual; Princeton University’s employment records are not generally preserved for those not in a faculty role. I have no reason to believe Anderson did not work for Princeton, but the claim the paper makes is nonetheless inaccurate.

We know something now that the Chicago Defender did not, which is that Belle da Costa Greene was passing as white under an assumed name when she began working as a librarian at Princeton University in 1901 or 1902. Born Belle Marion Greener, Greene was the daughter of the man recorded to be the first Black graduate from Harvard University, civil rights activist Richard Greener. Greene’s biographer, Heidi Ardizonne, speculates that there were other mixed race women passing for white in Princeton’s library at the time. Ardizonne wrote that a few of Greene’s housemates, librarians Charlotte Martins (who had worked for Princeton since the 1880s) and her niece, Gertrude Hyde (who worked alongside Martins and Greene), might also have had African ancestry. Martins’s father was born in the West Indies but claimed to have been born in Spain. After his death in 1910, Martins told census enumerators that her ancestry was English on both sides. Meanwhile, Greene sometimes claimed to have Portuguese ancestry, and sometimes Spanish; she seems to have only said she had Spanish ancestry when living with the Martin-Hyde family.

Greene, Hyde, and Martins worked in Chancellor Green Library, shown here in 1889. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD04.

In addition to library staff, one could also point to several Black laboratory assistants who preceded Anderson: Sam Parker in the 1840s, possibly Alfred Scudder in the 1860s, or Alexander Dumas Watkins in the 1880s. Beyond his work in the lab, Watkins lectured on behalf of Prof. William Libbey and tutored students who were struggling. Were they hired “on a skilled level” as the Chicago Defender says Anderson was? Perhaps they were not intentionally hired as skilled workers, but all clearly functioned in skilled roles.

Does learning that Anderson was not the first Black person Princeton University ever hired in a skilled role change how you think of her? Are her accomplishments lessened if others came before her? Did she have less to do with shaping Princeton as we know it today because a librarian passed for white in the early 20th century or a handful of Black men worked in labs in the 19th century? Anderson’s experiences on campus, working in an environment with only white colleagues at a time when Princeton was still struggling with the question of whether to even admit Black students, make her significant in institutional history whether or not she was the first one to be the only Black person in a lab, or whether or not she was the first Black woman hired on the basis of her technical skills.

If there were students or other staff who were passing for white like Greene did, they may have hidden themselves too well for a historian to uncover them with the records that have been preserved. Further, if there were students or staff the institution didn’t value for unseating tradition, like Charles Hall, the University Archives are unlikely to preserve the memory of them doing so. Ultimately, it is better to focus on what we know. One of the things we know is that in an institution with a history like ours, the “first” of any demographic may well be impossible to ever pin down with certainty. One can celebrate the accomplishments of those in our institution’s history, including their role in reshaping Princeton’s culture, without inadvertently erasing those who might have come before them. Knowing about Greene, Watkins, Scudder, and Parker should not diminish Anderson’s place in Princeton’s past, any more than learning about Hall’s arrival on campus a few years before four Black Naval officers should diminish their significance in the story of Princeton’s racial integration.

Figuring out who was “first” is more than just ultimately insignificant if we are seeking to honor an individual person’s contributions to our institutional history, however, and the problem with these identifications is not merely that we may learn our listed “firsts” weren’t actually first at things. I have previously written about archival silence reinforcing systemic white supremacy, and I tend to encourage people to move away from “first” language because I’ve found that it also reinforces systemic white patriarchy. A focus on someone being the “first” in a marginalized group might also reify the oppressive system that marginalized them at the outset because it is an implicit assertion of confidence in the completeness of our records. The University Archives are not neutral, the values of the people who preserved those records for us might be quite different from our own, and there may not be a way to know about members of marginalized groups if those groups did not matter to our predecessors. When we take these records at face value as if they told the whole story, we adopt the values of earlier generations for determining whose stories count.

Finally, if the people declared to be the “first” do something are still living, the act of naming them as “first” may compound their feelings of marginalization and alienation, as the women who arrived on campus in 1969 with the advent of undergraduate coeducation have already warned us. “At the time, when a woman blew her nose in McCosh, it became the first time a woman had blown her nose in McCosh,” Anne Smagorinsky ’73 said in 1994. “Everything you did suddenly became the first time a woman had done it. It was thrust upon us constantly. We were really trying to re-configure that mindset.” If what we hope to do is honor the place someone holds within Princeton University’s longer story, this preoccupation with who was “first” to do a thing is ultimately counterproductive. To emphasize someone being the “first” pronounces that person’s place in the community as anomalous, and it often carries with it the implication that this “first” person does not truly belong within these storied halls.

Sources:

Ardizonne, Heidi. An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

Papers of Princeton

Princeton University Library Records (AC123)

Scott, Lillian. “She Takes the Atom’s Pulse: The Story of a Working Mother.” Chicago Defender 8 July 1950: 13.

For Further Reading:

Armstrong, April C. “The Problem with ‘Firsts,’ Part I: Archival Silence and Black Students at Princeton University.”

Armstrong, April C. “What Archival Silence Conceals–and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni.”

Ferguson, Stephen. “A Look at Belle da Costa Greene.”

The Morgan Library & Museum. “Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director.”

This Week in Princeton History for August 24-30

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, employees become eligible for Social Security benefits for the first time, Town Topics honors George Kennan ’25, and more.

August 26, 1913—William Howard Taft writes to accept an invitation to speak at the dedication of the Graduate College’s Cleveland Tower.

Cleveland Tower, ca. 1915. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 1.

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