This Week in Princeton History for March 1-7

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a transit strike stops the Dinky, the state legislature prohibits gaming near Nassau Hall, and more.

March 2, 1983—In response to a retroactive pay cut, New Jersey Transit workers go on strike, halting commuter train service to and from Princeton.

Princeton Station, 1988. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 91.

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This Week in Princeton History for February 22-28

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, campus proctors help local police apprehend men burning crosses in town, new transportation options draw comment, and more.

February 22, 1971—Proctors Bruce Beattie and Steven Verish see three men burning a cross at the World War I Memorial Monument at the intersection of Mercer and Stockton streets while they are patrolling the campus. They report this, which is the second cross-burning incident at the site this month, to local police. Police arrest three men in connection with the incident and find Ku Klux Klan literature at the site.

February 25, 1870—Theodore L. Cuyler writes of visiting Princeton, “It still seems a little odd to reach the town by a ‘dummy’ engine, instead of the old traditional ‘Ross’s hack,’ which has dragged up all the living freight to Princeton for a quarter of a century” (i.e., in a train rather than a horse-drawn carriage).

Princeton as it appeared in 1870 with its train. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 91.

February 26, 1802—In the Newburyport Herald, “Jersey Girl” describes a young man’s vanity: “Camillus is lately in possession of a handsome fortune; and some mischievous animals, with penetration enough to discover that his ruling passion is the thirst of praise, have undertaken to apply the match to the train of vanity of which he is possessed, and have succeeded so well, that I am told he already, before strangers, makes use of the important words, ‘When I was at Princeton College,’ although he has never yet beheld the inside of Nassau Hall.”

February 27, 1900—The Daily Princetonian takes the Philadelphia Press to task for “yellow journalism” about the football team: “Such misrepresentations would be laughable, were they not imposed upon the public as the true views of Princeton men and did they not make the University appear ridiculous.”

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.

The “Down South Kitchen” and Family Life in Princeton University’s Isabella McCosh Infirmary

When I wrote about the myth of slave quarters in Princeton University dormitories, there wasn’t room to tell you about the service workers who did sleep under the same roof as Princeton students for half a century. Today’s post considers the home one Black family made at Isabella McCosh Infirmary while they cooked and cleaned for students sick in body or in soul as well as the medical staff. Theirs was in some ways a typical life for African Americans of their time, a generation removed from enslavement yet still constrained by sociological factors that meant few other roles would have been possible for them than what the U.S. Census usually recorded as their occupation: “Servant.”

It began with Mabel Hillian, who came to Princeton to visit relatives in the fall of 1916. Her age at this time is a bit unclear; different sources would either have her as about 25 years old or as about 19, but based on most sources it seems she was probably 19. In January 1917, she started working in McCosh Infirmary as a dishwasher. It was not her first job. She’d previously worked picking cotton in Cheraw, South Carolina, where she was born, and where she had an apparent reputation for picking more cotton faster than any of the other roughly 100 farmhands who worked alongside her. Her younger sister, Bessie Hillian, then just 14 years old, soon joined Mabel in Princeton as an infirmary dishwasher. Even at that young age, Bessie arrived with her own work experience, because she, too, had been picking cotton in Cheraw. Though they both started as dishwashers, they quickly took over the kitchen. Mabel remained head cook until her retirement, when Bessie assumed the role.

This 1932 photograph is the earliest one I’ve been able to find of Bessie and Mabel Hillian, shown here in the Isabella McCosh Infirmary kitchen. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

Helen Gross was the Infirmarian at the time. Gross’s brother, John M. T. Finney, was a doctor. Gross and Finney, Bessie later told the Princeton Herald, had told the Hillian sisters to move in to the infirmary, which the Hillians commonly referred to as a hospital. “They said we should live at the hospital and make it our home, and we always have.”

McCosh Infirmary, 1910. In 1925, this first building was replaced with the one that still stands today. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045).

The sisters weren’t alone in the infirmary overnight. In addition to students who stayed there when they were ill, census records show that other service staff and several nurses also lived in McCosh Infirmary, all of whom where white; many were immigrants. The sisters soon expanded their own family’s presence there, too. Around 1928, Bessie married Harley Dargan, who also moved into the infirmary and worked as a waiter, and their younger brother, Thomas Hillian, moved in with them as well and began working as an orderly. Another relative, Rosa Malachie—known as “Big Rosa”—joined them in 1928, too, helping with the cooking and cleaning. In 1942, their niece, Lucy Rosa Malachie—known as Lucy or as “Little Rosa”—moved in. Because the family was from South Carolina, they called the kitchen Mabel ran the “Down South Kitchen.”

When World War II food shortages began to make the job of cooking for the students more difficult, the family had an idea. They wrote to Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, to ask permission to start a garden. He assented and asked the greenhouse manager to set aside a few acres on the path to Lake Carnegie for them. The greenhouse manager asked Mabel why she hadn’t just come to him in the first place rather than going straight to Dodds. “Well, Mr. Dawson,” Mabel said, “you see we knew the president and we didn’t know you.”

With Tom as the “Head Man” in charge of the garden, and the dedication of the rest of the family, the enterprise was a resounding success. Princeton did not have to buy any fresh produce at all for the infirmary in 1943. It was instead supplied from the array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, said to include every common variety known in the area except parsnips, in the “Down South Garden.” They worked to preserve what didn’t get eaten fresh, canning vegetables, pickling cucumbers, bottling sauces, and making jams and jellies. It does not appear that Princeton compensated the Hillian-Dargan-Malackie family for the food, though they did get some support in the form of fertilizer and $25 to spend on equipment, and were allowed to continue gardening through the Korean War.

“Big Rosa” Malackie; Mabel, Bessie, and Thomas Hillian; and “Little Rosa” Malackie in the infirmary store room displaying the produce of the “Down South Garden,” 1951. Photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The effort was significant. Every day from 2:00-4:00PM after lunch duties were finished, they worked in the garden, then took a break from gardening to “get supper ready for the boys and the nurses and everybody” and serve it, and then would return to the garden to work until dark. When school was no longer in session, they took advantage of the two-month break to start canning everything. When the Board of Trustees met, the family would put the year’s bounty on display in the infirmary store room. In 1950, they preserved a record of 981 quarts of food. Their garden consistently produced more than the population of sick Princeton students and the infirmary staff could eat, so the group began giving food away to the sick and needy in the area.

Thanks in large part to the Hillians, the infirmary had a family atmosphere. They treated the students like their own relatives—and indeed, as time went on and Princeton’s exclusionary practices toward African Americans began to change, some of them actually were. Robert Rivers ’53 was their nephew and sometimes he, like other students, sought out meals at the infirmary as its own sort of medicine when the stresses of college life got to him. This became an important refuge for Black students at a time when there was little sense of community for them on campus. But white students also considered the Hillians an important part of their college experience. When they returned for Reunions, alumni would bring their children and later even their grandchildren to meet the Hillians.

Bessie Hillian discusses the infirmary menu with Dr. Willard Dalrymple, director of University Health Services, 1967. Photo from Town Topics.

The family had their own cures on offer alongside the medical staff’s. Bessie, for example, would treat homesickness with cake. Milkshakes and cold juices soothed sore throats. On one occasion over the winter holidays, the Hillians said they learned of a student left on campus over Christmas who was alone in his room and sick. Tom went to get him and brought him to the infirmary, where Mabel and Bessie called the doctor to secure permission to give him some medicine and they kept him there for Christmas dinner. They told journalists about students who would come to the infirmary just because they were tired of the food elsewhere, just to be fed. The farm-to-table approach at McCosh Infirmary, with its fresh herbs and high-quality produce, was a far cry from the University Commons, after all. Mabel described one student as having claimed to be very ill, but his roast beef dinner “must have cured him, because he never even saw a nurse or a doctor.”

Tom was a dedicated football fan, attending nearly every home and away game, though he did not travel with the team, even making it to Cambridge for a match against Harvard in a hurricane. During the games, Tom sat with the team and assisted the team doctor in treating injuries. His major responsibility was to hold fractures in place while the casts were put on. When he became too ill to sit on the bench, he watched the games from a car parked in the end zone. Bessie also enjoyed football games, though she was less of a fixture at them than Tom.

The stories that have been preserved of the Hillian-Malackie-Dargan family present familiar patterns in African American history, especially the narratives about the Hillian sisters. At a time when they were younger than the “boys” they served, they took on a nurturing, even maternal, role for Princeton students, at least in the retrospective tale as it was usually told. Stereotypes of Black women as nurturing, strong, untiring, and selfless reverberate from what journalists chose to record about them in their lifetimes. Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent because the stories appeared less often, we can see a reinforcement of messages about the ideal Black man being subservient and accepting of his lower-class status in the accounts of Tom’s devotion to the football team and the garden. The legacy of the “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemimah,” and “Uncle Tom” tropes of white American imagination are pervasive in what aspects of their lives have been recorded and venerated.

This is not to say that the Hillians themselves were not nurturing, hard-working, or generous in their service to Princeton; it appears they were and took pride in it. However, those who encounter these stories in our records would do well to remember how much the role they played was one constrained by racialized expectations, with the daughters of illiterate parents who picked cotton in South Carolina leaving home at a very young age to serve white elites, without having many other options. There is unquestionable exploitation inherent in the story of their lives, regardless of how much one may admire their service to Princeton. Bessie Hillian’s long career is rightfully distressing to those who read about it today, when both social attitudes and a network of laws would expect a 14-year-old girl to be in school and living with her parents, not washing dishes as a live-in servant at a college infirmary alongside her older sister. Such reflections do not appear to be present in the archival record, but are an important part of interacting with the materials we have.

I’ve been unable to track down the fate of “Big Rosa” or Harley Dargan. “Little Rosa” moved to Rocky Hill in 1959, where she lived with her husband, Roy E. Ross, until her death in 1978. Mabel retired in 1963 after 46 years of running a kitchen, leaving Bessie to take over as head cook, but she continued to live in McCosh Infirmary with her relatives after her retirement. Tom died of an illness in 1967 after 45 years of service to Princeton at the age of 64. Bessie was the longest-serving Hillian, retiring in 1968 after 51 years. At that point, she and Mabel moved off campus, relocating to a house on Mt. Lucas Road in town. Mabel lived five years there before her death in 1973. Bessie’s death followed in 1981. With them, they took the memory of a side of Princeton unknown to us in this century. Lewis Thomas Laboratory now sits on the land formerly occupied by the “Down South Garden,” the food served to inpatients at McCosh Clinic is similar to the fare found elsewhere on campus, and the staff don’t make their homes in the infirmary.

 

Sources:

Historical Postcard Collection (AC045)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Directory: A General Directory of Princeton, N.J. and Vicinity

United States Census Records, 1900-1930

For further reading:

Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Cascade Books, 2014.

This Week in Princeton History for February 15-21

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Class of 1899 dons mourning clothes, protesters urge an end to sweatshop labor, and more.

February 15, 1899—To honor Ralph Wilson Simonds, formerly a member of their class, the Class of 1899 will wear mourning crépe for a period of twenty days beginning on this day. Simonds died fighting in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. Simonds is the third member of the Class of 1899 to have died before graduation; a fourth will follow a few months later.

February 16, 1999—About 250 protesters march from Firestone Plaza to Nassau Hall urging an end to sweatshop labor in the production of Princeton-licensed apparel.

Protesters march toward Nassau Hall to urge an end to sweatshop labor in the production of Princeton-licensed apparel. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

February 17, 1883—A number of students are delinquent on their poll tax payments.

February 19, 1985—The speech by former president Gerald Ford the Undergraduate Student Government attempted to arrange will not take place today because the administration has said Ford’s $13,500 honorarium is too expensive for a single speech.

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.

This Week in Princeton History for February 8-14

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Bric-a-Brac has a new cover, an employee at an eating club protests unfair treatment, and more.

February 9, 1931—The new Bric-a-Brac subscribers receive today has a new cover design.

Cover of 1931 Bric-a-Brac.

February 11, 1874—The Hampton Singers, a touring choir of African Americans, most of whom were formerly enslaved, perform in Princeton. (Sheet music for the songs typically sung by the choir—raising money for what will later be named Hampton University—are available online.) Their visit comes just a few days after a lecture by civil rights activist Wendell Phillips. Some students find themselves thinking about Phillips’s lecture during the concert.

February 13, 1940—An employee of a Princeton University eating club protests unfair treatment in a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian, citing unpaid overtime and a work schedule of 80 hours/week during the school year with no days off. “I think that all men should never work more than six days a week, but of course if the high class clubs (think they are) say you should work seven, then of course I’m wrong. I’ve always been told that a University was a place of higher education and culture, so why in the hell don’t they practice what they preach?”

February 14, 1803—The New York Daily Advertiser reports that Princeton students are focused on devotional practices: “In fact, the College is now what I have not known it to be before. One thing which is now particularly insisted on, and which seems to be readily acquiesced in, is a punctual attendance on religious duties. … The Freshmen and Sophomore classes read the Bible, and recite a catechism; but they are left at liberty to chuse [sic] the one of the church to which their parents belong–Accordingly some study the shorter catechism–some that of the Episcopal Church, and some that of the Friends or Quaker Society.”

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.

Songs of the Freed: The Hampton and Jubilee Singers at Princeton

In the 1870s, Princeton students were exposed to a form of entertainment new to them: African American choirs. Many of the singers in these choirs, who were raising money for Black colleges, had formerly been enslaved. Their performances met with a mixed reception among Princetonians and on balance appear to have been a negative experience for the performers. Our own records don’t tell us all that much about these choirs, but using other available resources alongside the materials in the University Archives can give us a fuller understanding of the context of what we do have here at Mudd Library.

The first such choir to visit Princeton seems to have been the Jubilee Singers, who organized in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their music marked a shift in what most white Americans were accustomed to hearing as “slave music,” in that it was not minstrelsy, but a sincere presentation of the songs of the enslaved, sung a capella. They are usually credited with introducing the genre of music known as “negro spirituals” to the world. Ultimately, this first group of Jubilee Singers from Fisk raised the money to build the university’s first building, Jubilee Hall.

Jubilee Singers, 1875. Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

James McCosh invited the group to perform in Princeton in 1873. A local church (Second Presbyterian Church) was offered as the venue. There was some buzz in advance of their arrival, stirred partly by the Nassau Literary Magazine:

Their antecedents, they having been slaves, their peculiar songs and manner of singing, the object they have in view, that is to raise $70,000 for their College, all unite to create a great interest in their behalf, and excite a universal desire to see these singers and listen to their strange yet pleasing melodies.

Gustavus Pike, a minister who often toured with the Jubilee Singers, wrote that the invitation McCosh sent had been especially welcome, since the group had experienced a lot of mistreatment in New Jersey due to bigotry and this gave them hopes of a better reception. However, they soon found that Princeton was like anywhere else in the state—if not worse. The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1877) describes the visit as “the most offensive manifestation of caste prejudice that ever flaunted itself in the face of the party.” Black ticketholders, regardless of what their tickets said, were sent to “an out-of-the-way corner of the church” and were not allowed to leave the section of the building to which they were segregated. The group’s director, a white northern missionary named George Leonard White, addressed the discrimination head-on, denouncing it as immoral.

Pike summarized White’s words to the audience as having condemned the segregation as

a grievance not to be passed over in silence when asked to make an invidious distinction in a Church of Christ against the very class of people who gave the performance, and especially when this demand was countenanced by the distinguished educators of a Christian College, who might be presumed to hate all manner of prejudice with a holy hatred.

According to The Story of the Jubilee Singers, the audience (which included many Princeton students) responded by hissing angrily at White. The choir considered refusing to perform but chose to go ahead out of consideration for the many people who had traveled significant distances to hear them and who had not participated in the church’s discriminatory actions. Although Pike said he had “no reason to suppose that [McCosh] approved of the injustice shown,” he also gives no indication that McCosh responded in any way other than “kindly” behavior toward the choir.

I have not found any account of the segregation, White’s words, or a hissing audience within Mudd’s holdings, though I did find hints of the attitudes behind these events. In the Lit, one writer complained of discrimination on the part of Second Presbyterian Church for a different reason: for allowing the Jubilee Singers to perform instead of Charlotte Cushman or Mary Frances Scott-Siddons. Cushman and Scott-Siddons were actors known for their dramatic readings of Shakespeare, and some students indicated that they would prefer to hear from one of these women (both of whom were white). The unnamed writer in the Lit described “a series of comic-religious travesties in heathenish songs [that] were produced by the Jubilee Singers,” “dressed in the grotesque gibberish of the slave’s accents, and replete with the gross superstitions of the slave’s mind…” They, the student wrote, not female actors, “should be excluded from the House of God.”

Whether it was the same author or another is unknown, but this theme came up again months later in the Lit:

…we feel justified in saying, that to listen to the familiar words of the poet [Shakespeare] delivered with the exquisite expression and rare pathos that this woman [Scott-Siddons] possesses is preferable to…the weird chants and plaintive song of Jubilee Singers.

However, another writer for the Lit took a different approach, praising the choir’s talents and reporting that the concert had been very well attended, with the audience being “highly delighted” with their performances of “Go Down Moses” and “Mary and Martha.” To this student’s mind, “The object of their singing is a very worthy one and they are meeting with a hearty response in all the cities and towns which they visit.” Princeton’s own Nassau Quartette decided to add “Mary and Martha” to their repertoire after the concert. One can find “Mary and Martha” in some subsequent Princeton songbooks. Given what we know about Princeton’s minstrel tradition and local attitudes, as well as the other music such groups performed, it is probable that Princeton students would have sung this piece in a less sincere way than they had heard it from the Jubilee Singers, however.

In February 1874, Princetonians had an opportunity to hear this style of music again from the Hampton Singers, who were raising money for the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Their choir, too, was partially made up of formerly enslaved singers. The Hampton Singers were highly successful, contributing the bulk of the school’s early endowment and enough money to build Virginia-Cleveland Hall.

The Lit published the same refrain, albeit somewhat less stridently, about the performance. After noting that “the concert was peculiar,” the writer noted that the audience was “unusually attentive and responsive” and praised the performers themselves for being “exceedingly earnest.” Though the Lit had previously derided the Jubilee Singers, here it pronounced them the superior choir to the Hampton Singers “in point of cultivation and taste,” while “no slave…can favorably compare with that of the most talented operatic singer of the day in rendering many of the popular songs of the South.” The Lit again asked why these singers were being invited to town rather than Scott-Siddons.

It so happened, however, that for at least one student, what might have been a coincidence of scheduling caused some reflection on the goals and lives of these singers. Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist and civil rights activist, also visited Princeton in 1874 at the invitation of a student group just a few days before the Hampton Singers. The Lit noted,

Call him abolitionist you may, stigmatize him as a grumbler and enthusiast if you will, yet there are traits in his character which belong only to the true man…And when, a few evenings after, we listened to the signing of the Hampton slaves, we thought that the negroes of the South had at least one champion, who had power to speak for them in the North and who could plead with an eloquence approaching perfection…

In nearly every reference, positive or negative, that I found to these singers formerly being enslaved in our records, Princeton sources refer to them not as freed, nor formerly enslaved, but as “slaves” as if in the present. Emancipation thus met with some linguistic resistance on campus in the decade after the Civil War. To the extent that this language gives us insight into community attitudes, we can see how the experience of singing at Princeton would have been to perform for a hostile venue, even if our own sources do not tell us about the racial segregation of the audience or the hissing in response to condemnation of prejudice. It is also telling that one of the students writing for the Lit indicated that it would be better to hear plantation spirituals performed by trained (white) opera singers rather than by a choir of the formerly enslaved.

These and similar choirs made several visits to Princeton in the early decades of the 20th century, but their 19th-century appearances seem to have been largely erased from community memory. The Hampton Singers’ performance in 1914, for example, was said to be “the first time that the Hampton party has visited Princeton,” though other colleges (such as Harvard and Yale) had annual performances. Perhaps the original visit of the Hampton Singers to Princeton was similar to the experience the Jubilee Singers had, and the group themselves chose not to return for a few generations.

 

Sources:

Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Audio recording, ca. 1915.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877.

Papers of Princeton

Pike, Gustavus D. and Theodore F. Seward. The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds, or The Jubilee Singers in Great Britain. New York: American Missionary Society, 1875.

Princeton Music Collection (AC056)

This Week in Princeton History for February 1-7

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, house carpentry helps pay student expenses, Joline Hall opens, and more.

February 1, 1830—Philadelphia’s Christian Advocate reports that a student “with no relations to aid him, except a brother from whom he receives some clothing” is working his way through Princeton as a house carpenter.

February 2, 1988—Drinking at Eating Club sign-ins sends 7 to the hospital and 39 to the infirmary, drawing national media attention to Princeton. The Daily Princetonian will pronounce the events “an unqualified nightmare.”

February 3, 1933—Joline Hall opens, and its first residents are moving in.

Drawing of Joline Hall. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP52, Image No. 1840.

February 6, 1876—Students gather in the college Chapel to hear from internationally famed revivalists Dwight L. Moody and Ira David Sankey. Later reports say the visit inspired many students to engage in one-on-one evangelism among their peers.

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.

Dear Mr. Mudd: How Did Princeton Students Treat Campus Servants?

This post is the second in a two-part series.

Dear Mr. Mudd,

If Princeton University dormitories could not have housed enslaved persons, why does the rumor persist that they did? What were the experiences of campus servants really like? How did students treat them?

 

Last week, I outlined the factual evidence that proves that dorms at Princeton were not designed with enslaved residents in mind, and that enslaved people did not live with students in dormitories. Though fictional, however, the myth does hint at some of the hidden truths of marginalized lives spent within the walls of buildings on campus. Today’s post considers the levels of personal service students were given and the dehumanizing treatment many employees endured from Princeton students in the past.

Though it is unclear how this rumor originated, there are some historical clues. Family tradition holds that Charles Haile, Class of 1855, brought an enslaved valet, William Doby, Jr., with him to campus, though it is clear that he would not have been able to have had Doby living with him under the campus rules at the time. In 1924, the Daily Princetonian ran an interview with George McGow, a Black resident of Princeton, then 75 years old, who said he had been Woodrow Wilson’s personal valet:

“He stopped me on Nassau Street,” he said, speaking of his first meeting with the great man, “and asked me if I would keep his room in Witherspoon Hall for him. I began that way, but soon became his personal servant, a thing I guess the boys don’t have now; but lots of southern lads in those days brought their own servants with them from home.”

McGow is listed on the 1920 census as having parents from “The South,” but without a state specified. I’ve been unable to determine where he lived before that. If McGow did act in this capacity, or others acted in this capacity for other students, they would not have lived with their employers if they were living in dorms, as Wilson was in Witherspoon Hall, even if McGow was cleaning Wilson’s dorm room periodically.

Waitstaff is visible in this photograph of graduate students dining in Proctor Hall ca. 1950s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP191, Image No. 5162.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 25-31

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a photographer finishes a series of images of places and people on campus, an alumni accent is criticized, and more.

January 25, 1877—The Princetonian reports that a “female servant” is working in Witherspoon Hall.

January 26, 1808—Robert Livingston of the Class of 1809 is brought before the faculty on the charge of taking a bottle of wine with him while sleighing. He says that he got the wine from a Black man, whom he does not name.

January 27, 1869—William Roe Howell has completed a series of photographs of the campus and its people.

Three unidentified men stand in front of William Roe Howell’s photographer’s shanty, ca. 1869. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP75, Image No. 3005.

January 30, 1828—Connecticut’s Middlesex Gazette criticizes the accent of some Americans: “And even now, you will hear this abominable dialect in the middle and southern states, where the old graduates of Princeton college, and others, pronounce—tchooter, and Ychoosday, and opportchoonity, &c. &c.”

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.

Dear Mr. Mudd: Did Enslaved People Live in Princeton’s Dormitories?

This post is the first in a two-part series.

 

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Rumor has it the dorms at Princeton were designed to allow students to bring enslaved people with them to live in adjoining rooms and serve them. Is this true?

 

Though one often hears a rumor about enslaved people accompanying students to campus and living in dorms with them, there is quite a bit of evidence that this could not have taken place, and we have never found any evidence that indicates that it did. Indeed, as is detailed below, any building currently used as a dormitory was constructed after slavery was illegal in the United States. The rumor’s persistence despite this probably reflects the legacy of the social hierarchies of prior generations of Princetonians. In this first of a two-part answer, I will outline the evidence for why this is not factually correct. Next week, I will provide more context for the emotional truth about histories of oppression on campus held within this myth.

There were enslaved people present on Princeton’s campus; this is well-established and interested researchers can find a wealth of information on the Princeton and Slavery website. Nonetheless, the only enslaved people known to live on campus lived in the President’s house, not in student dormitories, and were legally considered the private property of the institution’s presidents. Slavery was not fully outlawed in New Jersey until the Civil War, and Princeton itself was friendly to Southern ideas about race, enrolling many students from slaveholding families. There was also a need for what was then termed “servants” and what we know today as staff in a wide range of roles who provide meals and maintain and clean campus buildings. However, the individual students would not have brought enslaved persons with them, and having personal attendants living alongside them was prohibited.

It was the role of the Steward to ensure adequate staffing in service roles on campus, as Jonathan Baldwin’s contract spelled out in 1768, and students paid a fee for the college servants to make their beds and sweep their rooms unless they agreed to handle these matters themselves. Meanwhile, outside this specific service provided to them in their housing contracts, students were required to clean their own rooms and shoes. The Board of Trustees formally approved this rule in 1757, at their first meeting ever held in Nassau Hall, the first building that functioned as a dormitory as well as a chapel, library, refectory, and recitation hall.

Image of Nassau Hall, 1764. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

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