Bruce Wright applied for admission to Princeton University in the 1930s, having spent some of his childhood living in its shadow in Princeton, New Jersey. He was excited to be awarded a scholarship, and showed up in the fall ready to start as a freshman. So far as the Dean of Admissions was concerned, however, there was just one problem: Wright was black, and the Admissions Office hadn’t known that when they offered him a place among white Princetonians. Though many students who stood in line to register with Wright were not at all resistant to having him there, Dean Radcliffe Heermance (Graduate Class of 1909) decided that Princeton would not accept him as one of its own. In a later interview, Wright recalled, Heermance had told him: “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” With no other recourse he could see, Wright went outside, sat down on his suitcase, and waited for his father to drive down from New York to pick him up.
The words lingered in Wright’s mind. “I was shattered, and I became more so as time went on,” Wright said. “For some reason I persisted in writing to Heermance to demand to know why. Was I a danger, a menace to a great university?”
This was Heermance’s answer:
This letter is a recent acquisition, courtesy of Melvin McCray ’74, which has been added to the Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109). Wright wrote this in the margin: “Damn the pleasant relationships[;] want to go to college.”
You may view video of Wright talking about this exchange here, beginning at about nine minutes into the documentary. After the University of Notre Dame also turned Wright away for the same reason, he ultimately earned a B.A. from Lincoln University in 1942, then went on to New York Law School. Wright spent 25 years as a judge in New York, including his service on the New York Supreme Court 1982-1994. Princeton University’s Class of 2001 named Wright an honorary member at their Class Day on June 4, 2001.
Although it is clear that attitudes have changed significantly at Princeton since Heermance revoked Wright’s offer of admission, not all alumni agreed with Heermance at the time. Pressure to admit African Americans to Princeton began appearing in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly in the mid-1930s, around the same time as Heermance sent Wright away. When World War II began its upheaval of American life, these pressures intensified. Ultimately, the Navy decided to integrate Princeton, when in 1945 it sent four African Americans to its V-12 program on campus. In 1947, John Howard became Princeton’s first black alumnus. Thanks to student activism and outside pressures, in 1948, Heermance was forced to reverse his position and open Princeton to black applicants. African Americans trickled in very slowly; in 1963, Princeton had just ten. Today, Princeton reports an enrollment of 406 African American undergraduates, about 7.8% of the total undergraduate population.
Note: A thank you to Melvin McCray ’74 for noting that we had repeated the mistake of the Daily Princetonian by listing Arthur Jewell Wilson as the first African American alumnus of Princeton University. Using the Undergraduate Alumni Records 1921-2008 (AC199), we have confirmed that although Wilson did graduate a year early when his degree was conferred in June 1947, John Howard actually won this race by about five months, receiving his degree the previous February.
Admissions Office Records (AC152)
New York Times