African Americans and Princeton University

Dear Mr. Mudd:

Q. What information do you have about African Americans and Princeton University?

A. Until the twentieth century, Princeton’s history has mostly been dominated by white men, typically from prosperous backgrounds. Though decidedly pro-Union during the Civil War, the campus had strong Southern influences, and its reputation as the “northernmost university town of the [segregated] south” was not undeserved. Yet that is not to say that Princeton’s story can only be told in terms of its loudest voices. Here, we give a brief overview of some of the ways African Americans fit into Princeton’s past.

Cheerleaders_1995_AC112_SP9_No.2484

Princeton University cheerleaders, 1995. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP9, Image No. 2484.

The undergraduate population excluded African Americans until the middle of the last century. In an early 20th-century letter, a Princeton University administrator wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois: “We have never had any colored students here, though there is nothing in the University statutes to prevent their admission. It is possible, however, in our proximity to the South and the large number of Southern students here, that Negro students would find Princeton less comfortable than some other institutions.” Bruce M. Wright, the first African American admitted to Princeton in the 20th-century, found that his own comfort was not the only consideration. Upon arriving on campus, Wright’s race became apparent, and he was promptly sent home, though not without controversy.

The pressures of World War II brought many changes to Princeton’s traditions, including racial makeup of the student body. When the Navy opened a Training School at Princeton on October 5, 1942, four black students entered the University through the United States Navy’s V-12 program, with the first three earning undergraduate degrees. John Leroy Howard was the first to receive a Princeton degree on February 5, 1947, followed by Arthur Jewell Wilson on June 7, 1947, and James Everett Ward on October 1, 1947. Melvin Murchison, Jr. left the University without graduating on October 20, 1945, ultimately earning degrees from Virginia Union University and Carnegie Mellon University. The first African American to enter Princeton as an undergraduate during peacetime was Joseph Ralph Moss. A resident of Princeton, Moss entered the University in the autumn of 1947 and graduated on June 12, 1951. 

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James Everett Ward ’47 and Arthur Jewell Wilson ’47 outside Laughlin Hall, 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP215, Image No. 5644.

Princeton began admitting women in 1969. Three female African American transfer students graduated in the Class of 1972. We have previously highlighted the experiences of one of these women, Vera Marcus, here.

The first Princeton degree to be earned by an African American was not Howard’s A.B., however. Graduate degrees were conferred earlier. Rev. Irwin William Langston Roundtree received a Master of Arts degree from the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) on June 12, 1895, followed by Rev. George Shippen Stark, also a clergyman, on June 13, 1906.

It is probably impossible to determine who the first black recipient of a Princeton Ph.D. was. As The Princeton Graduate School: A History notes: “In 1963 Princeton found that it could not provide information about black enrollment for the Council on Graduate Schools, because it made no reference to race in judging admissions. Assistant Dean Roberts estimated that about two dozen Afro-Americans had taken Ph.D.s from Princeton, and that there were three or four black students then enrolled.” We believe that African Americans began earning doctorates from Princeton in the late 1950s. We encourage anyone with specific information on this topic to contact us.

Beyond these degrees earned, African Americans attended classes long before they were admitted as degree candidates. During James McCosh’s presidency (1868-1888) and continuing into the 20th century, African American students from the nearby Princeton Theological Seminary took courses at the College of New Jersey (Princeton). This was not necessarily unanimously supported, though the majority of Princetonians accepted the arrangement.

Some evidence suggests three other men of African descent studied at Princeton in the 18th century without earning degrees. For two years starting in 1774, John Witherspoon tutored John Quaumino (sometimes spelled Quamine) and Bristol Yamma before they undertook missionary work in Africa. In the early 1790s, former slave John Chavis studied religion at Princeton prior to becoming a Presbyterian minister.

Alexander Dumas Watkins was Princeton’s first African American instructor, tutoring students in histology, a branch of anatomy focusing on tissue structure. Watkins started as an assistant to Professor William Libbey and was largely self-taught. He began tutoring students in the mid-1890s and died at age 51 in 1903. Over 50 years after Watkins’ death, another African American began teaching at Princeton. In fall 1955, Charles T. Davis was appointed assistant professor in the English department.

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The faculty of the Princeton University Department of English in the 1956 Bric-a-Brac. Charles T. Davis is pictured in the second row, third from left.

To look only to students and instructional staff, however, is to obscure the realities of daily life at Princeton. That Caucasians dominated Princeton’s story does not mean that others were absent. Our Historical Photograph Collection visually demonstrates that the staff of Princeton was segregated racially, depending on the nature of their work, but the school employed a significant number of African Americans. We have previously highlighted the life of James “Jimmy Stink” Johnson, a fugitive slave who escaped to Princeton and sold clothing and refreshments to students for many years alongside a long career as a janitor in Nassau Hall.

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Firestone Library janitorial and maintenance staff, undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP5, Image No. 110.

Other African Americans had close ties to the school as well; in 1898, James W. Alexander of the Class of 1860 wrote, “The famous negroes of Princeton cannot be forgotten by Princeton men.” Indeed, students of the nineteenth century considered the black population of Princeton part of its charm. The town of Princeton had a higher percentage of black residents than most others in New Jersey, according to a 1915 study. African Americans often worked for the University or earned a living selling various things to students, and they were known around campus (and well beyond) by name. Anthony Simmons ran an eatery in town in the early eighteenth century frequented by many students, including John Robert Buhler of the Class of 1846, who wrote often in his diary about enjoying oysters, ice cream, and something called “Horace,” an indeterminate dish he described as “fine, fat, and greasy,” at the eatery. William Taylor was the last in a series of African American vendors who sold refreshments from a cart on campus. His business continued well into the 1940s. Somewhat derisively dubbed the “jiggerman,” he was featured in an ad for Coca-Cola in 1930.

Princeton_Coke_Ad_1930_AC109_Box394_F1

Ad for Coca-Cola featuring William Taylor’s vending cart on Nassau Street, Literary Digest, May 31, 1930. Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109), Box 394, Folder 1.

Starting with Robert Goheen’s presidency (1956-1972), the University began striving for a diverse student body at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as on faculty and staff. In 1968, Carl A. Fields was promoted to Assistant Dean of the College, the highest position held by an African American in the Ivy League at the time. Fields served as a liaison between frustrated minority students and administrators during the seasons of campus unrest that were a product of Princeton’s struggle to change its character.

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Photo from “Princeton in a New Light” brochure, ca. 1970. Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109), Box 294, Folder 1.

The transition from a segregated institution open only to prominent white males to a diverse community has not been an easy one for Princeton. These efforts are ongoing, and part of the process involves listening to a variety of voices from the past, rather than only the loudest ones. We in the University Archives have undertaken various efforts to ensure that our records present the fuller story of Princeton. One example is a history seminar that has pored over our materials to find out more about Princeton’s ties to slavery over the past few years. Their findings are just beginning to be made available to researchers. For the finding aid to the Princeton and Slavery Course Records (AC422), click here.

Related Sources

Alexander, James W. Princeton—Old and New: Recollections of Undergraduate Life. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898.

Carl A. Fields Papers (AC365)

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

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Daily Princetonian

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005 (AC109)

Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup (AC117)

Office of the President Records: Robert F. Goheen Subgroup (AC193)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton and Slavery Course Records (AC422)

Thorp, Willard, et al. The Princeton Graduate School: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Wood, Arthur Evans. “Some Unsolved Problems of a University Town.” Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1920.

This post was originally written by Tad Bennicoff for our FAQ page on our old website. It has been revised and expanded here as part of our launch of our new website.