As we have previously pointed out, Princeton’s first African American undergraduates were not purposefully admitted: they were instead brought as part of a Navy training program during World War II. In 1945, Trustee Laurence G. Payson wrote to fellow member of the Class of 1916 John McFerran Barr to explain the presence of black students in response to apparent objections. “When the personnel [for the Navy unit] arrived its members included, unbeknownst to us in advance, four negroes.” Meanwhile, a law requiring tax-exempt institutions not to discriminate on the basis of race had recently passed in New Jersey. “If Princeton were to stand against the negroes who were admitted under the Navy War-time ROTC the Trustees would be in a very difficult spot.” He explained that future African American applications for admission would be evaluated by administrators at Nassau Hall (i.e., the Office of the President) rather than by the Office of Admission, then headed by Dean Radcliffe Heermance. (Heermance had revoked one black student’s offer of admission in the 1930s when he showed up to register for classes and his race became apparent.) In spite of Princeton’s wariness of challenge to its traditions, one young local African American resident found the presence of black students at the prestigious university inspirational in its seeming promise of new possibilities.
Robert Joseph Rivers, then a student at the integrated public Princeton High School, had attended the segregated Witherspoon Elementary School as a child. As was the case with many of the town’s African American families, the Rivers made their livings in service to white Princeton University. His grandfather had planted the elm trees lining Washington Road, his mother was the live-in maid for engineering professor Lewis F. Moody, his father worked as a servant at Tiger Inn and as a dormitory janitor, and aunts and an uncle tended to students at McCosh Infirmary. The dividing lines in Princeton were starkly black and white before the Navy and both internal and external pressures began to upend the status quo.
One internal voice calling for change had a direct impact on Rivers. Frank Broderick ’43 was chairman of the Daily Princetonian when he shook the campus with a three-part series of front-page editorials under the header, “WHITE SUPREMACY AT PRINCETON,” beginning on September 28, 1942. The scathing columns called for an accounting of Princeton’s sins. “Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies than of an American university,” one said. Another followed, “The time is here when Princetonians must face courageously the shameful conflict between their principles and their practice.” The editorials were met with mostly negative reactions among students and alumni. Princeton was in many ways a Southern school, some said, and it must remain so. Others disagreed. In the midst of campus discussion of the issue, the Prince printed a letter from a young local African American, Andrew Hatcher. “I was born and bred in Princeton. The events of your university during the past decade are among the most intimate of my childhood memories. … As vehemently as I condemn your prejudices, I deplore your hesitancy, first to proclaim the ideals of democracy and, secondly, to support Christianity as it applies to interracial cooperation.”
Broderick didn’t leave his push to integrate Princeton behind when he graduated. In 1946, the Princeton Summer Camp reopened for the first time after World War II had closed it in 1941. The camp, which today is known as Princeton-Blairstown Center, had been for whites only. When it opened in 1946, with Broderick as its new director, it had African American campers from the Witherspoon YMCA of Princeton alongside its usual contingent of underprivileged white boys from Philadelphia and New York. Bringing in these eight black boys would be, Broderick had suggested to his University advisers, “a social experiment.” Rivers was one of those boys. Rivers later wrote that the experiment had worked, for him and for others. That summer, 14-year-old Rivers had hope that a different future was possible. It was, he said, “a defining moment. … I began to think seriously about personal possibilities at Princeton University.”
More change was coming to Princeton, New Jersey. The Borough’s Board of Education had ended segregation in the public schools beginning with the 1948-1949 school year. Rivers watched as three more African American students cracked open the gates to Princeton University in the Classes of 1951 and 1952. He chose to apply to Princeton, and only to Princeton, to become a part of the change he’d been observing.
In 1949, Rivers entered Princeton with two other African Americans in the Class of 1953, but among them was the only one to receive his degree. Grady Lee Smith ’53 tragically drowned after his first year of study. Royce H. Vaughn ’53 left without completing a senior thesis. Regarding his time at Princeton, Rivers later told the New York Times that it had been difficult to be African American on an overwhelmingly white campus. “It wasn’t a question of a black identity in those days, you just didn’t have any,” he said. “It was a very lonely feeling for most blacks. The cooks, janitors and the black people in town were your main support system.” Though he had gained admission to the classroom, Rivers didn’t necessarily gain admission to campus social life. He avoided the eating clubs, bastions of tradition where he felt unwelcome. Rivers said on another occasion, “I had to live in two worlds” at Princeton.
While a student and for a few summers thereafter, Rivers returned to volunteer at the Princeton Summer Camp, where he was nicknamed the “Camp Doctor” for his career aspirations. A Princeton connection offered a new possibility to Rivers when he was choosing a medical school. E. Lang Makrauer of the Class of 1923 contacted him and offered to fly him to Boston for an interview with Harvard. After earning his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, Rivers completed his training in surgery at the University of Rochester, where he later served as associate dean of its medical school and a professor of clinical surgery.
Rivers broke new ground at Princeton in 1969, when he was elected to its Board of Trustees. He was the first African American ever elected to the Board. That same year, the Board selected 22-year-old Brent L. Henry ’69 to join their ranks. Together, they became as the first black Trustees Princeton had ever had in more than two centuries.
Of the four children Rivers has with his wife, Ruth, three attended Princeton: Michael Rivers ’81, Scott Rivers ’83, and Bob Rivers ’86. The experiences of Robert Rivers and the rest of the Rivers family remind us of just how much can change in a lifetime, and how a handful of people pressing Princeton to live up to its expressed ideals shaped how the institution understands itself today. They are also a reminder that the past is not so far away. Rivers still lives in town and still holds the memory of a very different kind of Princeton University, one he helped radically transform. In 2016, Princeton awarded Rivers with an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in recognition of his work toward making the institution more diverse and inclusive.
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Office of Communications Records (AC168)
Selden, William K. The Princeton Summer Camp 1908-1975. Princeton: Princeton University, 1987.
Undergraduate Academic Files 1920-2016 (AC198)
Undergraduate Alumni Files 1920-2016 (AC199)
For further reading:
Rivers, Robert Joseph, Jr. “Chick Blastodern Organization.”
Rivers, Robert Joseph, Jr. “Growing Up in a Neighborhood Where History Matters.”
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When I entered Princeton in 1955 with the class of 1959
There was one black face in the student population at Princeton and I believe he was class of 1957. I have forgotten his name now but we had brief contact in my freshman year and he was helpful as a mentor perhaps in the University Dining Halls where I began as a waiter. Although not surprising at the time, I graduated in 1959 and don’t believe there was another African-American undergraduate at that time.