Tracing Princeton’s Connections to Slavery through Intentional Serendipity

The Princeton and Slavery Symposium, a presentation of several years of “scholarly investigation of Princeton University’s historical engagement with the institution of slavery,” is scheduled for November 17-18, 2017. As we lead up to that date, we will be blogging about Mudd’s involvement in this larger project.

Last November, the University of Houston-Downtown Archives wrote about their staff’s annoyance at headlines about items “Found Buried in the Archives!” Articles like these often rub staff in archives the wrong way, because they render their ongoing efforts (necessary for scholars to uncover such material) invisible. Working day-to-day in the archives of a university, we often know a lot more about our institutions than we’re ever able to share in writing, leaving it to the researchers who visit us to record most of the stories that the materials we show them reveal. It is sometimes our jobs to tell the stories of our schools, but not always; even when it is, there will never be enough time for us to write them all down. My multi-page list of blogs-in-progress attests to this.

Even so, there are still discoveries made on a daily basis, “buried” materials or not. Not everything is easily found. My work at Mudd often highlights our collections from new angles and/or reveals forgotten stories about Princeton’s past. In order to do this, I keep records of what I discover in the course of my workday. Themes sometimes emerge and eventually become social media posts, blogs, or exhibit fodder as I transform the messy notes in my legal pads and Word documents and the connections in my head into more coherent pieces for public consumption. I also recruit my student assistants to help in this endeavor. Just as I do, they sometimes intentionally set out to tell a specific story, but we also write the stories that find us rather than vice versa. Our discoveries about Princeton’s connections to slavery reflect this kind of intentional serendipity (not quite the oxymoron it seems). The work of Mudd’s Public Services is both visible and invisible to the patrons who use our library. In today’s blog, I will reveal some of the invisible work that we do to support Princeton’s educational mission.

The first such item I want to highlight is one I uncovered in the course of collecting items for the weekly blog feature, “This Week in Princeton History.” The notice of a slave sale held on the Princeton campus in 1766 was worth including in this weekly roundup of events in mid-August 2015 in part because I had talked with students in the “Princeton and Slavery” course about their research and knew it was of interest to the public we serve. The professor for the course, Martha A. Sandweiss, referred to the slave sale in an article about her class that appeared in The Nation a few months later.

Clip from the Philadelphia Journal, August 14, 1766.

My student assistants were aware that the course was meeting at Mudd and had interacted with its students in the performance of their duties here as well. While Natalie Fahlberg ’18 was working on a long-term digitization project in the Office of the President Records (AC117), she noticed an indenture contract for a child and pointed it out to Dan Linke (the University Archivist) and me. This information was also passed on to the student researchers.

(Click to enlarge.) Indenture contracts like these did not commit one to a lifetime of servitude, but rather a specified period. Natalie was particularly struck by the age of the African American child supposedly willingly entering into a contract of 12 years–at nine, it would seem unlikely that he was indentured of his own free will. Office of the President Records (AC117), Box 8, Folder 3.

In the final case I’d like to highlight, Zachary Bampton ’20 was at work on his blog about language at Princeton and looking through issues of the Nassau Rake to find specific examples of some outdated words and phrases. In the process, he found a play from 1860 mocking a black abolitionist. The play called him “Honeyman,” a Princeton slang term dating back at least to the mid-18th century that roughly translates as “unoriginal (in the sense of plagiarism)” or “copycat.” Though the play makes little sense to a 21st-century audience, Zach was able to determine that it somehow reflected student attitudes toward slavery in the early 1860s and alerted me to it. To interpret the play and see that they’re mocking the abolitionist as someone who can’t think for himself requires familiarity with Princeton’s defunct modes of expression. This specialized knowledge arising from daily contact is something else we offer to confused researchers.

(Click to enlarge.) “The Early Bootlick Gets the Grade: A Drama in Two Acts.” Nassau Rake, 1860.

While we were not specifically looking for slavery in any of these examples, we knew that it was an important issue of concern to many people who use our library. In the course of our work, we collected this information and organized it thematically, just as we do with respect to other topics. You will sometimes see blogs or exhibits as a result of these kinds of efforts made by my team of student assistants, my colleagues at Mudd, or me. However, much of the time—perhaps most—our work remains a largely invisible support of Princeton’s commitment to learning in an environment dedicated to public service, made known instead by the full community of researchers at Princeton and beyond who utilize it for their own historical writing.

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