Techniques for Unmuting Archival Silence: Recovering More of Princeton University’s 19th-Century Black Graduate Students

About two and a half years ago, I wrote about the strategies I had used to uncover African American alumni from the 19th century whose records were absent from the University Archives due to the legacy of institutional racism passed down to us. At the time, I had primarily used the Board of Trustees minutes to find the names of graduates who received master’s degrees but did not appear in alumni directories and/or did not have files in the Graduate Alumni Records (AC105). This was the only way that had occurred to me to help fill in these gaps.

Although it is still true that we will probably never know all of the names of Princeton University’s graduate alumni, I do have some better news to share with you today: Using some other resources and thanks to a tip from an interested researcher, I have been able to recover the name of a former African American graduate student who did not finish his degree: Samuel J. Onque, Graduate Class of 1891. Using the techniques employed to find Onque, I was able to identify three other African Americans who attended Princeton in the 19th century, bringing the total number of Black students confirmed to have attended Princeton University prior to World War II to 10.

The researcher who wrote to me had found Samuel J. Onque listed in the 1896 Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College. We use this resource less frequently than the supposedly more comprehensive 1906 General Catalogue of Princeton University, where Onque is not listed. Although this will not help us find graduate students who might have attended in the intervening decade, it is good to know that sometimes one might have been listed in the former but not the latter.

Using this information, I decided to check the Board of Trustees minutes. Onque did not receive a degree in 1891, and for a moment I thought this was a dead end. I then remembered that the annual Catalogues (not to be confused with the General Catalogue) would have listed all resident graduate students. Onque was indeed listed in the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896) as a resident graduate student for 1890-1891, with another clue: He was a graduate of Lincoln University and his hometown was Princeton, New Jersey.

Page 149 from the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey for 1890-1891.

Because I knew most of the Black graduate students I’d so far been able to identify in this era were students at Princeton Theological Seminary, I checked their annual Catalogue as well. Indeed, Onque was listed as a student there, which fits the pattern of what we know about the African American students at Princeton at the time.

I decided to try looking at archival resources from Lincoln University, too, and found a biography of Onque in their 1918 Biographical Catalogue. Samuel J. Onque, the son of James M. Onque and Martha M. Fairfax, grew up in the shadow of Princeton University. He attended public schools in town before he went to college at Lincoln, and after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary he moved on to diverse pastorates in South Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. In most cases, he was a bivocational pastor, usually teaching at public schools in the towns where he lived.

By 1918, Onque and his wife, Daisy Reed, were living in Valliant, Oklahoma with their nine children, where he was the principal of Alice Lee Elliott Memorial Academy, a boarding school for the children of the Choctaw Freedmen (people of African descent who had been enslaved within the Choctaw Nation and were freed in 1866).  The school was a Presbyterian mission whose motivation was a perception that enslavement among indigenous peoples, rather than among whites, led to “the most deplorable conditions imaginable,” since they were “lacking the example of intelligence and uprightness, often common among white masters,” and instead had been “subjected to generations of training in every phase of depravity…” (i.e., indigenous religions and cultures of both North America and Africa).

After finding Onque, I was inspired to attempt to find others using similar methods; I can now add these to our list of former African American graduate students of Princeton University, and tell you a little bit about their lives. Other than their names appearing in the Catalogues and the Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College, I have found no records in the University Archives that refer to them.

  • Charles Sumner Hedges, 1890-1891, Graduate Class of 1891 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1887, M.Div. Princeton Theological Seminary, 1890. Born in Newark, New Jersey. Moved on to teach in Georgia after graduation from seminary.
  • James M. Boddy, 1892-1895, Graduate Class of 1895 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1890, M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1895, M.D., Albany Medical College, 1906. Grew up in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Held pastorates in New York, Arkansas, and Minnesota. Wrote extensively on race; advocated for African American professors at Lincoln University and full integration of American society.
  • William Worthington McHenry, 1894-1896, Graduate Class of 1896 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1894. Served as a minister in Oregon.

There is at least one other possible Black student whose enrollment I have not been able to confirm. Topeka’s Colored Citizen reported on October 19, 1900 that Richard Spaulding, said to be a Princeton University graduate student, had been denied naturalization in a court in Trenton on the basis “that the federal laws permit the naturalization of white males only.” Spaulding was from Dutch Guiana (Suriname).

I will continue to seek records that may help me to identify Black students who attended Princeton prior to 1946. Our work is ongoing. If you know of others we may be able to add to this list, or have more information about the students listed here, please let us know.


Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton

Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College (1896)

General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906 (1906)

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Lincoln University College and Theological Seminary Biographical Catalogue (1918)

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