This post is the first in a two-part series.
Dear Mr. Mudd,
Rumor has it the dorms at Princeton were designed to allow students to bring enslaved people with them to live in adjoining rooms and serve them. Is this true?
Though one often hears a rumor about enslaved people accompanying students to campus and living in dorms with them, there is quite a bit of evidence that this could not have taken place, and we have never found any evidence that indicates that it did. Indeed, as is detailed below, any building currently used as a dormitory was constructed after slavery was illegal in the United States. The rumor’s persistence despite this probably reflects the legacy of the social hierarchies of prior generations of Princetonians. In this first of a two-part answer, I will outline the evidence for why this is not factually correct. Next week, I will provide more context for the emotional truth about histories of oppression on campus held within this myth.
There were enslaved people present on Princeton’s campus; this is well-established and interested researchers can find a wealth of information on the Princeton and Slavery website. Nonetheless, the only enslaved people known to live on campus lived in the President’s house, not in student dormitories, and were legally considered the private property of the institution’s presidents. Slavery was not fully outlawed in New Jersey until the Civil War, and Princeton itself was friendly to Southern ideas about race, enrolling many students from slaveholding families. There was also a need for what was then termed “servants” and what we know today as staff in a wide range of roles who provide meals and maintain and clean campus buildings. However, the individual students would not have brought enslaved persons with them, and having personal attendants living alongside them was prohibited.
It was the role of the Steward to ensure adequate staffing in service roles on campus, as Jonathan Baldwin’s contract spelled out in 1768, and students paid a fee for the college servants to make their beds and sweep their rooms unless they agreed to handle these matters themselves. Meanwhile, outside this specific service provided to them in their housing contracts, students were required to clean their own rooms and shoes. The Board of Trustees formally approved this rule in 1757, at their first meeting ever held in Nassau Hall, the first building that functioned as a dormitory as well as a chapel, library, refectory, and recitation hall.
Certain employees did live in the dormitories, but this was the role of the tutors, who were appointed by the Board of Trustees or the faculty. Under the Laws of the College adopted in 1819, we can see a full explanation of the duties of all employees. Tutors would visit students’ rooms three times each day to ensure they were studying and that they went to bed on time. They were also required to eat with the students and ensure good order at the table and that students not interfere with the servants at mealtimes. If students had anyone else living with them, the tutors would almost certainly have been responsible for them, but there is no mention of anyone but students and tutors living in “the college edifice” (i.e., Nassau Hall), which they were required to protect from damage. The Inspector, who would visit once each month, was responsible for determining who damaged the building if possible, but there is no mention of servants, only students.
Students were explicitly prohibited from bringing their own servants along with them, as indicated by the Laws of the College of New-Jersey adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1794:
No student shall keep or employ a private servant in the college: But the students may collectively recommend to the faculty such persons to be employed as servants as they may choose, and with the approbation of the faculty, such person may accept the employment, but shall not demand from the students more wages than shall have been fixed from the faculty: But without the approbation of the faculty, no servant shall be permitted to attend any of the students.
Though this leaves the possibility open that faculty could have approved servants to students in theory, if it ever did come up, it was very short-lived. By 1802 the Laws of the College instead warned:
No servant shall be employed in the college, except such as shall be engaged by the steward, at a stipulated salary, with the concurrence of the faculty; the duties of the servants within the college shall be pointed out solely by the faculty.
Another reason it seems highly unlikely that enslaved persons or any personal servants were living in dorms with students is that there simply would not have been enough room. A description of the lodgings for students in Nassau Hall appeared in a circular sent out in 1799, which gives us a sense of what a typical room would have looked like. Students were responsible for bringing their own furniture, but were advised they would have space for “a single mattress, with the cot and clothing, a table, shovel, tongs, and a few chairs.” Generally, students shared rooms with other students; a room to oneself was largely unthinkable.
Nassau Hall functioned as Princeton’s sole dormitory from 1757-1833. Meanwhile, starting in 1798, New Jersey began to restrict the movement of enslaved persons in and out of the state. In 1804, New Jersey passed the Gradual Emancipation Act. Though slavery itself was still legal in some form in New Jersey until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865, restrictions meant the migration of enslaved persons tended to be more from New Jersey southward than vice versa.
Princeton was constantly having to build new dormitories as Nassau Hall overflowed. First opened in 1833, East College was Princeton’s first building solely built to house students, which West College mirrored after it was built in 1836 (now named Morrison Hall). Even so, the 1839-1840 Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the College of New Jersey lists several students rooming in town, because the size of the student body perpetually exceeded available dorm rooms. By 1850, the Catalogue listed dozens of students rooming in town, and a decade later, one sees almost half of the students residing off campus, a housing demand only partially eased with the construction of Reunion Hall in 1869.
Finally, students living in any dormitory today are in buildings constructed after the Civil War, after the end of legal chattel slavery in the United States. The oldest dormitory still in use on campus is Witherspoon Hall, completed in 1877. As such, it was not designed with enslaved people’s lodgings in mind.
Photographs of the interior of the dorms do not show the two-room suites usually referred to in this myth as being used as a two-bedroom dwelling, one for the student and the other for the servant, but instead as having a sitting/study area in the larger room and a sleeping chamber in the smaller room. These rooms were often shared by more than one student, though some students used them alone.
Although this myth is not based in fact, it serves to validate feelings about the reality that today’s Princeton is a place where many current Princetonians would not have been welcome in the past, and where current staff have far different experiences than those of yesteryear. Next week, I will examine ways in which this myth retains some of what Patricia MacLachlan dubbed the “different truths” of fact and fiction.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120).
Circular. College of New Jersey, 1799.
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111).
Morales, R. Isabela. “Princeton’s Slaveholding Presidents.”
Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177).
Smith, Geneva. “Legislating Slavery in New Jersey.”
For further reading: