This post is the second in a two-part series.
Dear Mr. Mudd,
If Princeton University dormitories could not have housed enslaved persons, why does the rumor persist that they did? What were the experiences of campus servants really like? How did students treat them?
Last week, I outlined the factual evidence that proves that dorms at Princeton were not designed with enslaved residents in mind, and that enslaved people did not live with students in dormitories. Though fictional, however, the myth does hint at some of the hidden truths of marginalized lives spent within the walls of buildings on campus. Today’s post considers the levels of personal service students were given and the dehumanizing treatment many employees endured from Princeton students in the past.
Though it is unclear how this rumor originated, there are some historical clues. Family tradition holds that Charles Haile, Class of 1855, brought an enslaved valet, William Doby, Jr., with him to campus, though it is clear that he would not have been able to have had Doby living with him under the campus rules at the time. In 1924, the Daily Princetonian ran an interview with George McGow, a Black resident of Princeton, then 75 years old, who said he had been Woodrow Wilson’s personal valet:
“He stopped me on Nassau Street,” he said, speaking of his first meeting with the great man, “and asked me if I would keep his room in Witherspoon Hall for him. I began that way, but soon became his personal servant, a thing I guess the boys don’t have now; but lots of southern lads in those days brought their own servants with them from home.”
McGow is listed on the 1920 census as having parents from “The South,” but without a state specified. I’ve been unable to determine where he lived before that. If McGow did act in this capacity, or others acted in this capacity for other students, they would not have lived with their employers if they were living in dorms, as Wilson was in Witherspoon Hall, even if McGow was cleaning Wilson’s dorm room periodically.
The persistence of the myth, however, tells us something about lingering perceptions about the working environment for Princeton employees. Whether they employed their own servants or not, all students prior to World War II were given a much higher degree of personal service by Princeton employees than any student would expect today, living in a world where their own privilege contrasted sharply with the oppression of the staff. Charles Colcock Jones wrote to his parents in 1850 to explain:
Nearly all of the servants here who attend about the college are Irish. They are respectful and attentive in the general, and are treated just as we do ours [i.e., the people enslaved in the Jones household] at home; and the only difference between them apparently is that in the one case they are white and in the other black. Some of the boys cuff them about a little, but this is entirely beneath gentlemen, and argues too little of self-respect and good breeding to be prevalent even to a limited extent.
Jones also reported to his parents that many of those serving him were recent immigrants “fresh from the mother country,” some children, and some who did not speak English.
Rather than students getting their food in a cafeteria-style dining hall, waiters tended to them at meals until after World War II. As late as 1941, a member of the Class of 1945 took his fellow students to task for speaking abusively to the waiters, reportedly hearing frequent comments like, “Hey you! Where the hell is our milk?”
Abusive treatment of the janitors is also documented. Some 19th-century duties included emptying latrine buckets. A student reportedly dropped his watch into one and asked that the Nassau Hall janitor retrieve it for him. Because he is said not to have cleaned himself up before returning the watch, this incident earned James Johnson the persistent derisive nickname, “Jimmy Stink.”
Before the janitors unionized in 1942, they had no days off and were expected to make the beds for students each morning and turn the lights off in the dorms each night, seven days per week. They worked a standard work week of 57 hours. Not all students were appreciative of their efforts, and many believed it was the way things ought to remain. When some students started to push for a collective agreement that they would make their own beds on Sundays to give the janitors a half a day off each week to attend church services, others protested that this was too much to ask. “Why all this fuss about janitors, anyway,” one asked in 1939. “A little more work won’t hurt them.” Attitudes at Princeton had been expressed by a Prince editorial in 1924, asserting that janitors just needed to accept their lower station: “he is supposed to apply himself to the cleaning of rooms, the making of beds, and the other duties which fall to his lot and which a man of his prestige and influence should willingly accept.”
Janitors continued to make beds for students through the late 1940s, when significant budget shortfalls prompted administrators to remove this service from the housing contracts. In 1948, janitors were spending half of their workdays making beds and cleaning dorm rooms for students. In 1949, Princeton announced that in order to address the economic crisis, students would be required to make their own beds and clean their own rooms.
Thus, although the story about Princeton students having slave quarters in the dormitories is a myth, it may nonetheless perform one of the functions of the word “myth” as the dictionary defines the term: it explains a social phenomenon, even if it does so inaccurately. It carries with it an emotional truth about what life on campus was like for those who worked there versus those who were enrolled as students, and highlights shifts in how we understand these positions and roles today. This is the reason I believe the myth persists in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. It feels true even if it isn’t actually true. Those who repeat it find validation for their sense that there are histories of oppression within the walls of their dormitories, histories that do exist, albeit in ways it may be difficult for most current students to articulate.
Armstrong, April C. “‘Princeton College Bought Me’: The Life of a Fugitive Slave in Princeton.”
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067)
Myers, Robert Manson, ed. A Georgian at Princeton. New York: Harcourt, 1976.
Yannielli, Joseph. “African Americans on Campus, 1746-1876.”
For further reading:
Innis, Lolita Buckner. The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Johnson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.