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.
Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,
Who was the first Jewish student at Princeton?
A. An exhibit at the Historical Society of Princeton speculated that Albert Mordecai of the Class of 1863 was “very likely the first” Jewish student at the College of New Jersey (now named Princeton University). Although Mordecai might well have been the first Jewish student at Princeton, our records cannot offer a definitive confirmation.
There have been many famous Princetonians, but there have also been a number of famous—or perhaps infamous—imaginary members of the Princeton community. Here we take a look at the nonexistent people who became legends on campus.
Adelbert L’Hommedieu X (Bert Hormone), Class of 1917
The Class of 1917 invented an imaginary member and provided regular updates on his activities for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Among his exploits, Adelbert L’Hommedieu X (Bert Hormone) was expelled from Princeton after only a single semester, fought in a seemingly endless number of wars, and seduced countless women. In 1941, Harvey Smith included an extended treatment of “Bert” in the fictional book-length account of the adventures of the Class of 1917, The Gang’s All Here.
Ephraim di Kahble ‘39
When they arrived on campus, five members of the Class of 1939 decided to pull a prank on their classmates. They invented Ephraim di Kahble ’39, who “lived” at 36 University Place, where the group rented and decorated an empty room to make it look like his. Ultimately, they aimed to get their imaginary friend elected treasurer of their class. Ads began running in the Daily Princetonian under the name of Ephraim di Kahble, each more fanciful than the last.
The pranksters took things just a little too far, though, when they had young di Kahble take out an ad in the New York Times requesting information about an orange and black guinea pig. The New York Journal then ran a phone interview with “Eph,” discussing his hopes to change the Princeton mascot. He promised to wash all orange and black guinea pigs before he bought them to be sure they were authentic. The University Press Club was suspicious and investigated, finding that no such person existed. Di Kahble then “died” from exposure.
Dear Mr. Mudd:
Q. What information do you have about African Americans and Princeton University?
A. Until the twentieth century, Princeton’s history has mostly been dominated by white men, typically from prosperous backgrounds. Though decidedly pro-Union during the Civil War, the campus had strong Southern influences, and its reputation as the “northernmost university town of the [segregated] south” was not undeserved. Yet that is not to say that Princeton’s story can only be told in terms of its loudest voices. Here, we give a brief overview of some of the ways African Americans fit into Princeton’s past.
In 2013, 26,642 people applied to the Princeton University Class of 2018. Princeton made offers of admission to 1,983 of these applicants, an acceptance rate of 7.4%. Though many find this competitiveness discouraging, clearly a significant number choose to try their odds anyway. Yet how many applications can one imagine Princeton would get if the school announced that they might end up rejecting all of those who applied? This was the dilemma faced by female students in the winter of 1969: whether to apply to a university unsure if it would admit a single woman.
Bruce Wright applied for admission to Princeton University in the 1930s, having spent some of his childhood living in its shadow in Princeton, New Jersey. He was excited to be awarded a scholarship, and showed up in the fall ready to start as a freshman. So far as the Dean of Admissions was concerned, however, there was just one problem: Wright was black, and the Admissions Office hadn’t known that when they offered him a place among white Princetonians. Though many students who stood in line to register with Wright were not at all resistant to having him there, Dean Radcliffe Heermance (Graduate Class of 1909) decided that Princeton would not accept him as one of its own. In a later interview, Wright recalled, Heermance had told him: “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” With no other recourse he could see, Wright went outside, sat down on his suitcase, and waited for his father to drive down from New York to pick him up.
The words lingered in Wright’s mind. “I was shattered, and I became more so as time went on,” Wright said. “For some reason I persisted in writing to Heermance to demand to know why. Was I a danger, a menace to a great university?”
This was Heermance’s answer:
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan”: so began Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, in a speech asking the United States Congress for a declaration of war. Princeton University didn’t wait until Roosevelt’s speech; instead, the Princeton Senate declared war on Japan immediately following the attack. The Daily Princetonian reported on this story and others under the banner headline, “PRINCETON PRESENTS UNITED FRONT AS UNITED STATES FACES TOTAL WAR.”
It would be difficult to overstate the transformations that World War II brought to the United States at large and to Princeton University in particular in a nearly immediate and all-consuming way in the wake of the Japanese strikes on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A stunned administration under the leadership of University President Harold Willis Dodds (Graduate Class of 1914), who had only six weeks before asserted that the threat of war “will call for minor adjustments in the curriculum” (“Some Thoughts on Universities and National Defense,” October 31, 1941), suddenly and drastically revised its approach. Rather than minor adjustments, Princeton instead embraced major upheavals to nearly all of its traditions.
On December 15, Dodds presented the rough outlines of a changed Princeton curriculum to a mass meeting of students in Alexander Hall. A Princeton A.B., typically a four-year degree, would have an accelerated option with year-round classes, so that it could be completed in three. Additional “emergency courses” would be added to teach skills deemed useful for war. Princeton would yield itself to the needs of the U.S. Army and Navy, whatever those needs happened to be. All of these anticipated changes quickly went into effect. Here, we highlight how the war effort brought one other dramatic change to the campus: for the first time, women enrolled in classes.
Photogrammetry, or making maps from aerial photographs, was among many emergency courses added for the Summer 1942 term. Tuition was not charged for the class, taught by engineering professor Philip R. Kissam, but admission was competitive, as applications poured in from across the nation.
The class of 45 ultimately included 23 women, most from the East Coast region between New London and Philadelphia, and one from Royal Oak, Michigan. The Prince marveled, “One of the few remaining strongholds of the male, the classrooms of Princeton University, have been opened by the war to women students for the first time in the 196 years of its existence.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, however, as only a few classrooms were actually open to women, and the photogrammetry class was the only one taken by American women. Three female members of the British military also attended classes here during the war (Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 10, 1943), but afterward, coeducation at Princeton became nothing more than a memory until the 1960s. For more on the history of women at the University, see our previous blog post.
For further reading on World War II’s impact on Princeton University, see our previous blog posts about the bronze memorial stars that adorn some dormitory windows and the wartime love letters of alumnus Peter Page ’41.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
The Princeton Tiger
Root, Robert K. The Princeton Campus in World War II. Princeton: Self-published, 1978.
Written by Vanessa Snowden ’04
For much of its history, Princeton University had the reputation of being an “old-boys’ school.” Starting in the fall of 1969, Princeton became co-educational, and eight women transfer students graduated in June 1970, with slightly greater numbers graduating in the two subsequent years. Women who matriculated as freshmen in 1969 graduated in the Class of 1973, the first undergraduate class that included women for all four undergraduate years. However, the first steps towards co-education came as early as 1887, with the founding of Evelyn College. From its inception, this women’s institution was associated with Princeton University, and it was hoped that the link would be similar to the Radcliffe and Harvard University relationship. Unfortunately, Evelyn College closed in 1897, due to financial problems and a lack of support from Princeton.
For the next half-century, women instead made their presence known in unofficial positions. Wives and daughters of Princeton faculty and administrators succeeded in exerting significant influence on campus life as advocates for students as well as assistants in research. Isabella Guthrie McCosh, wife of James McCosh, the 11th president of Princeton, was deeply involved in protecting the health and welfare of Princeton students. As a result of her unflagging dedication, the campus infirmary was built and named in her honor.
Women were also important forces in the academic world. Margaret Farrand Thorp, wife of English professor, Willard Thorp, often assisted with her husband’s research while simultaneously producing her own independent work. Fittingly, she wrote a book entitled Female Persuasion: Six Strong-Minded Women, which was published in 1949. Speaking of her lot as a female at Princeton, Thorp once quipped, “We who practice the pleasant profession of faculty wife are often amused by Princeton University’s apparent hostility to the feminine sex. Hostility is probably too strong a word. The situation is, rather, that for the University, the feminine sex does not exist.” (See William K. Selden, Women of Princeton, p. 33.)
The motion was passed that the following resolutions of the Council be printed in the Princetonian issue of October 16th:
(1) That all undergraduates shall not enter any moving picture theatre in Princeton.
(2) That all undergraduates shall stay within the University limits, avoiding Witherspoon street and other congested districts unless there is an urgent need to the contrary.
(3) That all undergraduates eat only at the Clubs or the University Dining Halls.
(4) That all undergraduates refrain from leaving town and thereby exposing themselves and the rest of the student body to unnecessary danger.
On October 14, 1916, Princeton University president John Grier Hibben asked the Senior Council to adopt the resolution quoted above. He had already taken the unprecedented step of delaying the start of classes from the usual mid-September until October 10. The faculty had decided, in light of the shortened academic year, to reduce the length of the usual breaks students would otherwise have received.