Yellowface in Princeton University’s 20th-Century Triangle Club

Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the history of racism at Princeton University. As we’ve worked to help those trying to research this topic, we realized that we’ve highlighted some types of racism more than others on this blog. In order to help researchers locate materials that may assist them in constructing a fuller picture of the history of white supremacy at Princeton, today’s post considers some examples of racism against Asians through the lens of yellowface in Triangle Club performances in the first half of 20th century.

Yellowface is a form of minstrelsy that mocks East Asians. It rose in popularity in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was closely linked to anti-Black prejudice. As Krystyn R. Moon has explained, both blackface minstrelsy and yellowface are uniquely American phenomena, and yellowface drew on the tropes of blackface (including physical caricature, hybridized musical styles, and deliberate mockery of accents and dialects) to convey messages about nonwhite inferiority. Blackface primed audiences to understand the underlying meaning of yellowface. Yellowface became one of many ways Americans expressed strong anti-Asian (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment in this period and emphasized the idea that Asians could never become Americans.

As was the case nationwide, blackface minstrelsy seems to have predated yellowface at Princeton. This image is taken from the 1889 Bric-a-Brac.

Alongside the examples of redface and blackface in the University Archives, we also find incidents of yellowface in Princeton’s past. White students frequently played roles of non-white characters in the Triangle Club prior to World War II. Though the most common non-white characters they played were Native Americans, there were also a handful of East Asian characters in Triangle productions. These show evidence of the minstrelsy inherent in yellowface. Continue reading

Songs of the Freed: The Hampton and Jubilee Singers at Princeton

In the 1870s, Princeton students were exposed to a form of entertainment new to them: African American choirs. Many of the singers in these choirs, who were raising money for Black colleges, had formerly been enslaved. Their performances met with a mixed reception among Princetonians and on balance appear to have been a negative experience for the performers. Our own records don’t tell us all that much about these choirs, but using other available resources alongside the materials in the University Archives can give us a fuller understanding of the context of what we do have here at Mudd Library.

The first such choir to visit Princeton seems to have been the Jubilee Singers, who organized in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their music marked a shift in what most white Americans were accustomed to hearing as “slave music,” in that it was not minstrelsy, but a sincere presentation of the songs of the enslaved, sung a capella. They are usually credited with introducing the genre of music known as “negro spirituals” to the world. Ultimately, this first group of Jubilee Singers from Fisk raised the money to build the university’s first building, Jubilee Hall.

Jubilee Singers, 1875. Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery.

James McCosh invited the group to perform in Princeton in 1873. A local church (Second Presbyterian Church) was offered as the venue. There was some buzz in advance of their arrival, stirred partly by the Nassau Literary Magazine:

Their antecedents, they having been slaves, their peculiar songs and manner of singing, the object they have in view, that is to raise $70,000 for their College, all unite to create a great interest in their behalf, and excite a universal desire to see these singers and listen to their strange yet pleasing melodies.

Gustavus Pike, a minister who often toured with the Jubilee Singers, wrote that the invitation McCosh sent had been especially welcome, since the group had experienced a lot of mistreatment in New Jersey due to bigotry and this gave them hopes of a better reception. However, they soon found that Princeton was like anywhere else in the state—if not worse. The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1877) describes the visit as “the most offensive manifestation of caste prejudice that ever flaunted itself in the face of the party.” Black ticketholders, regardless of what their tickets said, were sent to “an out-of-the-way corner of the church” and were not allowed to leave the section of the building to which they were segregated. The group’s director, a white northern missionary named George Leonard White, addressed the discrimination head-on, denouncing it as immoral.

Pike summarized White’s words to the audience as having condemned the segregation as

a grievance not to be passed over in silence when asked to make an invidious distinction in a Church of Christ against the very class of people who gave the performance, and especially when this demand was countenanced by the distinguished educators of a Christian College, who might be presumed to hate all manner of prejudice with a holy hatred.

According to The Story of the Jubilee Singers, the audience (which included many Princeton students) responded by hissing angrily at White. The choir considered refusing to perform but chose to go ahead out of consideration for the many people who had traveled significant distances to hear them and who had not participated in the church’s discriminatory actions. Although Pike said he had “no reason to suppose that [McCosh] approved of the injustice shown,” he also gives no indication that McCosh responded in any way other than “kindly” behavior toward the choir.

I have not found any account of the segregation, White’s words, or a hissing audience within Mudd’s holdings, though I did find hints of the attitudes behind these events. In the Lit, one writer complained of discrimination on the part of Second Presbyterian Church for a different reason: for allowing the Jubilee Singers to perform instead of Charlotte Cushman or Mary Frances Scott-Siddons. Cushman and Scott-Siddons were actors known for their dramatic readings of Shakespeare, and some students indicated that they would prefer to hear from one of these women (both of whom were white). The unnamed writer in the Lit described “a series of comic-religious travesties in heathenish songs [that] were produced by the Jubilee Singers,” “dressed in the grotesque gibberish of the slave’s accents, and replete with the gross superstitions of the slave’s mind…” They, the student wrote, not female actors, “should be excluded from the House of God.”

Whether it was the same author or another is unknown, but this theme came up again months later in the Lit:

…we feel justified in saying, that to listen to the familiar words of the poet [Shakespeare] delivered with the exquisite expression and rare pathos that this woman [Scott-Siddons] possesses is preferable to…the weird chants and plaintive song of Jubilee Singers.

However, another writer for the Lit took a different approach, praising the choir’s talents and reporting that the concert had been very well attended, with the audience being “highly delighted” with their performances of “Go Down Moses” and “Mary and Martha.” To this student’s mind, “The object of their singing is a very worthy one and they are meeting with a hearty response in all the cities and towns which they visit.” Princeton’s own Nassau Quartette decided to add “Mary and Martha” to their repertoire after the concert. One can find “Mary and Martha” in some subsequent Princeton songbooks. Given what we know about Princeton’s minstrel tradition and local attitudes, as well as the other music such groups performed, it is probable that Princeton students would have sung this piece in a less sincere way than they had heard it from the Jubilee Singers, however.

In February 1874, Princetonians had an opportunity to hear this style of music again from the Hampton Singers, who were raising money for the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Their choir, too, was partially made up of formerly enslaved singers. The Hampton Singers were highly successful, contributing the bulk of the school’s early endowment and enough money to build Virginia-Cleveland Hall.

The Lit published the same refrain, albeit somewhat less stridently, about the performance. After noting that “the concert was peculiar,” the writer noted that the audience was “unusually attentive and responsive” and praised the performers themselves for being “exceedingly earnest.” Though the Lit had previously derided the Jubilee Singers, here it pronounced them the superior choir to the Hampton Singers “in point of cultivation and taste,” while “no slave…can favorably compare with that of the most talented operatic singer of the day in rendering many of the popular songs of the South.” The Lit again asked why these singers were being invited to town rather than Scott-Siddons.

It so happened, however, that for at least one student, what might have been a coincidence of scheduling caused some reflection on the goals and lives of these singers. Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist and civil rights activist, also visited Princeton in 1874 at the invitation of a student group just a few days before the Hampton Singers. The Lit noted,

Call him abolitionist you may, stigmatize him as a grumbler and enthusiast if you will, yet there are traits in his character which belong only to the true man…And when, a few evenings after, we listened to the signing of the Hampton slaves, we thought that the negroes of the South had at least one champion, who had power to speak for them in the North and who could plead with an eloquence approaching perfection…

In nearly every reference, positive or negative, that I found to these singers formerly being enslaved in our records, Princeton sources refer to them not as freed, nor formerly enslaved, but as “slaves” as if in the present. Emancipation thus met with some linguistic resistance on campus in the decade after the Civil War. To the extent that this language gives us insight into community attitudes, we can see how the experience of singing at Princeton would have been to perform for a hostile venue, even if our own sources do not tell us about the racial segregation of the audience or the hissing in response to condemnation of prejudice. It is also telling that one of the students writing for the Lit indicated that it would be better to hear plantation spirituals performed by trained (white) opera singers rather than by a choir of the formerly enslaved.

These and similar choirs made several visits to Princeton in the early decades of the 20th century, but their 19th-century appearances seem to have been largely erased from community memory. The Hampton Singers’ performance in 1914, for example, was said to be “the first time that the Hampton party has visited Princeton,” though other colleges (such as Harvard and Yale) had annual performances. Perhaps the original visit of the Hampton Singers to Princeton was similar to the experience the Jubilee Singers had, and the group themselves chose not to return for a few generations.

 

Sources:

Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Audio recording, ca. 1915.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877.

Papers of Princeton

Pike, Gustavus D. and Theodore F. Seward. The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds, or The Jubilee Singers in Great Britain. New York: American Missionary Society, 1875.

Princeton Music Collection (AC056)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Great Writer, but a Not-So-Great Student

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Many people know about the success of the infamous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some know that he attended Princeton University and even based his first novel, This Side of Paradise, on the Ivy League school. However, what many people don’t know is that Fitzgerald was not a star student. In fact, he wasn’t even an average student. F. Scott Fitzgerald was perhaps, in terms of academics, one of the worst students in his class. That could be one of the reasons why he decided to drop out during his junior year of college and join the army.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (named after his well-known, patriotic cousin) initially entered Princeton University with the Class of 1917. Fitzgerald had not done well academically in high school. His thoughts seemed to be always elsewhere, mostly on the girls that he spent time with. According to a 1966 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, when Fitzgerald applied to Princeton, the admissions board looked at Fitzgerald’s troubling grades and asked him why they should let him in. Fitzgerald then responded by stating that it was his seventeenth birthday. It is possible that Fitzgerald’s charming personality played a role in his acceptance. Fitzgerald himself stated in Ten Years of Princeton ’17, “Priggishness sits ill on Princeton.” Perhaps this is why he was granted admittance despite his questionable grades in high school.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald entered the class of 1917 and arrived with big dreams. Fitzgerald became fixated with the social scenes on campus like clubs and sports. He even tried out for the football team during his freshman year, but he was cut on the first day of tryouts because he was so slim, as is indicated by a 1956 PAW article. After his football dreams were crushed, Fitzgerald focused on getting into one of the eating clubs (a substitute for Greek life at the university) and Triangle Club (the university’s biggest theater group). Fitzgerald was able to achieve these two goals and, due to his dedication to them, he found success and happiness in both. It is evident that Fitzgerald was really great at the social aspect of college, but that’s just about the only aspect he was great at.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo from 1917 Nassau Herald.

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Comics as Education, 1950s-1980s

By Zachary Bampton ’20

From the 1950s onward, comics and their bright colors, bold drawings, and interesting stories have captivated a young American demographic. However, their popularity drew in other eyes, too. Civic and political groups took notice of this market audience and attempted to reach them by utilizing the medium as a teaching tool. The goal was education, not entertainment. Pulled from our Public Policy Papers and University Archives here at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, these comics demonstrate a mass market approach to education by unconventional means.

Materials for an unpublished comic book found in the Fund for the Republic Records (MC059) provide insight into the motivations and decision-making process for these publishers. In 1955, Dan Barry proposed a comic to Fund for the Republic provisionally titled “Our Civil Liberties, Their Meaning, and the Threats They Face”. Noting the “70 million regular readers” of comics as well as the disparity between 43% of the “newspaper public” reading the editorial versus 83% reading the comic strips, Barry articulated the potential and “great need for free-minded liberal material in this powerful medium”.

“Heroes of the Highway,” 1952. This comic book served as proof of concept to Fund for the Republic for the 1955 proposal. Fund for the Republic Records (MC059), Box 93, Folder 21.

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Latinx Student Poetry at Princeton

By Courtney Perales ’17 with April C. Armstrong *14 and Mario Garcia ’18

Students have often used the arts and poetry to express themselves and enhance their identities on campus. Two Latinx poems I found in student publications in the archives this spring were particularly striking to me: “Lloro Por Mi Puerto Rico Perdido” in La Mujer Latina, by Maribel Garcia ’84, and “We Hunger” in The Vigil, by Michele Parris ’90. I also ran across a reprint of “Our Tongue was Nauhuatl” by noted Mexican-American poet Ana Castillo in Sol Del Este East Coast Chicanx Student Forum Newsletter. One thing that stood out among these three different Latinx poems were that they delved into topics around identity, sense of belonging, and racial insensitivity and microaggressions students were experiencing. In another Latinx student publication, Amanecer, there were many more poems with similar themes. The poems depicted how these students were part of and yet pushed against the idea of a “Latinx monolith.” Wrestling with topics like borders, immigration, and independence, each piece pulled from deep emotional reserves and evoked the pain, confusion, and frustrations that came with being a student of color at Princeton.

La Mujer Latina, Spring 1982. Historical Subject Files (AC109) Box 297, Folder 8.

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Ask Mr. Mudd: “Levee Song” and Princeton’s Minstrel Shows

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Is it true that the University of Texas school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” has a Princeton University connection? Where did the song come from, and why don’t Princeton students sing it anymore?

A. “The Eyes of Texas” is set to a tune best known today as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Both use a melody first published as “Levee Song” in the College of New Jersey (Princeton)’s songbook, Carmina Princetonia, in 1894. With the new lyrics as “The Eyes of Texas,” the song was first published in The University of Texas Community Songbook in 1918.

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Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2.

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Bob Dylan’s Honorary Princeton University Degree

When news of Bob Dylan being honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature broke a few months ago, the Swedish Academy responsible for the award acknowledged that it might appear to be an inappropriate choice. Dylan, as a musician, might not be thought of as an author so much as a composer. “If you look back,” permanent secretary Sara Danius told the press, “you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to … But we still read Homer and Sappho…and we enjoy it, and same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read, and should be read.”

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Bob Dylan at Princeton University, June 9, 1970. Honorary Degree Records (AC106), Box 6.

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Howard Edwards Gansworth and the “Indian Problem” at Princeton

For people of European descent carving out space for themselves in the present borders of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a major barrier: people already lived there. The nation did not regard this as an insurmountable hurdle, however. America tried a variety of things as it expanded westward: driving Native Americans across continually shifting borders, attempting to assimilate them into a dominant white culture, and employing a variety of approaches in between. As the United States consumed more and more territory occupied by American Indians who attempted to maintain ownership, conflicts worsened. In the late 19th century, a crisis point had been reached. In 1890 and 1891, the Lakota Sioux fought a losing battle over treaty violations and land use with the United States Army. The Ghost Dance War resulted in the deaths of dozens of combatants on both sides and hundreds of Lakota Sioux civilians during its best-known battle, the Wounded Knee Massacre. During this period, Native Americans came under particular scrutiny.

At the College of New Jersey (Princeton), opinions were mixed about this so-called “Indian Problem.” A few weeks after the Ghost Dance War ended, students debated what should be done. One claimed “that though the good Indian was not the dead Indian, yet the good Indian had not yet been found.” Samuel Semple of the Class of 1891, who was selected as the winner of the debate’s $1,000 prize, argued that the only thing to do was to adopt Richard Pratt’s program of forced assimilation, removing Native American children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools. Pratt later famously summed up his program’s rationale in this way: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

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Cliosophic Society Archives (AC016), Box 84, Folder 31.

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“This Is More Than a School”: James M. Stewart ’32’s Princeton

When we launched our Tumblr page in January 2015, we filled it with a variety of content on the history of Princeton University, but it didn’t take long for us to discover that one alumnus in particular consistently received a lot of attention on the platform: James Maitland Stewart ’32. In honor of this, we currently have an exhibit case in our lobby dedicated to Stewart’s long-term connection to Princeton: “‘This Is More Than a School’: James M. Stewart 32’s Princeton.”

Jimmy Stewart, the son of Alexander “Eck” Stewart of the Class of 1898, wrote on his 1928 application to Princeton that he chose it due to family connections and his belief that Princeton “is by far the best equipped to give me a broad, profitable education, provided that I apply myself diligently to the work.” His dreams of becoming a civil engineer, however, were short-lived. Diligent work proved a challenge in the face of tempting recreational activities. He later told Princeton Living, “College algebra was like a death blow to me.” He did especially poorly in a Shakespeare course and “did not survive Spanish.” Unable to keep up in his classes, Stewart was forced to attend summer school to avoid flunking out. At the end of Stewart’s freshman year, his math professor told him, “You’d better think very seriously about being something else [other than a civil engineer], or you’ll be in deep trouble.”

Transcript

Grade card for James Maitland Stewart ’32, Undergraduate Academic Records 1920-2015 (AC198), Box 25. To better understand Stewart’s academic struggles, see our previous blog post explaining the 1-7 grading system used here. N.B.: Access to student academic records is governed by this policy.

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Mother Loves Me

With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought now was a great time to highlight this theater poster from our General Princeton Theater Collection (AC385).

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Princeton General Theater Collection (AC385), Box 3.

“Mother Loves Me” was a 1958 one-act musical comedy written and produced for Theatre Intime by Clark Gesner ’60, a member of the Triangle Club who also contributed to a few of its productions, including “After a Fashion” and “For Heaven’s Sake.” To fund this enterprise, Gesner had support from the Producers Fund, a modest grant of $200 originally donated by D. Brooks Jones ’56 from his profits from his own 1956 production, “Three Folk Sing.” The fund supported student artistic endeavors in various forms of public entertainment, including plays, literature readings, and musical revues. It had first been used in 1957 to finance “Listen Here” by Theodore James, Jr. ’57, who returned the initial grant and added a percentage of his profits to keep the fund going in accordance with the award’s rules.

For “Mother Loves Me,” male parts were performed by Princeton students, but as the school was not yet coeducational, casting had to look elsewhere for female actors. They drew upon local talent: Janet Thornsen of the Westminster Choir School took the lead soprano part, while Marcy Carroll of Princeton High School appeared in a supporting role. The male cast included Peter Cook ’60, Clinton Jakeman ’60, Robert Tellander ’60, and Philip Weinstein ’61. Grenville Cuyler ’60 directed. Using amateurs fulfilled the terms of the grant from the Producers Fund, which stipulated that the production could not employ more than one professional in any capacity, on stage or off.

The satirical musical focused on the field of psychology’s outlook on love. One viewer wrote of “Mother Loves Me,” “it is hard not to point out a number of particular flaws, but it is a great deal more difficult to explain the sheer and wonderful delight felt by the audience throughout the performance.” The production was a success and nearly sold out, making it possible for Gesner to keep a share of $50.68 from the profits after putting the requisite $352.01 into the Producers Fund. Though this wasn’t the main catalyst for Gesner’s fame, he did ultimately become a highly successful composer. He is best known today for the Broadway play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 1968. He also wrote and composed for a handful of television programs, including Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company.

 

Sources:

Clark Gesner Papers (C1163)

General Princeton Theater Collection (AC385)

Daily Princetonian

Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students Records (AC136)

Triangle Club Records (AC122)

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)