The Problem with “Firsts,” Part II: Archival Silence and Black Staff at Princeton University

This is the second in a two-part series about archival silence and the “first” African Americans at Princeton University. The first post in this series addressed the history of Black students.

In last week’s post in this series, focused on Black students, I wrote about how questions of definition and gaps in the archival record create problems if one is attempting to determine who the “first” person in a demographic is at Princeton University. Here, I consider the history of Princeton’s Black staff to further explain why I’ve learned to never trust assertions that someone was the “first” to do something and reflect on why an emphasis on someone being “first” can reinforce systemic oppression.

The Chicago Defender ran a feature story on Louise Gay Anderson’s work as a microscopist at Princeton in 1950, saying that she “happened to be the first Negro the blueblood university had ever hired on a skilled level.” Anderson would have been hired in late 1948 or early 1949, but I have located no records in the University Archives associated with her. This is not unusual; Princeton University’s employment records are not generally preserved for those not in a faculty role. I have no reason to believe Anderson did not work for Princeton, but the claim the paper makes is nonetheless inaccurate.

We know something now that the Chicago Defender did not, which is that Belle da Costa Greene was passing as white under an assumed name when she began working as a librarian at Princeton University in 1901 or 1902. Born Belle Marion Greener, Greene was the daughter of the man recorded to be the first Black graduate from Harvard University, civil rights activist Richard Greener. Greene’s biographer, Heidi Ardizonne, speculates that there were other mixed race women passing for white in Princeton’s library at the time. Ardizonne wrote that a few of Greene’s housemates, librarians Charlotte Martins (who had worked for Princeton since the 1880s) and her niece, Gertrude Hyde (who worked alongside Martins and Greene), might also have had African ancestry. Martins’s father was born in the West Indies but claimed to have been born in Spain. After his death in 1910, Martins told census enumerators that her ancestry was English on both sides. Meanwhile, Greene sometimes claimed to have Portuguese ancestry, and sometimes Spanish; she seems to have only said she had Spanish ancestry when living with the Martin-Hyde family.

Greene, Hyde, and Martins worked in Chancellor Green Library, shown here in 1889. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD04.

In addition to library staff, one could also point to several Black laboratory assistants who preceded Anderson: Sam Parker in the 1840s, possibly Alfred Scudder in the 1860s, or Alexander Dumas Watkins in the 1880s. Beyond his work in the lab, Watkins lectured on behalf of Prof. William Libbey and tutored students who were struggling. Were they hired “on a skilled level” as the Chicago Defender says Anderson was? Perhaps they were not intentionally hired as skilled workers, but all clearly functioned in skilled roles.

Does learning that Anderson was not the first Black person Princeton University ever hired in a skilled role change how you think of her? Are her accomplishments lessened if others came before her? Did she have less to do with shaping Princeton as we know it today because a librarian passed for white in the early 20th century or a handful of Black men worked in labs in the 19th century? Anderson’s experiences on campus, working in an environment with only white colleagues at a time when Princeton was still struggling with the question of whether to even admit Black students, make her significant in institutional history whether or not she was the first one to be the only Black person in a lab, or whether or not she was the first Black woman hired on the basis of her technical skills.

If there were students or other staff who were passing for white like Greene did, they may have hidden themselves too well for a historian to uncover them with the records that have been preserved. Further, if there were students or staff the institution didn’t value for unseating tradition, like Charles Hall, the University Archives are unlikely to preserve the memory of them doing so. Ultimately, it is better to focus on what we know. One of the things we know is that in an institution with a history like ours, the “first” of any demographic may well be impossible to ever pin down with certainty. One can celebrate the accomplishments of those in our institution’s history, including their role in reshaping Princeton’s culture, without inadvertently erasing those who might have come before them. Knowing about Greene, Watkins, Scudder, and Parker should not diminish Anderson’s place in Princeton’s past, any more than learning about Hall’s arrival on campus a few years before four Black Naval officers should diminish their significance in the story of Princeton’s racial integration.

Figuring out who was “first” is more than just ultimately insignificant if we are seeking to honor an individual person’s contributions to our institutional history, however, and the problem with these identifications is not merely that we may learn our listed “firsts” weren’t actually first at things. I have previously written about archival silence reinforcing systemic white supremacy, and I tend to encourage people to move away from “first” language because I’ve found that it also reinforces systemic white patriarchy. A focus on someone being the “first” in a marginalized group might also reify the oppressive system that marginalized them at the outset because it is an implicit assertion of confidence in the completeness of our records. The University Archives are not neutral, the values of the people who preserved those records for us might be quite different from our own, and there may not be a way to know about members of marginalized groups if those groups did not matter to our predecessors. When we take these records at face value as if they told the whole story, we adopt the values of earlier generations for determining whose stories count.

Finally, if the people declared to be the “first” do something are still living, the act of naming them as “first” may compound their feelings of marginalization and alienation, as the women who arrived on campus in 1969 with the advent of undergraduate coeducation have already warned us. “At the time, when a woman blew her nose in McCosh, it became the first time a woman had blown her nose in McCosh,” Anne Smagorinsky ’73 said in 1994. “Everything you did suddenly became the first time a woman had done it. It was thrust upon us constantly. We were really trying to re-configure that mindset.” If what we hope to do is honor the place someone holds within Princeton University’s longer story, this preoccupation with who was “first” to do a thing is ultimately counterproductive. To emphasize someone being the “first” pronounces that person’s place in the community as anomalous, and it often carries with it the implication that this “first” person does not truly belong within these storied halls.


Ardizonne, Heidi. An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

Papers of Princeton

Princeton University Library Records (AC123)

Scott, Lillian. “She Takes the Atom’s Pulse: The Story of a Working Mother.” Chicago Defender 8 July 1950: 13.

For Further Reading:

Armstrong, April C. “The Problem with ‘Firsts,’ Part I: Archival Silence and Black Students at Princeton University.”

Armstrong, April C. “What Archival Silence Conceals–and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni.”

Ferguson, Stephen. “A Look at Belle da Costa Greene.”

The Morgan Library & Museum. “Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director.”

Restrictions Reduced on Princeton University Administrative Records

By Dan Linke

The old architectural adage that sometimes “Less is more,” can also apply to archives in the right circumstances.  In this case, less, or more precisely, shorter, restrictions on records means more documents are accessible, and that is the case with the Princeton University trustees and administrative records.  After closely scrutinizing our current policies and practices, President Christopher L. Eisgruber decided recently to reduce the standard administrative restriction from the present 40 years down to 30 years. This means that most university records created in 1988 and earlier, including minutes of the meetings of the Board of Trustees, are now open for research.  A small subset of records with longer restriction periods, particularly student academic files, faculty personnel files, and other materials related to specific student or employee performance will continue to be protected for the lifetime of the individuals.

These materials from the presidency of William G. Bowen, which were restricted under the old policy, are now open to researchers.

“I recognize that making records accessible to historians and other researchers serves the mission of the University,” Eisgruber said. “I believe that the 30-year restriction will suffice to protect the University’s other interests.”

One benefit of this change is that now the records of the presidency of William G. Bowen are open, allowing researchers to study the range of issues from his administration: the creation of the college system, both the physical and intellectual campus expansions, and dealing with the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s relating to the national economy and broader political questions that were often voiced on campus such as divestment in South Africa.

Mudd Library is open from 9:00AM-4:45PM Monday-Friday during the academic year. For more information about conducting research in our reading rooms, please see our previous blog post.

“Just friends; friends, that’s what matters in life:” the President and the Secretary of State

By: Daniel J. Linke
Curator of Public Policy Papers


The Mudd Manuscript Library notes the passing of former President George H. W. Bush, who, though a Yale alum, is represented within our collections via the papers of his long-time friend and political ally, James A. Baker III ’52. Baker, among other roles, served as Secretary of State under President Bush.  In December 2012, the library received a significant addition to the Baker papers in the form of a thick folder of correspondence exchanged between the two men from the late 1980s and 1990s.  The friendship between the two began decades earlier when they were doubles partners at a Houston tennis club and was maintained through all of their political travails and afterwards, a rarity in modern Washington politics.

In addition to the papers’ historic import—which includes notes passed between Baker and Bush at international meetings, as well as letters and memoranda shared while each served in our nation’s highest offices—the material also reveals President Bush’s human side–his thoughtfulness, his sense of humor, and how much he valued his friendship with Baker.   While every item is noteworthy, one, in a very understated way, reveals the depth of their friendship and Bush’s remarkable humility.

This cover of Turkey Hunter magazine with its post-it note from then President Bush (“JAB Do you get this mag? If not I’ll send you mine. GB”) reveals several things:  Bush’s consideration for Baker, his “no-airs” personality, and of course, a close friendship, unlike almost any other in 20th century politics.  The date of the cover is striking: June/July 1989—within the first half year of the Bush presidency.  This predates any of the momentous events that would mark the Bush administration: the Panama invasion, the Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Empire, or the Madrid Peace talks.  Instead, it shows two friends who shared a passion for hunting, who also happened to be the President of the United States and his Secretary of State.

These materials are part of the Baker papers. The finding aid for the collection is available online.

The title of this blog post is taken from a phrase Bush used to describe his relationship with Baker. It is found in an interview with him (bottom of page 3 of the online document, page 1 of the transcript) within the James A. Baker III Oral History Project.

For further reading:

DeLooper, John. “A Princeton Degree for a Yalie: George H. W. Bush Visits Princeton.”

Two Historical Princeton Area Publications Now Freely Available Online

By Dan Linke

An initiative undertaken jointly by the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP), the Princeton Public Library (PPL), and the Princeton University Library (PUL) has begun to unlock decades of the town and the university’s history by making the historical runs of two local publications full-text searchable and available online via a Princeton University Library website.

The Princeton Herald, a community weekly newspaper, published from 1923 – 1966, stated in its first editor’s column that it wanted “to be able to bring into the homes of Princeton and neighboring people those points of interest, news, and events…”

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Lawrence Rauch *49 and Operation Crossroads: Atomic Testing at Bikini Atoll

By Rosalba Varallo Recchia

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

Lawrence Rauch *49, a mathematics graduate student and a research assistant in physics, concentrated on radio telemetry while at Princeton.  He lived in the Graduate College near John Tukey, Rauch’s mentor during this time. Richard Feynman also lived nearby. Rauch was passionate about his studies, but World War II affected his academic experience. He won the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship in 1942, but due to his involvement in war research had to turn it down. Throughout the war, Rauch worked on defense related projects–which had the added benefit of keeping him out of the draft. He was chosen among five other members of the University to attend the first series of post-war nuclear testing being conducted in the Pacific Ocean by the Joint Army and Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946.

Lawrence Rausch *49’s ROTC portrait. Lawrence Rausch Papers (AC393), Box 2, Folder 10.

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James A. Baker Papers Opening Soon

By Dan Linke

James A. Baker III ’52, the distinguished public servant and five-time presidential campaign manager who served as the 61st U.S. Secretary of State, will open his papers that are held at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University on January 1, 2018. Donated in 2002, originally the papers were to remain closed during Baker’s lifetime or until his 100th birthday. Soon researchers will be able to examine his work in senior government positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, as well as his role in five consecutive presidential campaigns from 1976 to 1992 for Presidents Gerald Ford, Reagan, and Bush.

In 1976 Baker (pictured here) served as President Gerald Ford’s “delegate hunter” in the primary race, successfully fending off a challenge from Ronald Reagan, then went on to lead Ford’s national campaign in the fall. In the 1980 primary, he was the campaign manager for his close friend and tennis partner George H. W. Bush, then joined the Reagan-Bush campaign for the general election. He would then serve as the campaign manager for the subsequent three Republican presidential campaigns.  (From the James A. Baker III Papers, Box 265, Folder 1.)

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Papers of Granville Austin, noted scholar of Indian constitution, now available

This post was written by Phoebe Nobles, the archivist who processed the Granville Austin Papers.

We are pleased to announce the addition of the Granville Austin Papers (MC287) to the Public Policy Papers at Mudd Manuscript Library. Austin (1927-2014) was an independent scholar and political historian who wrote two of the seminal works on the constitution of India, and garnered esteem enough in the Republic of India to receive its fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri Award, in 2011.

Free of nearly a century of British rule, India created a Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution between late 1946 and 1949. The Constituent Assembly adopted the constitution on November 26, 1949, and the document became effective on January 26, 1950, declaring India a sovereign democratic republic, and resolving to secure justice, liberty, and equality to its citizens and to promote fraternity among them. Austin was to make a case for India’s constitution as “first and foremost a social document.”

How did Vermonter Granville Austin, known as “Red” to his friends and colleagues, come to be read so widely by students of Indian political history and to be cited in decisions of the Indian Supreme Court? His life’s work did not fit neatly the mold of the academic historian. With a degree from Dartmouth College in 1950, he began his career as a photographer and journalist for a local Vermont-New Hampshire newspaper. He joined the U.S. Information Service as a photographer in Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and later as political analyst and press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Austin left Beirut to study at Oxford, and his graduate thesis would become his first book, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, published in 1966.

Granville Austin at the U.S. Information Agency office, Saigon, 1960s. Granville Austin Papers (MC287), Box 12.

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The Right to Love: Loving v. Virginia and the American Civil Liberties Union

The film Loving, based on the Loving v. Virginia case, is now in expanded release in U.S. theaters.

When Mildred and Richard Loving were married in June 1958, twenty-four states still had anti-miscegenation laws. For this reason, Mildred, a black woman who was also of Rappahannock and Cherokee Indian descent, and Richard, a white man, were married in Washington, D.C. instead of their native Virginia, where both of their families had resided for generations. After they married, the Lovings settled in Central Point, Virginia. They were unaware that they would soon find themselves involved in one of the most significant legal battles of the civil rights movement.

On July 11, 1958, after receiving an anonymous tip, local authorities issued warrants charging the Lovings with attempting to evade Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages. The Lovings were indicted by a grand jury in Caroline County, Virginia and pled guilty in January 1959. They were convicted under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which made it illegal for interracial couples to marry out of state with the intention of returning, and sentenced under Section 20-59, which declared interracial marriage a felony offense and punishable by between one to five years in prison. Initially, both Mildred and Richard were sentenced to one year in prison, but the sentences were suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return together for twenty-five years.

Cover page of the Supreme Court brief filed by the ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Project Files Series (MC001.02.02), Box 672, Folder 8

Cover page of the Supreme Court brief filed by the ACLU in the Loving case. American Civil Liberties Union Records: Subgroup 2, Project Files Series (MC001.02.02), Box 672, Folder 8

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A Hope and A Hypothesis: The Curious Case of the Sonia Sotomayor ’76 Interview

Briana Christophers ‘17, a rising senior at Princeton University, made a discovery in the University Archives that solved a mystery we archivists didn’t know existed. In March, Briana visited us at the Mudd Manuscript Library, a visit arranged by Mudd’s Assistant University Archivist for Technical Services, Alexis Antracoli, in response to a petition Briana helped author and circulate through the Latinx Collective. Alexis coordinated the visit to respond directly to the petition’s section about the lack of Latinx presence and history at Princeton. In that section, the Collective stated the following needs, to:

1) Compile information on the contributions of students of color to this campus and beyond.

2) Organize the Mudd Manuscript Library resources related to students of color and the Third World Center/Carl A. Fields Center.

3) Collect information from alumni to create a permanent Students of Color at Princeton archive.

Thus, the purpose of Briana’s visit—which I attended as did my colleague, Lynn Durgin—was to affirm the truth behind the Collective’s observation, brainstorm about different ways for the Archives to do better, and allow Briana a chance to comb through the sparse records we do have pertaining to the history of Latinx students at Princeton. In the course of her perusing the Historical Subject Files, Briana stumbled upon something that few current undergraduate students have ever seen before: a 3.5’’ floppy disk.

3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers '2017.

3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers ’17 in AC109, Historical Subject Files.

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Princeton University and “Meet Me in St. Louis”

By Madeline Lea ’16

In the opening scenes of the 1944 MGM motion picture Meet Me in St. Louis, Lon Smith receives his Princeton University Catalogue in the mail (view the clip here). Lon, the eldest child of the Smith family, has been accepted to Princeton in the fall, and his going away party is the excuse to invite John Truett, “The Boy Next Door”  to the Smith house. Lon’s sister, Esther (played by Judy Garland), has a crush on the new next door neighbor, and she believes Lon’s party will be the perfect excuse to meet him.

The University Archives receives numerous requests for information about the Catalogue of Princeton University: 1903-1904.

The Catalogue for the academic year of 1903-1904 (the edition fictional incoming freshman Lon Smith received) was fairly lengthy with 407 pages of Princeton facts and figures. The volume is 8 inches x 5 ¾ inches. The cover is tan with black lettering.


The Catalogue was given to every student and intended to provide basic information about Princeton University. Early Catalogues contained the following: names of the Board of Trustees, a list of the Faculty, a list of students (by class year), information about admission, courses of instruction, examinations, expenses, and commencement exercises. Over the years more detailed information was included, such as a history of the University, a map of the campus, an academic calendar, and library hours. As Princeton grew from a college to a university, it provided new services to its students, faculty, and staff. The Catalogue is a valuable resource that helps to document this growth.

Additional Related Source:

Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.

This post was originally written by Nancy M. Shader in 2003 for the FAQ section on our old website. It has been revised and expanded by Madeline Lea ’16 as part of the launch of our new website.