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.”

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

This is the first in a two-part series about archival silence and the “first” Black Princetonians. The second post in this series will consider Black staff.

People often ask us about the “first” person to do something in a given demographic. I previously wrote about the difficulty with determining who the “first” Jewish student was—and had to follow up with an update that there were several Jewish students before the one others had identified as the first, including one a half a century earlier than those sources claimed. Here, I want to examine the problem of “firsts” through the history of Black students at Princeton.

Recently, I answered a relatively common reference email, and one we’re getting more often these days: When did Princeton first admit Black students? Unfortunately, we can’t really answer such questions conclusively. As with the questions about Jewish students, there are problems of definition. Further, there are known record gaps when it comes to Black students at Princeton.

There is evidence that two men of African descent studied at Princeton without earning degrees for two years starting in 1774, when John Witherspoon tutored John Quamino (sometimes spelled Quamine) and Bristol Yamma before they went to Africa for missionary work. In the 1790s, a formerly enslaved man named John Chavis studied religion at Princeton prior to becoming a Presbyterian minister. But none of these men appear to have taken the classes offered in their time and it does not appear that Princeton considered them students.

James McCosh allowed several African American students from nearby Princeton Theological Seminary (a separate institution) to audit courses or attend chapel starting in the 1860s. Their presence in the classroom was highly controversial, but they were not considered to be students at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896). There were a handful of Black graduate students from the 1870s-1900s, but there was no standardized admissions process, and their professors, not Princeton itself, were responsible for admitting them. Later, administrators questioned whether these students could even be included in the alumni directory, since they only received graduate degrees.

Clipping from the Trenton Evening Times.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 20-26

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Graduate School reports increased diversity, gym users ask for protection from prying eyes, and more.

January 20, 1949—At “the first 11:00 catharsis in 15 years,” students celebrate the end of final exams with flaming tennis balls and a mock war.

January 21, 1970—The Daily Princetonian reports on an increase in the diversity of the Graduate School’s student population: Black enrollment, at 2.5% (38 students), is seven times what it was in 1967 and a 50% increase in the number of women since 1966 has brought the total number of female graduate students to 200.

Graph showing Graduate School enrollment 1964-1972. Graduate School Records (AC127), Box 67.

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Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part II: Roundtable News and the Liberal Union

This is the second post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s. These debates began in earnest due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick, whose efforts were the focus of the first post in this series. Here, I examine what our holdings reveal about Broderick’s legacy on campus toward the end of World War II and in the early postwar period.

By April C. Armstrong *14

To my teachers and friends on the Princeton faculty
my colleagues on the Daily Princetonian
who are fighting against white supremacy at Princeton

–Francis Broderick’s senior thesis dedication page, 1943

As his senior thesis suggests, Frank Broderick wasn’t alone in his fight to transform what it meant to be a Princetonian. After his graduation from Princeton, discussion of race on campus continued in his absence throughout World War II and beyond. Others made arguments similar to the ones Broderick had made about the conflicts between the ideals Americans were fighting for abroad and their own practices at home. These students also met resistance from fellow Princetonians, but in the process, changed opinions. They weren’t content to simply make arguments, however. They took action and set Princeton on a new trajectory.

James Everett Ward ’47 and Arthur Jewell Wilson ’47 outside Laughlin Hall, 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP215, Image No. 5644.

A few students wrote editorials in Princeton’s Roundtable News in 1944. Like Broderick had before them in the Daily Princetonian, which largely suspended publication 1943-1945, they pushed readers to make connections between the war abroad and domestic policy. In the March 23, 1944, issue of Roundtable, John Kemeny ’47 *49 accused Princetonians of “copying the Nazi party” in their “hysterical” responses to the admission of African American naval officers in 1943. Kemeny referred to having heard students “talk about forming lynching parties” after their arrival. Edward Kessler ’44 called for an end to discriminatory policies in the April 27, 1944 issue, asking, “How can we fight a world war to destroy the race theory and propagate the very same theory at home?” Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Jr. ’43 responded that he was “astonished” that Kemeny and others made these arguments, and that racial prejudice was no greater threat to democracy than lust or egotism. Debates continued, but a catalyst for tangible change didn’t arrive until after the war’s end.

John Bunzel ’46, whose education had been interrupted by his service in World War II, returned to campus in 1946 to finish his final two years of college. He later said his time in the Army had sparked a passion for civil rights. He led Princeton University students who shared Broderick’s commitments to form the Liberal Union in 1946 and served as its president until his graduation in 1948. Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for December 2-8

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, campus proctors nab serial burglars, a comedian gives an ominous warning, and more.

December 2, 1942—Charles Bagley III ’44 writes to the Daily Princetonian in response to a November 30 editorial that, among other things, called for African Americans to have equality under the law. “Did [the author] choose to ignore the question of states’ rights is concerned[?] On second thought, has he ever heard of states’ rights?”

December 3, 1920—Campus proctors arrest two men accused of burglarizing dormitories at Princeton for two years by brazenly going into students’ rooms while they were out and filing the students’ suitcases with whatever they wanted, then walking out with the suitcases in broad daylight.

Campus proctor William Coans (“Bill Coons”), ca. 1920. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box 1.

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Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part I: Francis L. Broderick ’43

This is the first post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s, which began in earnest partly due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick.

By April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Francis Lyons (“Frank”) Broderick, Class of 1943. Photo from 1943 Nassau Herald.

At first glance, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick ’43 looks like a typical mid-century Princetonian, not someone you’d expect to be at the center of a movement to upend his own institution’s admissions policies. His father was president of the East River Savings Bank in New York City, and the family lived on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. Broderick attended Phillips Academy and had two older brothers who both attended Princeton as well. What may have set him somewhat apart from many of his classmates is that he listed himself as Catholic and an Independent Democrat in the Nassau Herald at a time when the majority of Princeton undergraduates were Protestant and Republican. He was also the first student to graduate from Princeton’s then-fledgling interdisciplinary Program in American Civilization, and wrote in the preface to his senior thesis that English professor Willard Thorp *26’s edited two-volume set, American Issues, inspired him to look more closely at race in the United States. Continue reading

Whatever Happened to “The Vigil”?

By Iliyah Coles ’22

I have been looking for information about The Vigil, a minority newspaper that the University published in the late twentieth century. As a black student at a predominantly-white institution, I wanted to see what the newspaper would be about and how effectively it incorporated voices not usually heard. After researching and reading several of its later publications, I was offended by many things that I found. Expression within the paper seemed to be limited–confined to what was deemed acceptable during the time period. I was ultimately disappointed with my discoveries, but I still wanted to share them with others so that readers could become more aware of the racial tensions that persist even in the most unlikely of places. 

The Vigil, written for and mostly by minorities, was first published in 1980. The Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding) supported the paper. According to the Daily PrincetonianThe Vigil had been discontinued several times over the span of six years, mostly due to financial issues and infrequent publication. Though I was not able to determine why the newspaper was discontinued the last time (seemingly in 1999), there are some red flags, mostly in the articles written on black people, that might have had something to do with its failure to achieve broader support.  

Cover of The Vigil, February 1995. Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC364), Box 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for September 2-8

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Frist Campus Center opens, an alum writes to Princeton about surviving a major earthquake in Japan, and more.

September 2, 1973—An article in today’s Sunday magazine of the New York Times provokes contentious correspondence between Dean of the College Neil L. Rudenstine ’56 and the author, Harvard professor Martin Kilson. Kilson claims that Princeton, like many other institutions, has lowered its standards when increasing its admission of African Americans. Rudenstine insists Kilson’s portrayal of academic performance among African Americans at Princeton as subpar is inaccurate.

September 5, 2000—Frist Campus Center opens.

Frist Campus Center, September 2000. Image from negatives found in Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 197, Folder 14.

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This Week in Princeton History for July 8-14

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Princetonian reappears after an epidemic, Robert Goheen anticipates racial tension on campus, and more.

July 9, 1880—In an issue delayed for weeks due to an epidemic of typhoid, the Princetonian acknowledges that the abrupt breakup of the spring session meant that there had been no opportunity for the community to grieve the loss of the 10 students who died, and offers space in its future columns for testimonials about the lives lost.

July 12, 1950—Air Force Lt. Douglas Haag ’49 is probably the first Princeton alum to die in action in the Korean War, but his remains will not be identified until 2013.

July 13, 1970—The New York Times runs an article on a panel of college presidents discussing their institutions, quoting Princeton University’s Robert Goheen: “Under the general heading of student unrest, we think we’re going to have increasing problems in the current year with our blacks…It’s going to be a long time, I think, before we work out the modes of accommodations for blacks in our universities.”

Robert F. Goheen (center) with student attendees of “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate” conference, March 30, 1967. Office of the President Records (AC193), Box 456, Folder 7.

July 14, 1793—Town and gown celebrate Bastille Day with a ball and supper at the College Inn (later known as the Nassau Inn).

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for March 18-24

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Class of 1877 takes a look at the Milky Way, a campus publication urges the institution to examine its own prejudices while continuing to fight bigotry beyond it, and more.

March 18, 1932—Campus proctors apprehend a bootlegger on campus and find 74 quarts of champagne and whiskey in his car hidden among golf bags, suitcases, and books.

March 20, 1877—The Class of 1877 has the opportunity to look at the Milky Way (the “Queen of Heaven”) through a telescope with the help of Prof. Stephen Alexander.

Stephen Alexander, ca. 1880. Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC058), Box FAC03.

March 22, 1999—Over 200 people gather in Princeton University Chapel for an impromptu memorial service a few hours after Matthew Weiner ’02 died suddenly of cardiac arrest during a pickup basketball game.

March 23, 1944—In Princeton’s Roundtable News, John Kemeny ’46 editorializes, “Even one of the most enlightened of groups, the students of Princeton University, is hysterical at the thought of admitting negroes, and it makes them talk about forming lynching parties and copying the Nazi party in many other ways. … It is about time that we realized that a fascist is an enemy not only in Berlin and Rome, but also in Chicago and New York.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.