Caught Between Tradition and Transformation: Princeton University’s Black Athletes in 1985

Princeton University is an institution self-consciously steeped in tradition, sometimes to an extent that even relatively recent innovations can feel like they’ve been going on for centuries. Yet it has also tried to break free of traditions that have not served it well, like discriminatory admissions policies. Holding these things in tension with one another is at times difficult. Today, we look back at a prior generation’s reflections on what it meant to get caught in the middle between tradition and transformation.

On December 12, 1985, Pat Thompson and Sean O’Sullivan considered the awkward position of Black athletes on campus for the Daily Princetonian’s “Thursday Magazine” feature. They interviewed four athletes: John Thompson ’88, Butch Climmons ’86, Jim Anderson ’86, and Debbi Saint Phard ’87. In opening a conversation about race on campus through the lens of Black athletes, they brought attention to some of the ongoing problems Princeton faced regarding systemic racism, though this was not a term they used. However, not everyone who entered the discussion thought about racism as part of a system, rather than a flaw within individuals.

Princeton University’s varsity football team, September 1985. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 165.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 21-27

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, sophomores host the first big dance, newly unionized staff receive double-digit-percentage pay increases, and more.

June 21, 1877—Princetonians experience their first official big dance on campus. The Sophomore Reception, hosted by the Class of 1879 for the Class of 1877, promises to liven up what the Princetonian has otherwise described as “a first-class funeral” as the typical celebration for graduates. Not everyone is welcome to attend, however; admission to campus requires a ticket, a system designed to “[keep] out the indiscriminate crowd of snobs and negroes.” (“Snobs” is Princeton slang for townies.)

The Sophomore Reception was successful enough to be repeated annually for decades until the Senior Promenade replaced it in the 1930s. This is the cover of the program for the Class of 1894’s Sophomore Reception in honor of the Class of 1892. Student Dances Collection (AC282).

June 23, 1923—The Chicago Defender reports: “Princeton University, notorious for its ‘color line,’ will admit Race [Black] students in the future. Indications are that a new spirit of unity is being developed in the university town between the two Races and the student body, to the effect that deserving Race students prepared to pass the entrance examinations at Princeton will be admitted to the student body.” This will not occur for a few decades.

June 26, 1978—Effective today, the newly unionized Princeton University Library Assistants will receive a 12.5-16.5% increase in pay under the collective bargaining contract. The lowest paid employees will receive the greatest percentage of the increase.

June 27, 1851—Thomas Mifflin Hall, Class of 1853, notes in his diary: “During vacation I neglected to write in my diary, which I have lamented ever since, as it was the pleasantest six weeks I have spent since entrance into college.”

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 May 10-16

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the debate team loses to Harvard on immigration restrictions, the grading system is radically changed, and more.

May 10, 1947—In the Chicago Defender, W. E. B. Du Bois reports that Princeton University had written to him in 1910: “Princeton University has never had graduates of Negro descent.”

At the time W. E. B. DuBois received that letter, Princeton had several African American graduates, including I. W. L. Roundtree, Graduate Class of 1895. Clipping from the Trenton Evening Times.

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The “Down South Kitchen” and Family Life in Princeton University’s Isabella McCosh Infirmary

When I wrote about the myth of slave quarters in Princeton University dormitories, there wasn’t room to tell you about the service workers who did sleep under the same roof as Princeton students for half a century. Today’s post considers the home one Black family made at Isabella McCosh Infirmary while they cooked and cleaned for students sick in body or in soul as well as the medical staff. Theirs was in some ways a typical life for African Americans of their time, a generation removed from enslavement yet still constrained by sociological factors that meant few other roles would have been possible for them than what the U.S. Census usually recorded as their occupation: “Servant.”

It began with Mabel Hillian, who came to Princeton to visit relatives in the fall of 1916. Her age at this time is a bit unclear; different sources would either have her as about 25 years old or as about 19, but based on most sources it seems she was probably 19. In January 1917, she started working in McCosh Infirmary as a dishwasher. It was not her first job. She’d previously worked picking cotton in Cheraw, South Carolina, where she was born, and where she had an apparent reputation for picking more cotton faster than any of the other roughly 100 farmhands who worked alongside her. Her younger sister, Bessie Hillian, then just 14 years old, soon joined Mabel in Princeton as an infirmary dishwasher. Even at that young age, Bessie arrived with her own work experience, because she, too, had been picking cotton in Cheraw. Though they both started as dishwashers, they quickly took over the kitchen. Mabel remained head cook until her retirement, when Bessie assumed the role.

This 1932 photograph is the earliest one I’ve been able to find of Bessie and Mabel Hillian, shown here in the Isabella McCosh Infirmary kitchen. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

Helen Gross was the Infirmarian at the time. Gross’s brother, John M. T. Finney, was a doctor. Gross and Finney, Bessie later told the Princeton Herald, had told the Hillian sisters to move in to the infirmary, which the Hillians commonly referred to as a hospital. “They said we should live at the hospital and make it our home, and we always have.”

McCosh Infirmary, 1910. In 1925, this first building was replaced with the one that still stands today. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045).

The sisters weren’t alone in the infirmary overnight. In addition to students who stayed there when they were ill, census records show that other service staff and several nurses also lived in McCosh Infirmary, all of whom where white; many were immigrants. The sisters soon expanded their own family’s presence there, too. Around 1928, Bessie married Harley Dargan, who also moved into the infirmary and worked as a waiter, and their younger brother, Thomas Hillian, moved in with them as well and began working as an orderly. Another relative, Rosa Malachie—known as “Big Rosa”—joined them in 1928, too, helping with the cooking and cleaning. In 1942, their niece, Lucy Rosa Malachie—known as Lucy or as “Little Rosa”—moved in. Because the family was from South Carolina, they called the kitchen Mabel ran the “Down South Kitchen.”

When World War II food shortages began to make the job of cooking for the students more difficult, the family had an idea. They wrote to Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, to ask permission to start a garden. He assented and asked the greenhouse manager to set aside a few acres on the path to Lake Carnegie for them. The greenhouse manager asked Mabel why she hadn’t just come to him in the first place rather than going straight to Dodds. “Well, Mr. Dawson,” Mabel said, “you see we knew the president and we didn’t know you.”

With Tom as the “Head Man” in charge of the garden, and the dedication of the rest of the family, the enterprise was a resounding success. Princeton did not have to buy any fresh produce at all for the infirmary in 1943. It was instead supplied from the array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, said to include every common variety known in the area except parsnips, in the “Down South Garden.” They worked to preserve what didn’t get eaten fresh, canning vegetables, pickling cucumbers, bottling sauces, and making jams and jellies. It does not appear that Princeton compensated the Hillian-Dargan-Malackie family for the food, though they did get some support in the form of fertilizer and $25 to spend on equipment, and were allowed to continue gardening through the Korean War.

“Big Rosa” Malackie; Mabel, Bessie, and Thomas Hillian; and “Little Rosa” Malackie in the infirmary store room displaying the produce of the “Down South Garden,” 1951. Photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The effort was significant. Every day from 2:00-4:00PM after lunch duties were finished, they worked in the garden, then took a break from gardening to “get supper ready for the boys and the nurses and everybody” and serve it, and then would return to the garden to work until dark. When school was no longer in session, they took advantage of the two-month break to start canning everything. When the Board of Trustees met, the family would put the year’s bounty on display in the infirmary store room. In 1950, they preserved a record of 981 quarts of food. Their garden consistently produced more than the population of sick Princeton students and the infirmary staff could eat, so the group began giving food away to the sick and needy in the area.

Thanks in large part to the Hillians, the infirmary had a family atmosphere. They treated the students like their own relatives—and indeed, as time went on and Princeton’s exclusionary practices toward African Americans began to change, some of them actually were. Robert Rivers ’53 was their nephew and sometimes he, like other students, sought out meals at the infirmary as its own sort of medicine when the stresses of college life got to him. This became an important refuge for Black students at a time when there was little sense of community for them on campus. But white students also considered the Hillians an important part of their college experience. When they returned for Reunions, alumni would bring their children and later even their grandchildren to meet the Hillians.

Bessie Hillian discusses the infirmary menu with Dr. Willard Dalrymple, director of University Health Services, 1967. Photo from Town Topics.

The family had their own cures on offer alongside the medical staff’s. Bessie, for example, would treat homesickness with cake. Milkshakes and cold juices soothed sore throats. On one occasion over the winter holidays, the Hillians said they learned of a student left on campus over Christmas who was alone in his room and sick. Tom went to get him and brought him to the infirmary, where Mabel and Bessie called the doctor to secure permission to give him some medicine and they kept him there for Christmas dinner. They told journalists about students who would come to the infirmary just because they were tired of the food elsewhere, just to be fed. The farm-to-table approach at McCosh Infirmary, with its fresh herbs and high-quality produce, was a far cry from the University Commons, after all. Mabel described one student as having claimed to be very ill, but his roast beef dinner “must have cured him, because he never even saw a nurse or a doctor.”

Tom was a dedicated football fan, attending nearly every home and away game, though he did not travel with the team, even making it to Cambridge for a match against Harvard in a hurricane. During the games, Tom sat with the team and assisted the team doctor in treating injuries. His major responsibility was to hold fractures in place while the casts were put on. When he became too ill to sit on the bench, he watched the games from a car parked in the end zone. Bessie also enjoyed football games, though she was less of a fixture at them than Tom.

The stories that have been preserved of the Hillian-Malackie-Dargan family present familiar patterns in African American history, especially the narratives about the Hillian sisters. At a time when they were younger than the “boys” they served, they took on a nurturing, even maternal, role for Princeton students, at least in the retrospective tale as it was usually told. Stereotypes of Black women as nurturing, strong, untiring, and selfless reverberate from what journalists chose to record about them in their lifetimes. Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent because the stories appeared less often, we can see a reinforcement of messages about the ideal Black man being subservient and accepting of his lower-class status in the accounts of Tom’s devotion to the football team and the garden. The legacy of the “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemimah,” and “Uncle Tom” tropes of white American imagination are pervasive in what aspects of their lives have been recorded and venerated.

This is not to say that the Hillians themselves were not nurturing, hard-working, or generous in their service to Princeton; it appears they were and took pride in it. However, those who encounter these stories in our records would do well to remember how much the role they played was one constrained by racialized expectations, with the daughters of illiterate parents who picked cotton in South Carolina leaving home at a very young age to serve white elites, without having many other options. There is unquestionable exploitation inherent in the story of their lives, regardless of how much one may admire their service to Princeton. Bessie Hillian’s long career is rightfully distressing to those who read about it today, when both social attitudes and a network of laws would expect a 14-year-old girl to be in school and living with her parents, not washing dishes as a live-in servant at a college infirmary alongside her older sister. Such reflections do not appear to be present in the archival record, but are an important part of interacting with the materials we have.

I’ve been unable to track down the fate of “Big Rosa” or Harley Dargan. “Little Rosa” moved to Rocky Hill in 1959, where she lived with her husband, Roy E. Ross, until her death in 1978. Mabel retired in 1963 after 46 years of running a kitchen, leaving Bessie to take over as head cook, but she continued to live in McCosh Infirmary with her relatives after her retirement. Tom died of an illness in 1967 after 45 years of service to Princeton at the age of 64. Bessie was the longest-serving Hillian, retiring in 1968 after 51 years. At that point, she and Mabel moved off campus, relocating to a house on Mt. Lucas Road in town. Mabel lived five years there before her death in 1973. Bessie’s death followed in 1981. With them, they took the memory of a side of Princeton unknown to us in this century. Lewis Thomas Laboratory now sits on the land formerly occupied by the “Down South Garden,” the food served to inpatients at McCosh Clinic is similar to the fare found elsewhere on campus, and the staff don’t make their homes in the infirmary.



Historical Postcard Collection (AC045)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Directory: A General Directory of Princeton, N.J. and Vicinity

United States Census Records, 1900-1930

For further reading:

Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Cascade Books, 2014.

This Week in Princeton History for February 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 Bric-a-Brac has a new cover, an employee at an eating club protests unfair treatment, and more.

February 9, 1931—The new Bric-a-Brac subscribers receive today has a new cover design.

Cover of 1931 Bric-a-Brac.

February 11, 1874—The Hampton Singers, a touring choir of African Americans, most of whom were formerly enslaved, perform in Princeton. (Sheet music for the songs typically sung by the choir—raising money for what will later be named Hampton University—are available online.) Their visit comes just a few days after a lecture by civil rights activist Wendell Phillips. Some students find themselves thinking about Phillips’s lecture during the concert.

February 13, 1940—An employee of a Princeton University eating club protests unfair treatment in a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian, citing unpaid overtime and a work schedule of 80 hours/week during the school year with no days off. “I think that all men should never work more than six days a week, but of course if the high class clubs (think they are) say you should work seven, then of course I’m wrong. I’ve always been told that a University was a place of higher education and culture, so why in the hell don’t they practice what they preach?”

February 14, 1803—The New York Daily Advertiser reports that Princeton students are focused on devotional practices: “In fact, the College is now what I have not known it to be before. One thing which is now particularly insisted on, and which seems to be readily acquiesced in, is a punctual attendance on religious duties. … The Freshmen and Sophomore classes read the Bible, and recite a catechism; but they are left at liberty to chuse [sic] the one of the church to which their parents belong–Accordingly some study the shorter catechism–some that of the Episcopal Church, and some that of the Friends or Quaker Society.”

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.

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.



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)

This Week in Princeton History for January 25-31

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a photographer finishes a series of images of places and people on campus, an alumni accent is criticized, and more.

January 25, 1877—The Princetonian reports that a “female servant” is working in Witherspoon Hall.

January 26, 1808—Robert Livingston of the Class of 1809 is brought before the faculty on the charge of taking a bottle of wine with him while sleighing. He says that he got the wine from a Black man, whom he does not name.

January 27, 1869—William Roe Howell has completed a series of photographs of the campus and its people.

Three unidentified men stand in front of William Roe Howell’s photographer’s shanty, ca. 1869. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP75, Image No. 3005.

January 30, 1828—Connecticut’s Middlesex Gazette criticizes the accent of some Americans: “And even now, you will hear this abominable dialect in the middle and southern states, where the old graduates of Princeton college, and others, pronounce—tchooter, and Ychoosday, and opportchoonity, &c. &c.”

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.

Techniques for Unmuting Archival Silence: Recovering More of Princeton University’s 19th-Century Black Graduate Students

About two and a half years ago, I wrote about the strategies I had used to uncover African American alumni from the 19th century whose records were absent from the University Archives due to the legacy of institutional racism passed down to us. At the time, I had primarily used the Board of Trustees minutes to find the names of graduates who received master’s degrees but did not appear in alumni directories and/or did not have files in the Graduate Alumni Records (AC105). This was the only way that had occurred to me to help fill in these gaps.

Although it is still true that we will probably never know all of the names of Princeton University’s graduate alumni, I do have some better news to share with you today: Using some other resources and thanks to a tip from an interested researcher, I have been able to recover the name of a former African American graduate student who did not finish his degree: Samuel J. Onque, Graduate Class of 1891. Using the techniques employed to find Onque, I was able to identify three other African Americans who attended Princeton in the 19th century, bringing the total number of Black students confirmed to have attended Princeton University prior to World War II to 10.

The researcher who wrote to me had found Samuel J. Onque listed in the 1896 Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College. We use this resource less frequently than the supposedly more comprehensive 1906 General Catalogue of Princeton University, where Onque is not listed. Although this will not help us find graduate students who might have attended in the intervening decade, it is good to know that sometimes one might have been listed in the former but not the latter.

Using this information, I decided to check the Board of Trustees minutes. Onque did not receive a degree in 1891, and for a moment I thought this was a dead end. I then remembered that the annual Catalogues (not to be confused with the General Catalogue) would have listed all resident graduate students. Onque was indeed listed in the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896) as a resident graduate student for 1890-1891, with another clue: He was a graduate of Lincoln University and his hometown was Princeton, New Jersey.

Page 149 from the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey for 1890-1891.

Because I knew most of the Black graduate students I’d so far been able to identify in this era were students at Princeton Theological Seminary, I checked their annual Catalogue as well. Indeed, Onque was listed as a student there, which fits the pattern of what we know about the African American students at Princeton at the time.

I decided to try looking at archival resources from Lincoln University, too, and found a biography of Onque in their 1918 Biographical Catalogue. Samuel J. Onque, the son of James M. Onque and Martha M. Fairfax, grew up in the shadow of Princeton University. He attended public schools in town before he went to college at Lincoln, and after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary he moved on to diverse pastorates in South Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. In most cases, he was a bivocational pastor, usually teaching at public schools in the towns where he lived.

By 1918, Onque and his wife, Daisy Reed, were living in Valliant, Oklahoma with their nine children, where he was the principal of Alice Lee Elliott Memorial Academy, a boarding school for the children of the Choctaw Freedmen (people of African descent who had been enslaved within the Choctaw Nation and were freed in 1866).  The school was a Presbyterian mission whose motivation was a perception that enslavement among indigenous peoples, rather than among whites, led to “the most deplorable conditions imaginable,” since they were “lacking the example of intelligence and uprightness, often common among white masters,” and instead had been “subjected to generations of training in every phase of depravity…” (i.e., indigenous religions and cultures of both North America and Africa).

After finding Onque, I was inspired to attempt to find others using similar methods; I can now add these to our list of former African American graduate students of Princeton University, and tell you a little bit about their lives. Other than their names appearing in the Catalogues and the Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College, I have found no records in the University Archives that refer to them.

  • Charles Sumner Hedges, 1890-1891, Graduate Class of 1891 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1887, M.Div. Princeton Theological Seminary, 1890. Born in Newark, New Jersey. Moved on to teach in Georgia after graduation from seminary.
  • James M. Boddy, 1892-1895, Graduate Class of 1895 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1890, M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1895, M.D., Albany Medical College, 1906. Grew up in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Held pastorates in New York, Arkansas, and Minnesota. Wrote extensively on race; advocated for African American professors at Lincoln University and full integration of American society.
  • William Worthington McHenry, 1894-1896, Graduate Class of 1896 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1894. Served as a minister in Oregon.

There is at least one other possible Black student whose enrollment I have not been able to confirm. Topeka’s Colored Citizen reported on October 19, 1900 that Richard Spaulding, said to be a Princeton University graduate student, had been denied naturalization in a court in Trenton on the basis “that the federal laws permit the naturalization of white males only.” Spaulding was from Dutch Guiana (Suriname).

I will continue to seek records that may help me to identify Black students who attended Princeton prior to 1946. Our work is ongoing. If you know of others we may be able to add to this list, or have more information about the students listed here, please let us know.


Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton

Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College (1896)

General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906 (1906)

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Lincoln University College and Theological Seminary Biographical Catalogue (1918)

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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