What Archival Silence Conceals—and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni

Archival silences distort the past, shaping our current and future self-understanding, so preserving Princeton’s history sometimes means attempting to correct the work of our predecessors. My struggle to bring 19th and early 20th-century African American graduate alumni to light illustrates one way white supremacy of that era continues to influence us today. It also supports the argument that archives are not neutral, so researchers and archival staff must pay close attention to the ways archival work reflects the values of those who did the preserving and discarding.

In our Graduate Alumni Records collection, I found files for Irwin William Langston Roundtree, George Shippen Stark, and Leonard Zechariah Johnson, African Americans previously known to have received masters degrees from Princeton. Contents were sparse. Stark’s and Johnson’s consisted primarily of the evidence that they had paid fees and earned course credit. Roundtree’s file had no information about the classes he took, but included an obituary that indicated he was a longtime resident of Trenton.

(Click to enlarge.) Academic record of Leonard Zachariah Johnson, graduate class of 1904. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).

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“A Tribute to Brian Taylor ’84”

By Justin Feil

In honor of the first men’s basketball home game tonight, we pay homage to one of the Tiger court’s greatest. It was big news when Brian Taylor ‘84 (originally Class of 1973) chose to play basketball for Princeton University. It was bigger news when he became the first Princeton player, and one of the first college players ever, to leave early for the pros three years later.

Criticized heavily for the move, the 6-foot-3 guard went on to play 10 years in the American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association before returning to Princeton to finish his degree. He then started working in business before moving into education as a teacher and administrator. Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for October 30-November 5

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a letter provokes debate over race, undergraduates complain of excessive demands on their time, and more.

October 30, 1942—A. M. Shumate ’29’s letter to the editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly takes Daily Princetonian editor Frank Broderick to task for advocating that Princeton change its admissions policies and allow African Americans to attend. “To admit negroes would be to cut off the stream of excellent material that has traditionally come to Princeton from the South. That loss in enrollment would presumably be made up with dusky gentry. A smart deal? If Broderick is really keen on mixing ’em up he might well be acceptable as a transfer student at one of the better-known negro colleges.” Shumate’s letter will result in weeks of alumni debate in the PAW.

October 31, 1932—Students gather with local Princeton residents in a group of 1,500 at Princeton Junction Station to cheer and express support for Herbert Hoover’s reelection campaign as Hoover passes through on his way to Newark.

November 1, 1872—Students are asking for relief from demands on their time that include Saturday recitations and lengthy chapel exercises on Sundays as well as their Monday-Friday classes and morning vespers, but the Board of Trustees is reluctant to grant even a half-day per week off from College responsibilities. They are expressing concern that students will abuse free time if it is granted to them, “by going to Trenton and other places, as well as running up and down the streets at night, breaking lamps and causing disturbance…”

“Old Chapel” at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), ca. 1860s. Princeton students were required to attend daily vespers in chapel each morning until 1882, as well as both morning and afternoon services on Sundays until 1902. Compulsory chapel attendance ended altogether in 1964. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP28, Image No. 651.

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This Week in Princeton History for March 27-April 2

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, eastern colleges convene to discuss the future of African Americans, a new invention draws interest, and more.

March 27, 1972—A petition to end coeducation is circulating among undergraduates, the Daily Princetonian reports, quoting one student: “I think college should be an ivory tower, and adding girls isn’t necessary.”

March 28, 1871—After one student is diagnosed with smallpox, panic on campus and among parents of current students prompts College of New Jersey (Princeton) president James McCosh to end the term two weeks early. He sends the students home.

March 30, 1967—150 delegates representing 65 Eastern colleges convene at Princeton University for the first conference of its kind to discuss “The Future of the Negro Undergraduate.”

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.

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Integrating Princeton University: Robert Joseph Rivers ’53

As we have previously pointed out, Princeton’s first African American undergraduates were not purposefully admitted: they were instead brought as part of a Navy training program during World War II. In 1945, Trustee Laurence G. Payson wrote to fellow member of the Class of 1916 John McFerran Barr to explain the presence of black students in response to apparent objections. “When the personnel [for the Navy unit] arrived its members included, unbeknownst to us in advance, four negroes.” Meanwhile, a law requiring tax-exempt institutions not to discriminate on the basis of race had recently passed in New Jersey. “If Princeton were to stand against the negroes who were admitted under the Navy War-time ROTC the Trustees would be in a very difficult spot.” He explained that future African American applications for admission would be evaluated by administrators at Nassau Hall (i.e., the Office of the President) rather than by the Office of Admission, then headed by Dean Radcliffe Heermance. (Heermance had revoked one black student’s offer of admission in the 1930s when he showed up to register for classes and his race became apparent.) In spite of Princeton’s wariness of challenge to its traditions, one young local African American resident found the presence of black students at the prestigious university inspirational in its seeming promise of new possibilities.

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.

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This Week in Princeton History for October 17-23

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a junior is arrested for anti-censorship activism in South Africa, the school celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding, and more.

October 17, 1967—Bob Durkee ’69’s in-depth award-winning article, “A New Era for the Negro at Princeton,” first appears in the Daily Princetonian.

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Clipping from the Daily Princetonian.

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William Taylor’s “Doggie Wagon”

Searching for materials in archival collections means, at times, trying to figure out how the people of the past would have labeled their photos, named their articles, or categorized their artifacts. They didn’t always use the same terms we would now. For this Black History Month, we examine William Taylor and how he illustrates the challenges we sometimes face when we’re trying to research the experiences of prior generations.
A tradition of longstanding at Princeton University ended in 1949. Last year, we told you about James “Jimmy Stink” Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave who went into business for himself on the College of New Jersey (Princeton) campus after abolitionist-minded townspeople and students helped him buy his freedom. Johnson sold snacks and drinks from a cart he pushed around campus. In his later years, Johnson took an apprentice named A. C. Seruby and nicknamed “Spader”, who sold peanuts from a large bag while wearing a top hat, an ascot, and a cutaway jacket. As the third and last African American campus vendor among the salesmen who have pushed carts around Princeton, William Taylor had the longest tenure, from 1904-1949. Taylor’s death on March 26, 1949 was a blow to the community. A local newspaper, Town Topics, wrote that “When he went, Princeton became a smaller town.”
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William Taylor, undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box LP1, Image No. 294.

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This Week in Princeton History for October 26-November 1

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the campus suspends mail delivery due to fears of contamination, Coretta Scott King speaks to an audience of more than 500, and more.

October 26, 1963—An undetermined number of Princeton undergraduates join an estimated 4,000 participants in a civil rights “March on Trenton for Jobs and Freedom.” It is the first statewide civil rights demonstration in the United States, having been modeled on the March on Washington the previous August 28.

October 29, 1951—Princeton junior James G. Hiering ’53’s hiccups cause his roommate to call the infirmary in desperation in the middle of the night. The infirmary sends two uniformed campus proctors to escort Hiering to them for treatment. Hiering, not knowing anything about his roommate’s call, is so surprised to see the officers that his hiccups are instantly cured.

October 31, 2001—The New York Times reports that Princeton University has suspended campus mail delivery in the wake of the discovery that a nearby mailbox in Palmer Square has tested positive for anthrax spores. With the campus pharmacy running low on Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax, the nationwide concerns about contaminated mail are verging on panic on campus. The anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 (“Amerithrax”) will ultimately kill five people and infect 17 others in a wide geographic area.

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Editorial cartoon depicting “love in the age of anthrax” from the October 24, 2001 issue of the Daily Princetonian.

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This Week in Princeton History for October 12-18

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, graduates get high praise for writing skills, influenza severely disrupts life on campus, and more.

October 13, 1748—The Trustees of the College of New Jersey send an effusive letter of thanks to Governor Jonathan Belcher for granting the institution’s second charter, “not doubting but by the Smiles of Heaven, under your Protection, it may prove a flourishing Seminary of Piety and good Literature” and “a lasting Foundation for the future Prosperity of Church and State.”

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Pennsylvania Gazette, November 3, 1748. Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364), Box 36.

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African Americans and Princeton University

Dear Mr. Mudd:

Q. What information do you have about African Americans and Princeton University?

A. Until the twentieth century, Princeton’s history has mostly been dominated by white men, typically from prosperous backgrounds. Though decidedly pro-Union during the Civil War, the campus had strong Southern influences, and its reputation as the “northernmost university town of the [segregated] south” was not undeserved. Yet that is not to say that Princeton’s story can only be told in terms of its loudest voices. Here, we give a brief overview of some of the ways African Americans fit into Princeton’s past.

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Princeton University cheerleaders Holland Gary ’97 and Tiffany O’Brien ’97, 1995. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP9, Image No. 2484.

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