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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