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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