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.

Sources:

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.”