This post is the first in a two-part series.
Dear Mr. Mudd,
Rumor has it the dorms at Princeton were designed to allow students to bring enslaved people with them to live in adjoining rooms and serve them. Is this true?
Though one often hears a rumor about enslaved people accompanying students to campus and living in dorms with them, there is quite a bit of evidence that this could not have taken place, and we have never found any evidence that indicates that it did. Indeed, as is detailed below, any building currently used as a dormitory was constructed after slavery was illegal in the United States. The rumor’s persistence despite this probably reflects the legacy of the social hierarchies of prior generations of Princetonians. In this first of a two-part answer, I will outline the evidence for why this is not factually correct. Next week, I will provide more context for the emotional truth about histories of oppression on campus held within this myth.
There were enslaved people present on Princeton’s campus; this is well-established and interested researchers can find a wealth of information on the Princeton and Slavery website. Nonetheless, the only enslaved people known to live on campus lived in the President’s house, not in student dormitories, and were legally considered the private property of the institution’s presidents. Slavery was not fully outlawed in New Jersey until the Civil War, and Princeton itself was friendly to Southern ideas about race, enrolling many students from slaveholding families. There was also a need for what was then termed “servants” and what we know today as staff in a wide range of roles who provide meals and maintain and clean campus buildings. However, the individual students would not have brought enslaved persons with them, and having personal attendants living alongside them was prohibited.
It was the role of the Steward to ensure adequate staffing in service roles on campus, as Jonathan Baldwin’s contract spelled out in 1768, and students paid a fee for the college servants to make their beds and sweep their rooms unless they agreed to handle these matters themselves. Meanwhile, outside this specific service provided to them in their housing contracts, students were required to clean their own rooms and shoes. The Board of Trustees formally approved this rule in 1757, at their first meeting ever held in Nassau Hall, the first building that functioned as a dormitory as well as a chapel, library, refectory, and recitation hall.