Techniques for Unmuting Archival Silence: Recovering More of Princeton University’s 19th-Century Black Graduate Students

About two and a half years ago, I wrote about the strategies I had used to uncover African American alumni from the 19th century whose records were absent from the University Archives due to the legacy of institutional racism passed down to us. At the time, I had primarily used the Board of Trustees minutes to find the names of graduates who received master’s degrees but did not appear in alumni directories and/or did not have files in the Graduate Alumni Records (AC105). This was the only way that had occurred to me to help fill in these gaps.

Although it is still true that we will probably never know all of the names of Princeton University’s graduate alumni, I do have some better news to share with you today: Using some other resources and thanks to a tip from an interested researcher, I have been able to recover the name of a former African American graduate student who did not finish his degree: Samuel J. Onque, Graduate Class of 1891. Using the techniques employed to find Onque, I was able to identify three other African Americans who attended Princeton in the 19th century, bringing the total number of Black students confirmed to have attended Princeton University prior to World War II to 10.

The researcher who wrote to me had found Samuel J. Onque listed in the 1896 Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College. We use this resource less frequently than the supposedly more comprehensive 1906 General Catalogue of Princeton University, where Onque is not listed. Although this will not help us find graduate students who might have attended in the intervening decade, it is good to know that sometimes one might have been listed in the former but not the latter.

Using this information, I decided to check the Board of Trustees minutes. Onque did not receive a degree in 1891, and for a moment I thought this was a dead end. I then remembered that the annual Catalogues (not to be confused with the General Catalogue) would have listed all resident graduate students. Onque was indeed listed in the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896) as a resident graduate student for 1890-1891, with another clue: He was a graduate of Lincoln University and his hometown was Princeton, New Jersey.

Page 149 from the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey for 1890-1891.

Because I knew most of the Black graduate students I’d so far been able to identify in this era were students at Princeton Theological Seminary, I checked their annual Catalogue as well. Indeed, Onque was listed as a student there, which fits the pattern of what we know about the African American students at Princeton at the time.

I decided to try looking at archival resources from Lincoln University, too, and found a biography of Onque in their 1918 Biographical Catalogue. Samuel J. Onque, the son of James M. Onque and Martha M. Fairfax, grew up in the shadow of Princeton University. He attended public schools in town before he went to college at Lincoln, and after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary he moved on to diverse pastorates in South Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. In most cases, he was a bivocational pastor, usually teaching at public schools in the towns where he lived.

By 1918, Onque and his wife, Daisy Reed, were living in Valliant, Oklahoma with their nine children, where he was the principal of Alice Lee Elliott Memorial Academy, a boarding school for the children of the Choctaw Freedmen (people of African descent who had been enslaved within the Choctaw Nation and were freed in 1866).  The school was a Presbyterian mission whose motivation was a perception that enslavement among indigenous peoples, rather than among whites, led to “the most deplorable conditions imaginable,” since they were “lacking the example of intelligence and uprightness, often common among white masters,” and instead had been “subjected to generations of training in every phase of depravity…” (i.e., indigenous religions and cultures of both North America and Africa).

After finding Onque, I was inspired to attempt to find others using similar methods; I can now add these to our list of former African American graduate students of Princeton University, and tell you a little bit about their lives. Other than their names appearing in the Catalogues and the Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College, I have found no records in the University Archives that refer to them.

  • Charles Sumner Hedges, 1890-1891, Graduate Class of 1891 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1887, M.Div. Princeton Theological Seminary, 1890. Born in Newark, New Jersey. Moved on to teach in Georgia after graduation from seminary.
  • James M. Boddy, 1892-1895, Graduate Class of 1895 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1890, M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1895, M.D., Albany Medical College, 1906. Grew up in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Held pastorates in New York, Arkansas, and Minnesota. Wrote extensively on race; advocated for African American professors at Lincoln University and full integration of American society.
  • William Worthington McHenry, 1894-1896, Graduate Class of 1896 (no degree), A.B. Lincoln University, 1894. Served as a minister in Oregon.

There is at least one other possible Black student whose enrollment I have not been able to confirm. Topeka’s Colored Citizen reported on October 19, 1900 that Richard Spaulding, said to be a Princeton University graduate student, had been denied naturalization in a court in Trenton on the basis “that the federal laws permit the naturalization of white males only.” Spaulding was from Dutch Guiana (Suriname).

I will continue to seek records that may help me to identify Black students who attended Princeton prior to 1946. Our work is ongoing. If you know of others we may be able to add to this list, or have more information about the students listed here, please let us know.

Sources:

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton

Directory of the Graduates and Former Students of Princeton College (1896)

General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906 (1906)

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Lincoln University College and Theological Seminary Biographical Catalogue (1918)

This Week in Princeton History for January 20-26

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Graduate School reports increased diversity, gym users ask for protection from prying eyes, and more.

January 20, 1949—At “the first 11:00 catharsis in 15 years,” students celebrate the end of final exams with flaming tennis balls and a mock war.

January 21, 1970—The Daily Princetonian reports on an increase in the diversity of the Graduate School’s student population: Black enrollment, at 2.5% (38 students), is seven times what it was in 1967 and a 50% increase in the number of women since 1966 has brought the total number of female graduate students to 200.

Graph showing Graduate School enrollment 1964-1972. Graduate School Records (AC127), Box 67.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 6-12

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, many are curious about a veil hanging outside a window, undergraduates write poetry about their fears of a chickenpox epidemic, and more.

January 6, 1877—A green veil hanging outside a Dickinson Hall window sparks curiosity.

Dickinson Hall, ca. 1870s. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP037, Image No. 1063.

January 7, 1940—Undergraduates hang a poem on the doorknob of Princeton president Harold W. Dodds’s office expressing fears of a chickenpox epidemic and requesting that classes be called off to prevent it:

Chicken pox’ll get us;

It’s a dangerous disease.

There should be two weeks’ recess;

Give it to us, please.

January 8, 1990—For the first time, Princeton’s faculty begins the process of revoking a Ph.D. The student’s dissertation has been found to have been extensively plagiarized.

January 11, 1817—Students from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) join with students from Princeton Theological Seminary to form a tract society.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for May 13-19

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, two professors accuse a third of stealing from them, Princeton’s first Japanese Ph.D. writes about his experiences on campus, and more.

May 13, 1869—Despite worries that bad weather would prevent women from attending Class Day, the Nassau Literary Review reports that they filled the Chapel.

College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1869 Class Day program. Note that school colors had not yet been chosen, so the program sported a red, white, and blue theme. Princeton University Class Records (AC130), Box 7.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 26-December 2

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, graduates react to the possible admission of female undergraduates, a dean’s comments in a local newspaper arouse concern, and more.

November 26, 1968—The Princeton Alumni Weekly prints several letters responding to the Patterson Report, which has concluded that Princeton would benefit from admitting female undergraduates. Logan McKee ’48 writes, “Mixing, ‘integrating’ and polluting seem to be the trend of the times, so it is natural that the mixers would want to homogenize Princeton. Of course this is just the next natural step in the pollution process. Long ago they removed the Presbyterian religious bias, the prep-school, the fraternity and the white race preference, and the School’s independence from government grants—so why not remove its last distinction, that of being a men’s college? Then Princeton can be as ‘democratic’ and just as friendly, folksy and mediocre as any outstate A. & M. institution.”

November 28, 1989—The Dean of the Graduate School’s comments in the Trenton Times alarm graduate students, including his assertion that “I think that a graduate student ought to be here to study 120 percent. I worry very, very much that a graduate student has so much time available to worry about a social life.”

Editorial cartoon from the Daily Princetonian. This cartoon refers to later claims the dean made that graduate students should not be offered housing after their second year of study.

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“Studying Is Fine, but Living Has Been Another Problem”: Mary Procter *71 and Coeducation at Princeton

Earlier this year, I began telling the story of the female graduate students who paved the way for undergraduate coeducation at Princeton University starting in 1961. This blog continues that story with a focus on Mary Procter *71 (often misspelled as Mary Proctor *71) and her unusually influential role while a Princeton graduate student.

Procter got then-Provost William Bowen’s attention with a 1968 letter to the Daily Princetonian that took campus men to task for their treatment of the few undergraduate women who were in Princeton classrooms at the time as exchange students in the Critical Languages Program. Procter made vague reference to the fact that the band had referred to these women as “cunning linguists” and made other crude jokes about them during the halftime show at the Princeton-Harvard game. Anonymously signing her letter as simply “Female Graduate Student,” Procter had written, “I had always thought that men’s universities produced men, lusty and bawdy if you will, but not sniggering sickly creatures, obsessed with double meanings which suggest that they are not interested in girls so much as lollipops or bits of mashed potato.” Procter later said she wrote in to the Prince because she was “furious” and felt “Princeton does not deserve to be coed.”

Jackie Johnson *70, Katie Marshall *69, and Mary Procter *71. Photo from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 13, 1969.

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This Week in Princeton History for March 19-25

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Langston Hughes recites poetry, a third of the women in the Graduate School drop out, and more.

March 19, 1877—At a temperance meeting on campus, nine students sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol.

March 22, 1928—Langston Hughes recites poetry in Alexander Hall.

March 23, 1987—Dragoljub Cetkovic, a former Princeton University graduate student, confesses to poisoning a tea bag at a local grocery store.

March 25, 1963—The Daily Princetonian reports that a third of the female students in the Graduate School are dropping out.

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian. For more on the early history of women in the Graduate School, see our previous post on this topic.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

“The End of a Monastery”: Princeton’s First Female Graduate Students

The Princeton University Graduate Announcement for 1961-1962 warned potential applicants, “Admissions are normally limited to male students.” Yet this “adverbial loophole,” as the Daily Princetonian termed it, left room for some admissions that were not “normal” for Princeton at the time. Within the loophole, dozens of women became degree candidates before the advent of undergraduate coeducation.

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian, October 1, 1962.

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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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This Week in Princeton History for January 1-7

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Baker Memorial Rink opens, the status of graduate alumni is in dispute, and more.

January 1, 1891—Students gather to ring in the new year, but become so absorbed in their recreational activities that they mostly fail to notice that midnight has come and gone. Undeterred from their original plan, they march through town in the early hours of the morning and wake residents with loud singing and horn blasts.

January 3, 1777—George Washington and the Continental Army defeat the British at the Battle of Princeton.

Princeton long celebrated Washington’s birthday as a major holiday. Programs for the day’s events like this one from 1897 usually commemorated his 1777 victory on the Princeton campus. Washington’s Birthday Records (AC200).

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