Princeton and Apartheid: The 1978 Nassau Hall Sit-In

Princeton di-vest!
Oh yeah

Just like the rest!
Oh yeah

And if you don’t!
Oh yeah

We will not rest!
Oh yeah

We gonna fight
And fight

And keep on fightin’ some more
Princeton di-vest!

(Student protest chant, quoted in Princeton Alumni Weekly 24 April 1978)

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Protest Signs, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

Following the recent “Coming Back: Reconnecting Princeton’s Black Alumni” conference, we wanted to take a closer look an issue that involved Princeton’s Association of Black Collegians: policies on South African investment during apartheid. Relatively recent events in the University’s history often challenge researchers, since many of our archival records related to the history of Princeton are initially restricted (most commonly for a period of 40 years). Yet we can still learn a great deal about how Princetonians addressed apartheid’s moral questions through our open collections.

Princeton first articulated its stand on this issue in 1969, partly in response to a February 26 student rally sponsored by a coalition of black and white student groups at Princeton, The United Front on South Africa. They asked Princeton to divest stock in 39 companies. On March 4, University President Robert F. Goheen publicly outlined University policy on investment in companies doing business in South Africa and presented six steps Princeton was willing to take in response to these concerns. Although Goheen promised that Princeton would let these companies know their feelings about apartheid, he said that Princeton should not fully divest. In his statement, Goheen reasoned that these companies “derive on average less than one percent of their sales and profits from southern Africa” and that divesting would not have a “substantial prospect” of meaningful impact on apartheid. Meanwhile, he argued, Princeton would suffer the loss of $3.5 million in income, which would hinder its ability to carry out its educational mission. Far from satisfying the United Front, Princeton’s stated policies provoked the Association of Black Collegians to stage a sit-in at New South Hall, which then held the University’s administrative offices. Students for a Democratic Society, a predominantly white student group, also participated. (See Office of the Provost Records (AC195), Box 23, Folder 3).

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Cannon Green protest, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

Such protests became relatively common throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in January 1977, a new student group, the People’s Front for the Liberation of South Africa, took the lead in organizing them. After 32 consecutive days of picketing in front of Nassau Hall in March and April 1978, the students entered the building and stayed there. Some students kept vigil outside, while the others organized themselves into “cells” of 4-5 students inside. Spending the night under a half-moon while the bronze tigers flanking the steps held candles in their paws that cast somber shadows on their faces, one student said, “Somehow…I don’t think this building will ever seem the same to any one of us again.” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, 24 April 1978)

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Nassau Hall protest, ca. 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 33.

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This Week in Princeton History for October 6-12

For last week’s installment in our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its students and alumni, click here.

For the week of October 6-12:

Toni Morrison is named a Nobel Laureate, an undergrad gets international attention for a physics paper, and more.

October 6, 1938—Princeton University is selected as one of the world’s libraries holding the Westinghouse Time Capsule Book of Record. The Westinghouse Time Capsule is scheduled to be opened in the year 5939. Those who would like to read the book can find it at Firestone Library.

Time_Capsule_Contents_1938_MC105_Box53

Some of the contents of the Westinghouse Time Capsule before being packed in Bloomfield, New Jersey, 1938. Photo from the G. Edward Pendray Papers (MC105), Box 53.

October 7, 1993—English professor Toni Morrison is the first African-American to be chosen as the Nobel Laureate in literature.

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Toni Morrison celebrates her Nobel Prize win, 1993. Photo from Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 192, Folder 64.

October 9, 1976—The New York Times reports that anti-nuclear activist and Princeton Tiger mascot John Aristotle Phillips ’78 has designed a workable atom bomb using unclassified information for his independent physics project, with the goal of drawing attention to America’s weaknesses to terrorist threats. This will bring Phillips significant notoriety, and result in his own paper being classified by the U.S. government (and it will therefore not be available in the Princeton archives). France and Pakistan will both offer to buy Phillips’s paper, but Phillips will refuse to sell.

John_Aristotle_Phillips_(Center)_To_Tell_the_Truth_21_Mar_1977_PAW

John Aristotle Phillips ’78 (center) during an appearance on the game show “To Tell the Truth.” Photo by Peter Michaelis for the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

October 10, 1920—The reorganized University band debuts as 20 students in black sweaters and white flannels play at halftime of the Maryland football game.

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