Caught Between Tradition and Transformation: Princeton University’s Black Athletes in 1985

Princeton University is an institution self-consciously steeped in tradition, sometimes to an extent that even relatively recent innovations can feel like they’ve been going on for centuries. Yet it has also tried to break free of traditions that have not served it well, like discriminatory admissions policies. Holding these things in tension with one another is at times difficult. Today, we look back at a prior generation’s reflections on what it meant to get caught in the middle between tradition and transformation.

On December 12, 1985, Pat Thompson and Sean O’Sullivan considered the awkward position of Black athletes on campus for the Daily Princetonian’s “Thursday Magazine” feature. They interviewed four athletes: John Thompson ’88, Butch Climmons ’86, Jim Anderson ’86, and Debbi Saint Phard ’87. In opening a conversation about race on campus through the lens of Black athletes, they brought attention to some of the ongoing problems Princeton faced regarding systemic racism, though this was not a term they used. However, not everyone who entered the discussion thought about racism as part of a system, rather than a flaw within individuals.

Princeton University’s varsity football team, September 1985. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 165.

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This Week in Princeton History for August 5-11

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Gleason’s Pictorial praises the institution’s influence, a Confederate flag is missing, and more.

August 6, 1853—Gleason’s Pictorial runs a front-page feature on the College of New Jersey, praising its campus resources (including its four buildings and 12,000-volume library). “This institution has ever taken higher ground, and its influence has been felt in all departments of professional life. Its sons are found in every State, occupying the pulpit, the bar and the forum.”

Illustration from the front page of Gleason’s Pictorial, August 6, 1853. Only a few years later, Nassau Hall would suffer extensive damages in a fire, and repairs in the latter part of the 1850s would enlarge the cupola and add towers to flank the structure on either end; many of these changes were reversed in the 20th century.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 7-13

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Albert Einstein lectures on the Theory of Relativity, the track team competes in the first relay race, and more.

May 7, 1875—The Chicago Tribune editorializes in a comparison between Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey (Princeton), “Princeton is much better known. It is the only college in the country the President of which writes a book a week and thinks nothing of it.”

May 9, 1921—Albert Einstein accepts an honorary Doctor of Science and lectures on his theory of relativity in his native German in McCosh 50. Afterward, Professor E. P. Adams provides an English summary of the talk.

Ticket to lecture on the Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein, May 9, 1921. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 310, Folder 4.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 20-26

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the first collegiate track contest is held on campus, Japanese visitors ceremonially forgive scientists for their role in the development of the atomic bomb, and more.

June 20, 1779—William Richardson Davie (Class of 1776) leads a charge against the British at the Battle of Stono Ferry. He is wounded and falls off his horse, but evades capture.

June 21, 1873—The first collegiate track contest in the United States is held at the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

Caledonian_Games_June_21_AC042_Box_17

Program from Caledonian Games, College of New Jersey (Princeton), June 21, 1873. Athletic Programs Collection (AC042), Box 17, Folder 1.

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