The Department of African American Studies at Princeton University provides an exciting and innovative model for teaching and research about African-descended people, with a central focus on their experiences in the United States. We embody this mission in a curriculum that reflects the complex interplay between the political, economic, and cultural forces that shape our understanding of the historic achievements and struggles of African-descended people in this country and around the world.
The History of AAS at Princeton University
Before we can unwrap the History and desire for African American Studies at Princeton, we must first trace the journey of African Americans at Princeton University. In early 20th century, correspondence between a Princeton University administrator and W.E.B. Du Bois, the administrator wrote:
"We have never had any colored students here, though there is nothing in the University statutes to prevent their admission. It is possible, however, in our proximity to the South and the large number of Southern students here, that Negro students would find Princeton less comfortable than some other institutions." Unsurprisingly, African American students in the 1930's and 1940's who attempted to earn an education at Princeton University found varying levels of success.
In 1955, Professor Charles T. Davis joined the faculty of Princeton as an Assistant Professor of English, becoming the first Black Professor. This marked the beginning of a shift at Princeton University and the intellectual contributions of African Americans on campus. President Robert Goheen's presidency, spanning from 1956 to 1972, would usher in an even greater amount of racial diversity among the student body, faculty, and staff, but it still would be years before the intellectual contributions of African American people were taught or studied at Princeton.
In 1962 a "Race Relations Conference", organized by the Roger Williams Strauss Council on Human Relations, welcomed professors and novelists to present papers on the historical, political, psychological, and cultural aspects of Black life in America since World War II. The 24 participants, including Ralph Ellison, Benjamin Quarles, Donald Matthews, and Thomas Pettigrew, discussed a plan for the next two years of studying African American Culture and Life. The efforts that followed at Princeton looked more towards increasing participation of Black people as students, staff, and faculty than engaging directly with African American Studies.
In 1967, Princeton President Goheen welcomed a conference, "The Future of the Negro Undergraduate," which attracted undergraduate students from across the country. Unfortunately, without African American intellectual thought at the core, the conference topics (such as "barriers for the ghetto dweller") and other proposals simply mimicked political talking points of the day instead of newer advancements in Black Studies.
A faculty steering committee was established on the heels of the "Future of the Negro Undergraduate" conference, and a subsequent report was released at the end of July 1969.
The Baumol Report recommended establishing a program of research and teaching in Afro-American culture be given the highest priority, noting "Though the program will be open to all students, one of its advantages will be to make this campus more hospitable for the Black students who are arriving in increasing numbers". Princeton's African American Studies Program was among dozens of Black studies programs established in United States colleges and universities in 1969.
By the end of the 1970-71 academic year, the Program had a total of twenty-eight certificate students and six graduate certificate students. In 1973-1974, the Program recruited Professor Howard Taylor from Syracuse University to bring new life to the five-year-old Program, which had four directors in four years.
In the 1980s, with the stellar appointments of John Jemmott, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, and Nell Painter, the Program took on a new life. Professor Painter and Morrison were the first female African American faculty and among the first of any women to teach at Princeton.
In 2005, President Shirley Tilghman convened an Ad Hoc Committee to reflect on the future of African American Studies at Princeton. The committee was chaired by Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. Drawing on the recommendations of a 1987 Self-Study, Professor Nell Painter's recommendations, and Professor Valerie Smith's stewardship, the committee recommended in 2006 the formation of the Center for African American Studies with Professor Smith as founding director, and the Center moved from Dickinson Hall to its new home, Stanhope Hall. The Center established many signature offerings and events that helped achieve a high profile that continues to this day. A faculty-graduate seminar started, an Advisory Council was established, and many key lecture events like the Toni Morrison Lecture Series, the James Baldwin Lecture, and the Reflections on African American Studies Lecture began. A strong core faculty emerged in these years, and sole appointments in African American Studies began. In 2009, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. was appointed chair.
In the summer of 2015 under the leadership of our current chair Eddie Glaude, the University Board of Trustees voted to create a new department for African American Studies. With the status of department, undergraduate students gained the option to concentrate in African American Studies. The graduates in the Class of 2018, a cohort of 10 students, are the first group of students to make this particular history. From that class (through 2020), 22 students have concentrated in AAS. In fact, from 1972 - 2020, 1,121 students have graduated with certificates in AAS.
With the six fully appointed and eight jointly appointed faculty members, along with the historic move to Morrison Hall in Fall 2021, the Legacy of African American Studies at Princeton University continues to grow.