Black History at Princeton

Written by
Julia Chaffers
Feb. 26, 2021

Princeton University

The Princeton & Slavery Project

The Princeton & Slavery Project traces the long-hidden stories of Black people at Princeton. Confronting the university’s ties to slavery, the site collects numerous stories of how Princetonians participated in, reinforced, and challenged the institution. The project started from an undergraduate course, and has grown into the extensive website it is today through a network of partnerships within and beyond the university. The Princeton & Slavery Project chronicles the University’s connections to slavery and how African Americans experienced Princeton as a result of and despite it. Below are some stories of interest:

  • African Americans on Campus, 1746-1876 by Joseph Yannielli

    • “African Americans were a constant presence at the College of New Jersey as servants, support staff, research and teaching assistants, and students. They labored under harsh conditions on a campus dominated by racism and white supremacy.”

  • James Collins Johnson: The Princeton Fugitive Slave by Lolita Buckner Inniss

    • “James Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave freed after an 1843 trial in Princeton, became a prominent figure in town and on campus over the course of his many decades working at the College of New Jersey.” In 2018, the University named one of the arches in East Pyne Hall after Johnson. 

  • Betsey Stockton by Gregory Nobles

    • “Betsey Stockton (1798?-1865), a former slave of Princeton president Ashbel Green, became a prominent and respected educator in Princeton, Philadelphia, and the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii).” In 2018, the University named a garden between Firestone Library and Nassau Street after Stockton. 

  • “The Celebrated Alexander Dumas Watkins”: Princeton’s First Black Instructor by R. Isabela Morales

    • “Alexander Dumas Watkins (1855-1903), a self-taught biologist, conducted significant scientific research alongside Princeton University professors from the 1880s until his death in 1903. Despite holding no formal academic position, Watkins worked in Princeton’s laboratories and taught courses as the University’s first black instructor—and the last until the 1950s.” 

  • The Witherspoon-Jackson Community by Rina Azumi

    • “The Witherspoon-Jackson community, centered around Witherspoon Street, comprised the heart of Princeton's African-American community during the 19th century.” 

  • Princeton’s Fugitive Slaves by Joseph Yannielli

    • “Princeton residents published at least 28 newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves between 1774 and 1818. Each tells a unique story of courage and resistance in the face of tremendous odds.”

  • Integrating Princeton University: Robert Joseph Rivers by April C. Armstrong

    • “Robert Joseph Rivers (class of 1953) was one of Princeton’s first black undergraduate students and one of the first two black members of the Board of Trustees. While in town and on campus, Rivers witnessed firsthand Princeton’s legacy of privileging the comfort of white southern students over racial justice.”

  • Erased Pasts and Altered Legacies: Princeton’s First African American Students by April C. Armstrong

    • “In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, several African American men attended Princeton as graduate students. Princeton president Woodrow Wilson’s administration may have attempted to erase their presence from institutional memory, creating an inaccurate historical justification for excluding black students from the university.”

The Daily Princetonian’s special issue on Black activism:

In this special issue from March 2019, the Daily Princetonian explored the myriad moments of Black activism in Princeton’s history, from the 1960s up through today. The issue starts in March of 1969 by recounting Black students’ occupation of New South to pressure the University into divesting from companies supporting apartheid. It then explores the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood of Princeton, and ongoing efforts to preserve this historically black area of town. Moving to the present, the ‘Prince’ explored how the Black Student Union and AAS department are responding to the current moment. Finally, the ‘Prince’ spoke with members of the Black Justice League. The issue also includes a few op-ed columns about the University’s past and present from apartheid divestment to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. 

2015: The Black Justice League 

In its multi-part project “‘Resurfacing History’: A look back at the Black Justice League’s campus activism,” the Daily Princetonian dove deep into the BJL’s 2015 Nassau Hall sit-in. Through archival research and interviews with former BJL members, the stories recount the activists’ experiences and demands, which reached far beyond removing Woodrow Wilson’s name. Moreover, the BJL alumni reflected on their legacy in 2020 shortly after the University finally did remove Wilson’s name. 

  • Explore an overview of the project here.
  • Read Part I in full here.
  • Read Part II here
2019: Double Sights

In response to the BJL’s demands in 2015, the University commissioned a marker to stand outside the then-Woodrow Wilson school. As the University describes, the marker “attempts to convey an honest reckoning of just who Wilson was. It also is intended to provoke conversation and robust debate as the University continues to strive toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus community.” The marker’s dedication was met with protests from many students as well as many Black alumni who were on campus for the Thrive conference. Moreover, multiple op-eds published in the Daily Princetonian from undergraduates and graduate students criticized the marker. 

2020: Removing Woodrow Wilson’s Name

In the summer of 2020, renewed calls came to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the residential college and policy school. In late June, undergraduate and graduate students wrote open letters demanding changes to the then-Woodrow Wilson School, including dropping Wilson’s name. They also launched the campaign “ChangeWWS Now” to advocate for these reforms. Days later, the Board of Trustees voted to rename the college and school.