Forced labor in Liberia built the Firestone fortune—and transformed Princeton. The story of Firestone, Liberia, and Princeton reveals how racist exploitation entangled and enriched Nassau Hall in the century that followed the U.S. Civil War.
“The purposes of the evening”
On January 29, 1981, Princeton President William G. Bowen (*1958) joined Leonard Firestone (’1931) for a luxurious evening. Firestone, an heir to the fortune amassed through the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, and his wife Nicki met Bowen at Pebble Beach, the California golf resort. The party then flew to Los Angeles, where Leonard hosted an alumni fundraising dinner at the Firestone Room of the California Club.
“Only that morning,” Bowen noted upon his return, Nicki and Leonard had learned devastating news. Peter Firestone (’1962), their 40-year-old nephew, was dead of meningitis.
“Both of them were terribly shocked and saddened,” Bowen recorded, “but they did remarkably well in preventing this family tragedy from distracting them from the purposes of the evening.”
Bowen was on a mission: to convince the Firestones, who had financed Princeton’s world-class library nearly forty years prior, to keep giving. By the time they landed in Los Angeles, Bowen had, “needless to say,” done “everything I could to stress the importance of the Library and the critical need for [Leonard’s] continuing support.”
Peter’s death emboldened Bowen’s efforts. In a thank-you note five days later, he told Nicki and Leonard it would be “splendid” if they funded “an appropriate memorial to Peter.” The next year, the family gave $250,000 to establish the Peter S. Firestone ’62 Common Room in Rockefeller College. A dutiful Bowen welcomed “this warm and generous support from the Firestone family.”
Bowen’s ploy in California had succeeded. “[T]he only problem,” he recalled, “was that, in the nature of things, it took some time to serve the dinner.”
Bowen’s fond remembrance disguised the sordid truth: for more than five decades, the Firestone Company had exploited, oppressed, and perpetrated violence on Black laborers in the West African nation of Liberia. The family’s wealth depended upon what historian Gregg Mitman calls “a plantation world,” where brutal tactics coerced Liberian laborers to tap rubber, white physicians experimented on Black subjects, and the segregationist racism of Jim Crow reigned supreme.
The wealth that the Firestone Company drained from Liberia made Princeton one of the world’s foremost research universities. In 1944, the Firestone family gave $1 million to build the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, which today remains the academic heart of campus. Even while the pall of economic depression hung heavy and World War II still raged, the Firestones paved the way for Princeton’s postwar ascent.
Firestone Library was only the crowning gift in a relationship that spanned decades. Between 1920 and 1981, Harvey Firestone Sr. and his descendants—at least eleven of whom attended Princeton—donated to the University more than 150 times. Firestone money touched every aspect of Princeton, from bookshelves to barbells, chapel pews to chemical pipettes.
Donations flowed from the Company itself, Firestone family members, and a bevy of philanthropic entities, including the Firestone Foundation. By 1970, the Firestones had lavished the University with upwards of $3.58 million and pledged at least $1.3 million more. Adjusted for inflation, their contributions to that point exceeded $39 million.
Large though they were, even those figures may strike us as trifling today, when Princeton nets donations in the hundreds of millions. But Princeton’s astronomical wealth in the 21st century cannot be divorced from Firestone’s fortune in the 20th. The family’s leverage was not lost on President Robert F. Goheen (’1940), Bowen’s predecessor. “While the University grows and changes,” he wrote to Harvey S. Firestone Jr. (’1920) in 1967, “our gratitude for your loyalty never changes, it only grows.”
Three years later, Princeton faced “an acute financial crisis,” precipitated by a national recession and inflation. Goheen told The New York Times that Princeton risked a deficit of $2.5 million; the endowment threatened to dip below $400 million. At a moment that found Princeton vulnerable, past and pledged Firestone gifts totaled $4.89 million. Three generations of the Firestone family had given or pledged more than a dollar of every one hundred in Princeton’s endowment.
By 1970, three generations of the Firestone family had given or pledged more than a dollar of every one hundred in Princeton’s endowment.
Princeton’s indebtedness to Firestone entwines Nassau Hall in the Company’s record of white supremacy. A century after slavery ended in the United States, Princeton continued to profit from the system of forced labor that Firestone devised in Liberia. The story of Firestone, Liberia, and Princeton reveals how racist exploitation entangled and enriched Nassau Hall through the 20th century. To implicate Princeton only in antebellum U.S. slavery ignores the bloody harvest that Firestone sowed and Princeton reaped.
Firestone in Liberia
“Liberia is not faultless,” the Pan-Africanist scholar and renowned activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1933. “But her chief crime,” he continued, “is to be black and poor in a rich, white world; and in precisely that portion of the world where color is ruthlessly exploited as a foundation for American and European wealth.” Liberia’s punishment, Du Bois argued, was to suffer the Firestone Company’s depravations.
In 1926, Harvey Firestone Sr. wrested from the Liberian government a 99-year lease over one million acres, roughly ten percent of the country’s arable land. The concession, secured in collusion with the U.S. State Department, authorized the Ohio-based Firestone Tire & Rubber Company to cultivate millions of rubber trees. In a country founded upon Black freedom, the Firestone rubber plantation became—and remains today—“the largest single natural rubber operation in the world.”
Princeton’s entanglements with Liberia preceded Firestone’s by more than a century. In 1816, a cadre of Princeton-educated ministers and politicians created the American Colonization Society, which sought to relocate emancipated Black Americans to Africa. The ACS established Liberia as a settler colony in 1822. The Society’s white founders hoped that free Black communities, which they perceived as a threat to U.S. slaveholder interests, would spread Christian civilization in West Africa. When Liberia declared independence a quarter-century later, more than 10,000 formerly enslaved Americans had emigrated to Liberia through the ACS.
A century later, the ACS championed Firestone’s arrival in Liberia. Just as white proponents of colonization envisioned Liberia’s Black American founders subduing and edifying the nation’s Indigenous communities, their successors trusted a white U.S. corporation to bring progress. Paternalistic racism underpinned Firestone’s pursuit of profit in Liberia, which Harvey Sr. described as “a child of the United States.” The Company, the industrialist’s biographer would boast in 1951, had brought to “this backward land” “[m]odern plantation standards for thousands of natives only a drumbeat removed from primitive existence.”
Drawing inspiration from the antebellum U.S. South, the Firestone Company created, in the words of historian Ibrahim Sundiata, “its own white imperium in the Black Republic.” The plantation amounted to a network of forced labor camps. Firestone claimed that its food subsidies, healthcare, and education system gave Liberian workers—who tapped rubber up to 11 hours a day, 26 days a month—all they needed. In reality, the Company exploited their labor and controlled their lives.
As early as 1928, Raymond Leslie Buell (*1920, *1923), who taught at Harvard after receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton, concluded that the Company was committing grave abuses. Given that the U.S. State Department and Firestone had gained terms “manifestly unfavorable” to the West African nation, Buell warned that “conditions in Liberia” made “forced labor almost inevitable.” He argued that Firestone’s carte blanchesurpassed even the impunity enjoyed by colonial powers, which were at least “responsible to European opinion” and “subject to some form of restraint.”
Firestone’s plantation project began with the forcible removal of Indigenous Bassa communities. Firestone envisioned a workforce of 350,000—by Buell’s estimate, the total male population of Liberia. The Company trusted Liberia’s powerbrokers to fill quotas that could never be met voluntarily. The government violently relocated thousands of workers, dozens of whom were recorded to have perished. Firestone sparked diplomatic scandal in 1926, when white staff, including a medical researcher from Harvard, beat a Liberian chauffeur.
Two years later, prominent Black nationalist Marcus Garvey alerted the League of Nations that Firestone treated its Liberian laborers as “virtual slaves.” Firestone, Garvey wrote, was “against the best interests of Liberia, and the natives thereof, and the Negro race at large, for whom the Republic of Liberia was intended.”
The scathing criticism from Buell, Garvey, and others panicked Firestone and the State Department, which devised a “preemptive strike” against Liberia. U.S. diplomats alleged that Liberia was practicing slavery—a charge that scandalized the world’s second-oldest Black republic. Spurred by U.S. complaints, the League of Nations investigated the allegations. The League found Liberia’s Black political elite guilty of forced labor and other practices akin to slavery, including coercing laborers to work at the Firestone plantation. The League vindicated the Company of wrongdoing, finding “no evidence that the Firestone Plantations Company consciously employs any but voluntary labour on its leased plantations.”
The white supremacy of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (’1879) loomed large in the League’s conclusions. Although the U.S. never joined the League, it was Wilson who designed its terms of membership. Political scientists such as Adom Getachew have argued that the League’s Wilsonian structure disadvantaged non-European member states, including Liberia. Wilson’s design, Getachew argues, led the League to champion white capital, exemplified by Firestone, at Liberia’s expense.
Though the League absolved Firestone, conditions on the plantation recalled the U.S. South before abolition. Tapping latex, the most important ingredient in natural rubber, was grueling and dangerous work. Each laborer covered some 300 trees daily. Upon finishing, laborers shouldered two brimming pails of latex, a load that could exceed one hundred pounds. Until 1950, the Company paid tappers 18 cents per day—“a wage rate,” historian Gregg Mitman writes, “less than half of what unskilled laborers earned across much of colonial West Africa and 1 percent of what a factory worker earned in Firestone’s Akron, Ohio, plant.” Buell’s nightmare had come to pass.
The Company’s abuses in Liberia were not an anomaly. Racism pulsed through the corporation that Harvey Firestone Sr. built within the United States. The Company’s housing development outside of Akron, Ohio, barred Black residents. Firestone’s Akron factory almost exclusively employed white workers. While the Company assimilated European immigrants into an American myth of whiteness, it reserved the lowest-paying and most dangerous roles for African American workers.
Likewise, the rules of Jim Crow segregation governed the plantation’s hospitals, schools, and social spaces. By the late 1940s, fewer than 200 white Firestone managers oversaw more than 25,000 Liberian laborers.The Company’s white staff enjoyed amenities, such as a nine-hole golf course and social club, that barred anyone of African descent, including Liberian dignitaries. Not until 1958 could Liberia overcome Firestone’s opposition and pass legislation that outlawed segregation within its borders. Nonetheless, Firestone refused to desegregate the plantation’s schools—four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
To combat the risks that infectious disease posed to the plantation’s productivity, the Firestone Company embraced medical racism. In 1931, the year Leonard Firestone graduated from Princeton, the Company administered plasmoquine, a potentially lethal antimalarial, to more than 250 plantation residents, including children. Medical staff claimed the Liberian subjects showed no adverse effects. The Company’s research institute for tropical medicine, which Harvey Firestone Jr. endowed amid the philanthropic spree that included Princeton’s Firestone Library, became a locus of racist experimentation. In 1958, the same year that Princeton accepted at least $13,700 from Harvey Sr.’s sons, white researchers infected dozens of Black staff and residents—including two infants—with a live strain of malaria.
Neither the passing of decades nor the Black Freedom Movement in the United States uprooted Firestone’s enclave of white supremacy. World War II had propelled the Company, which supplied the U.S. military and made its plantation an Allied airbase, to corporate dominance. In 1963, tens of thousands of Firestone’s Liberian laborers went on strike, protesting the Company’s cuts to food subsidies. The Company enlisted Liberian troops to retaliate. At least one worker is believed to have been killed. The plantation’s oppressive order returned when Firestone reinstated the subsidies.
During Liberia’s successive civil wars, which spanned from 1989 to 2003, the Company sought to keep rubber flowing. In 1992, Firestone recognized war criminal Charles Taylor as Liberia’s president, giving his regime more than $2.3 million in tax revenue. Taylor, in turn, allowed business as usual. When Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia occupied the plantation in 1990, the Company assured all staff they would be safe. Days later, Firestone evacuated only U.S. personnel, leaving an untold number of Liberian employees to be massacred.
Firestone, today a subsidiary of Japanese auto giant Bridgestone, still champions its legacy of racism, violence, and exploitation in Liberia. “Firestone Natural Rubber,” a corporate website reads, “has been a trusted partner of the people and country of Liberia for more than 90 years.”
Princeton has long propagated the Company’s paternalistic narrative. “It has been said, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” President Goheen wrote to Harvey Jr. in 1969. “One thing I do know, that wherever the name of Firestone is heard, warmth and enlightenment are sure to abound.” The next year, he asked the Firestones to fund a professorship in African Studies, citing “the Company’s long-established and forward-looking interest in Africa.”
Although Princeton’s leaders never acknowledged Firestone’s forced labor, latex seeped into every gift that the family made. The Firestones often donated corporate equity, making Nassau Hall a shareholder to which the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company was accountable.
The Firestones often donated corporate equity, making Nassau Hall a shareholder to which the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company was accountable.
Between 1946 and 1972, the Firestones gifted Princeton more than 24,000 shares of common stock of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, making at least one transfer every year between 1956 and 1970. Excluding 7,700 shares whose worth went unrecorded, the Firestone stock inventoried by Princeton neared $698,000—roughly a fifth of the value of all Firestone donations made to 1970. The shares’ number and worth may exceed the recorded amounts. Table 1 (below) gives a representative selection of gifts, both of stock and from other sources, that Firestone family members and corporate entities made to Princeton between 1957 and 1967.
Despite those sums, the University was a modest shareholder. The Malkiel Report, which Goheen commissioned in 1968 to assess the University’s investments in apartheid South Africa, found that Princeton held 21,849 Firestone shares. Of 29 million Firestone shares then outstanding, Princeton controlled 0.075 percent. Indeed, Firestone’s coffers eclipsed Princeton’s. Compared to the University’s $400 million endowment, Fortune 500 reported that Firestone shareholders’ equity in 1970 surpassed one billion dollars.
Less than a decade later, the fight for racial justice led two of Princeton’s institutional peers to divest from the Firestone fortune. In 1978, Smith College and Hampshire College sold a combined $726,000 of Firestone stock. The Company’s dealings with apartheid South Africa, rather than its abuses in Liberia, motivated their decisions.
Hampshire’s then-president, Adele Simmons, had left her role as Princeton’s first woman dean the year before. In the 1970s and ’80s, anti-apartheid activists decried Princeton’s holdings in Firestone’s South African subsidiary. Calls for Princeton to sell its Firestone stock, which activists estimated between $1.1 and $1.6 million, crescendoed in 1978, the year of a Nassau Hall sit-in. But the University never abandoned the family whose generosity, as President Harold W. Dodds (*1914) remarked in 1955, “continues to add lustre to the name of Princeton throughout the world.”
Three Princeton presidents—Dodds, Goheen, and Bowen—cultivated four decades of friendship and collaboration with the Firestones. In 1969, Goheen wrote to Harvey Jr. of “one of my favorite privileges -- telling the Firestone Family, individual and corporate, how much their help means to Princeton, to her students, her faculty, and, of course, to me.” The presidents who bookended his term were no less effusive. It was the bonds forged between Princeton and Firestone’s white male executives that coiled the two institutions together.
Harvey Jr., the man most responsible for Firestone’s abuses in Liberia, enjoyed the closest ties with Princeton. The eldest of five brothers, all of whom attended Princeton, Harvey Jr. was heir apparent to his father’s empire. Mitman writes that Harvey Jr. had already received an “education in racism and segregation” by the time he entered the University.Yearbooks from Harvey Jr.’s elite North Carolina boarding school frequently show white students partaking in blackface minstrelsy, while Firestone family records document how Black domestic laborers served Harvey Jr.’s every whim.
Tasked by his father to survey the globe for plantation sites, Harvey Jr. proposed Liberia. Five years after graduating from Princeton, he took control of the Firestone Plantations Company, the forerunner of Firestone Liberia. As Time magazine reported in 1928, “U. S. industrialism went to Africa, in the person of white-helmeted, soft-spoken Harvey Samuel Firestone Jr.” In 1946, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company named Harvey Jr. CEO, a mantle he would hold for the next seventeen years.
A friend and confidant to Dodds and Goheen, Harvey Jr. served as a University trustee for thirty years. As the family’s most loyal and generous donor to Princeton, Harvey Jr. orchestrated the gift that funded Firestone Memorial Library. “[I]n a thousand days and in a thousand ways,” Goheen wrote to Harvey Jr. three years after the latter retired from Princeton’s board, “I never really could thank you adequately for all that you do for Princeton.”
Princeton and the Firestone Company were well-suited partners. Just as the Firestones included only white employees in their corporate embrace, Princeton—“the shining citadel of white supremacy,” as one alumnus proclaimed in 1948—denied entry to Black students and students of color. The Company and Princeton alike welcomed Harvey Firestone Sr.’s five sons but excluded their sister. The creation of Firestone Library benefitted the interests of both.
Firestone Library: In the Service of Rubber
Firestone fulfilled Princeton’s decades-long ambition to build a modern research library, the crown jewel that would transform Princeton from a sleepy “college” to a world-class university. Princeton and Firestone conceived of the library as a joint enterprise, whose profits would accrue to both. Their pact wed the library to Firestone’s corporate interests, including its Liberia plantation.
In 1944, Firestone’s Board of Directors stipulated that the new library should advance the Company’s desire “of maintaining its high position in the Rubber Industry." Princeton would educate the public about “the many advantageous uses of rubber in the industrial and commercial fields through an outstanding University Library” and “increase the available supply of men scientifically trained in rubber”—in so many words, prepare white, male students for Firestone careers.
The library would “enure to the benefit of the Company,” which funded the Library “for the advancement of its Corporate interests.” On December 26, 1944, Princeton’s Board of Trustees accepted the gift “on the terms therein specified.”
The Firestones’ gift was a windfall for Princeton. As early as the 1890s, University administrators had ranked a library among Princeton’s greatest needs. Chancellor Green, the first library on campus, wanted for space and light; the dim, octagonal chamber could hold no more than 100,000 volumes.
In 1897, University trustee Moses Taylor Pyne (’1877) underwrote a new library, which abutted Chancellor Green—what is today East Pyne Hall. Praised as Princeton’s first experiment in Collegiate Gothic architecture, “Pyne Library” belied the fortune its benefactor had inherited, in part, from enslaved labor in the U.S. South and Cuba.
Princeton’s holdings, however, soon outpaced the 700,000 volumes that East Pyne could contain. While Harvard and Yale broke ground on spectacular new facilities, Princeton stored books wherever space was to be found, including in dormitories and the crypt beneath the newly-built University Chapel. By the 1930s, students complained that finding a book required crisscrossing campus. The Great Depression stymied efforts to streamline the system.
According to historian James Axtell, the lack of an adequate library had become “a serious brake on Princeton’s rise to academic prominence.” So “untenable” was the state of affairs, he notes, that the trustees approved a new library “even before the outcome of [World War II] was certain and all of the funds for construction were in hand.”
The Firestones first donated to Princeton nearly two decades before they memorialized their patriarch with a library—and even before they entered Liberia. Between 1920 and 1926, while their two eldest sons attended Princeton, Idabelle and Harvey Firestone Sr. gave $40,000 to fund a room in the student infirmary. But it was not until 1938, the year that Harvey Sr. died and his eldest son, Harvey Jr., became a trustee, that the Princeton-Firestone bond began in earnest.
Harold W. Dodds, president since 1933, fostered a warm friendship with Harvey Jr. The two men exchanged counsel and asked favors of one another. Although both were University trustees, they often shielded their consultations from Princeton’s Board.
Dodds, for example, asked Harvey, Jr. “confidentially” in 1939 whether he should invite Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford and a potential Princeton donor, to a football game. In 1945, Harvey Jr. urged Dodds to petition the president of Colgate University to bestow an honorary degree upon a Firestone employee.
The University’s archives do not record when Dodds first suggested to Harvey Jr. that his family finance a new library for Princeton. In November 1943, he wrote to Harvey Jr. of “certain conversations we had about the Library some time ago. They were of a most confidential nature and the Trustees do not know anything about them.”
Dodds stressed the problem that had dogged his predecessors: Princeton needed a new library—and fast. Princeton’s “failure to produce on this project over a period now running to fifteen years,” he warned, “is becoming a disgrace to the University and a reflection on the Board itself.” He hoped Harvey Jr. would help his alma mater.
Dodds acknowledged the unseemly optics of his request, given that Harvey Jr. had begun his term as a powerful Charter Trustee not six months before. “You know as well as I do that entirely other considerations moved the Board to your unanimous election,” Dodds wrote. “I really am ashamed to mention the matter and would not except that it clears my conscience to do so.”
Whatever Harvey Jr. made of his friend’s overture, he complied. Within three months, Dodds and Harvey Jr. had met to discuss the library further. Dodds pledged to “respect your confidence in the matter and therefore am not revealing it to any of the Trustees individually.”
By January 1945, Dodds informed the Board of the Firestone family’s imminent gift. He proclaimed that the library would commemorate Harvey Firestone Sr., “a gentleman who understood and sympathized with the highest ideals of the University.”
Over the decades that followed, Princeton and the Firestones framed the library as “the one really lasting memorial” to Harvey Sr. Replete with his name, bust, and portrait, the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library lionized the man credited for bringing “the American working day” to Africa.
But neither nostalgia nor goodwill had moved the Firestones to underwrite the library. Rather, the library benefitted the family’s corporate interests. As per the terms quoted above, Princeton agreed that the new library should propagandize rubber in general and the Firestone Company in particular. A “section devoted to the history and development of Natural and Synthetic Rubber, and the Rubber Industry in all its phases and activities” would target “at all times” both the public and Princeton students.
The description that the Firestone Company gave of Princeton reveals its self-interest. Upon authorizing an inaugural $250,000 to fund the library, the Company noted that Princeton, “a corporation existing under the laws of the State of New Jersey,” “offers advanced courses and carries on extensive research work in the fields of Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering, which have wide application in the development in the Rubber Industry, and has engaged in important research projects in the field of Rubber.”
The next year, Dodds dedicated the Firestone Company’s new research laboratory in Akron, Ohio. Introducing his “very good friend,” Harvey Jr. explained, “we naturally thought of asking Doctor Harold Willis Dodds to be our speaker. I say ‘naturally’ because, Doctor Dodds is one of the nation's foremost advocates of scientific research.” Harvey Jr. and Dodds drew no distinction between the interests of their respective institutions. Dodds’ presence underscored the benefits that Princeton brought to Firestone—and mattered enough for Harvey Jr. to postpone the ceremony until Dodds recovered from a brief illness.
Firestone transacted with Princeton, whose scientific curriculum was a boon to the rubber industry. To the Company, building the library—and tapping into Princeton’s brain trust—was business.
On June 16, 1947, all five Firestone sons gathered to see the library’s cornerstone laid. “It is a family privilege to have a part in this treasure house of knowledge,” Harvey Jr. remarked. Dodds waxed poetic about the coming library, designed to hold some two million volumes: “In a library where the barriers between young men and the company of the great are broken, the past speaks its wisdom to the present which can then prepare for the future.”
Harvey Jr. and Dodds had good reason to contemplate the future. Both understood that the library was an ongoing investment, rather than a one-time gift. Time and again, the Firestones would finance projects to expand and modernize the library, one of the world’s largest open-stack facilities.
To the extent that the Firestones advanced their interests through the library, so too did the institution that had educated them. Since the 1930s, the Friends of the Princeton University Library, which comprised wealthy alumni who collected books, had lobbied Dodds to build a new library. The University’s antiquarian “friends” knew that a world-class library would entice fellow alumni to give their rare books and other memorabilia to Princeton.
Firestone Library stood to profit Princeton, both by bringing “treasures” into its possession and by burnishing its reputation. “The new Library will, in a substantial degree, be a University in itself,” Princeton announced in 1945. “As a safe and ideal repository of books, it will attract notable collections to its shelter and care. As the capstone of our preceptorial system, it will strengthen teaching. And as a Library built for the use of books, it will be a powerhouse for creative scholarship.”
Recent years have revealed how ingeniously Firestone and Princeton made their plan. In 2015, Princeton received the largest gift in its history: the $300 million rare books and manuscripts collection of William Scheide (’1936). Scheide bequeathed his holdings to Firestone Library, where curators painstakingly reconstructed his father’s personal study. Seven decades after the Firestones financed the library, their gift still gave to Princeton.
Firestone and the Question of African Studies
In the autumn of 1968, Raymond Firestone (’1933) welcomed a personal guest to Harbel, the seat of the Company’s Liberia plantation and a portmanteau of “Harvey” and “Idabelle,” his parents’ names. Raymond, then Chairman of the Firestone Company, was hosting David Probst, Princeton’s director of corporate relations.
Probst’s five days in Liberia marked the first stop on a planned tour of the Company’s global empire. “[Raymond] is personally arranging for me to visit their operations in Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines when I am on vacation in Japan this summer,” Probst wrote in a memo to Princeton President Goheen’s office. “He asked that I send him a detailed itinerary and said that he would handle the arrangements.” Thirteen years later, Probst would plead guilty to misappropriating University funds for personal travel.
While at the plantation, Probst broached an idea as obvious as it was out of place: that the Firestones fund Princeton’s program in African Studies. Raymond cautioned, “they have many requests for support of African Studies but, thus far, have not supported any.” He counseled Probst to seek $125,000 from Firestone’s Corporate Grants Committee.
For Raymond and his aging brothers, the times were good. The 1960s found Firestone a household name and a mainstay of the global economy. The Firestone Company had ranked among the Fortune 100 largest U.S. corporations since the list began in 1955. The scandal of defective radial tires that would tarnish Firestone’s reputation among U.S. consumers was years away. And even as the Black Freedom Movement strove for multiracial democracy in the United States, Firestone continued to exploit Liberia.
Princeton, however, was at a crossroads. The Civil Rights Movement gave the University, long the Ivy League’s most “southern” and overtly white supremacist member, no choice but to admit increasing numbers of Black students. On a campus that opposed their presence and denigrated their experiences, Black undergraduates—who in 1967 numbered 56—forced a reckoning.
Two years before Probst visited Harbel, a pair of Black Princeton students, Paul Williams (’1968) and A. Deane Buchanan (’1968), founded the Association of Black Collegians (ABC), a group that supported Black students and confronted racism at Princeton. Their mentor was Carl A. Fields, Princeton and the Ivy League’s first African American dean. ABC members, drawing inspiration from the Black Power movement, were among the first students in the U.S. to demand that their university divest from apartheid.
Princeton held $127 million, nearly a third of its endowment, in some 40 companies with subsidiaries in South Africa. Firestone, South Africa’s largest tire manufacturer, was central among them.
Princeton held $127 million, nearly a third of its endowment, in some 40 companies with subsidiaries in South Africa. Firestone, South Africa’s largest tire manufacturer, was central among them.
In the spring of 1968, student demonstrations compelled Goheen to form a committee that would assess Princeton’s investments in South Africa and consider divestment. Chaired by economics professor Burton G. Malkiel (*1964), the committee included four faculty members, one administrator, and five students. Four of the student members were Black.
The Malkiel Report, released in January 1969, rejected divestment and instead advised Princeton to voice its opposition to apartheid. The four Black students dissented. “No real validity was given to our insights and understanding of the South African situation derived from our experiences as black people,” William Scott (*1972) and Carl Spight (*1971) wrote. The white student on the committee endorsed their position.
The Report intuited that divestment would cost Princeton dearly—and invite scrutiny beyond companies with South African subsidiaries. “The problem is that once the precedent had been established, a case could be made for avoiding investment in virtually any company,” the authors cautioned.They feared that Princeton’s investments in “companies with ‘unfair’ labor practices,” among many others, would be next.
Thus, the Report sought to vindicate corporations such as Firestone. “Many of the designated companies,” the authors claimed, “pursue notably progressive policies in their domestic operations or in their business relationships in other parts of Africa.” The Report cited Xerox’s support for “social progress” in the United States. Whom else the authors meant was unsaid.
estone has been associated with almost every major Princeton effort to enhance her program and facilities. Naturally it is our hope that you will join us in our current undertaking.” There was cause for optimism. The year before, Princeton had secured $89,000 from the Ford Foundation to launch its program in African American Studies.
Furthermore, the Firestone family had supported educational programs for Black students. Roger S. Firestone (’1935) was a longtime trustee of Lincoln University, the oldest degree-granting historically Black college in the United States. In 1963, Roger asked Goheen to join Lincoln’s development board—an invitation that Goheen had accepted.
Goheen’s proposal came at a fraught moment. 1970 was the year when Princeton’s finances flagged and Firestone donations amounted to more than one percent of the endowment. Later that year, scholar Blyden Johnson would find Firestone to be “in complete cooperation with the South African government.” Upon receiving the Malkiel Report’s list of designated companies, Goheen himself had authorized a student-faculty committee to determine “the extent of each company’s involvement and the nature of its operations in all of southern Africa.” Firestone’s were significant. The month before Goheen sent the African Studies proposal, the committee reported that Firestone’s South African subsidiary both manufactured and sold tires, employing “about 1,550 South Africans, 40% Europeans and 60% non-Europeans.”
Goheen requested a $600,000 endowment or a renewable five-year grant of $26,000 annually—both of which were higher than what Raymond Firestone had suggested to Probst. The endowed post, Goheen wrote, “would bring to our campus each year a distinguished scholar, teacher, or author expert [sic] in some sector of Africa’s multifarious peoples and cultures.”
Goheen stressed Princeton’s noble intentions. A foreword that bore his signature appealed to “the hope of furthering understanding between the peoples of Africa and the United States … of gaining new insights into the aspirations of mankind through an understanding of the past and the emerging promise of the future.”
The rhetoric outpaced his request. Goheen described Princeton’s African Studies program as “a flexible, interdisciplinary system of course and research offerings that encompasses and draws upon virtually every department of instruction in the humanities and social sciences.” It was for the program’s own benefit, Goheen wrote, that African Studies lacked structure. “The African Program is not designed to simulate either the traditional structure of a self-contained academic ‘Department’ or the micro-university organization of an independent ‘Center,’” the proposal elaborated.
Princeton withheld departmental status from both African and African American Studies. In addition to the programs’ “interdisciplinarity,” administrators cited expedience. When the faculty first considered a program in African American Studies, Nassau Hall advised “a programmatic rather than departmental set-up,” given “that the former can be established faster and with less financial difficulty.”
The decision flew in the face of the change sought by Black students, who struggled just to enroll in Princeton’s handful of African and African American Studies courses. In the weeks leading to their New South occupation, ABC leaders called for Princeton to make the African American Studies program a department. Princeton would not do so until 2015.
Goheen’s 1970 proposal noted that African Studies “is also related to another program that has just been formally established; this is the Program in Afro-American Studies, for which African Studies provides a historical and comparative basis.” Goheen echoed the Malkiel Report, which suggested that programs about Africa “could be related to the present discussion of Afro-American studies.” His gesture to the burgeoning field of African American Studies would, however, help to doom the request.
In May, Goheen flew to Akron, Ohio, where he discussed the proposal with Raymond Firestone and Harvey Firestone Jr. The nation was reeling from the Kent State and Jackson State shootings earlier that month. Goheen’s meeting—as recorded by University development head Henry Bessire (’1957), who was in attendance—failed. Bessire’s account reveals how the social upheaval of 1970 was straining even the bond between Firestone and Princeton.
Most of the hour-long conversation, Bessire wrote, “was taken up attempting to communicate recent events at Princeton.” Far from the hospitality that Probst had received in 1968, Raymond now raised a litany of grievances against his alma mater. Though “[t]he Firestone brothers were most cordial throughout our three-hour stay,” Goheen and Bessire left empty-handed.
Raymond declared that Kent State “had been a ‘bed of radicalism’ for years” and blamed “radicals” for the shooting. He perceived the same crosswind at Princeton. “There is a lack of University interest,” he complained to Goheen and Bessire, “in teaching and research in the field of economics centering on the American free enterprise system.” Raymond also expressed that he was “most distressed with the ‘forced’ departure of ROTC at Princeton,” a program he counted “among the highlights of his higher education.”
Raymond informed Goheen and Bessire that the Company had reviewed and rejected their African Studies proposal. He named two reasons. The first he had mentioned to Probst: supporting Princeton’s program would invite similar requests from other institutions, “to which they could not respond affirmatively.”
The second reflected the challenge that African American Studies raised to academia’s white gaze. Raymond would support only the regional study of Africa. “It seemed,” Bessire wrote, “the company considered this request to be support for Afro-American Studies about which it was obvious they had no interest.” For reasons that went unrecorded, Raymond had misconstrued the proposal. “This was a confusion on their part,” wrote Bessire, “as it was quite clear that this request was for support of an academic program having to do with the study of Africa.”
Bessire’s memo strategized how Princeton could persuade the family to still donate. Raymond’s denial had not dissuaded Bessire from the African Studies tack. “As a result of this visit,” he wrote, “the writer is considering whether or not we should go back to Mr. Raymond Firestone seeking support for African Studies from the Firestone Foundation, as opposed to the company.” The Firestone Visiting Professorship never materialized.
Bessire urged Princeton to keep courting the Firestones. “I believe that in the long run,” he wrote, “it will prove of some value in maintaining the strong relationship between Princeton and the Firestone family which has held forth in the past.” Bessire ended his memo with an eye to the mortality of the men who had declined his most recent attempt. “Also,” he concluded, “under consideration is the next step to be taken to ensure that Princeton shares in the estates of the Firestone brothers.”
While Princeton turned yet again to the Firestone fortune, Black students were challenging racism on campus and holding the University to account. That Princeton should have programs in African and African American Studies was no foregone conclusion. But neither was Princeton’s appeal to a company that ravaged Liberia and bolstered apartheid—the injustice that spurred decades of Black student activism.
As midnight approached on March 12, 1971, some 150 Asian American, Black, Latinx, and Native American students streamed into Firestone Library’s cavernous reference room. Members of Princeton’s Third World Coalition, they occupied the floor to protest Princeton’s cap on the percentage of “disadvantaged” students it would admit.
Although the students faced disciplinary threats, they remained for almost three hours. As they filed out at 2:45 a.m., they passed beneath the stone arches and through the chrome doors that form the library’s entrance. Mounted above them was the visage of its namesake, Harvey S. Firestone Sr.
Harvey Firestone’s bust has been perched between the library’s twin sets of front doors since 1962. “[A]t the urging of Harvey Firestone [Jr.],” Goheen wrote to University librarian William Dix that year, “we agreed to place a bust of Harvey Firestone, Sr., presented by Mr. Firestone, in the Firestone Library.”
The bust, like the library that surrounds it, propagandizes the Firestone Company. It obscures Firestone’s exploitation of Liberia—a legacy that Princeton has never confronted.
Time and again over the past half-century, Firestone Library and Firestone Plaza have witnessed student demonstrations against racial injustice. The 1971 sit-in yielded the founding of Princeton’s Third World Center—today, the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding.
But the history of Firestone Library, known on campus as “’Stone,” has escaped scrutiny. Firestone’s abuses in Liberia rarely appear in Princeton’s archives and campus publications. To the extent that Princeton’s ties with Firestone have drawn criticism, they primarily concerned divestment from South Africa. In the 1970s, student activists demanded that Princeton divest from Firestone, given that its subsidiary, Firestone S.A. (Pty) Ltd., was South Africa’s largest tire manufacturer. The Company gave capital and credibility to apartheid, including by operating in “bantustans,” segregated ‘homelands’ that perpetuated white supremacist rule.
In 1978, students protested outside Clio Hall, where Firestone and GE recruiters were conducting interviews. Earlier that year, the Third World Center Governance Board found Princeton’s investments in Firestone, along with ten other corporations, “blatantly inconsistent with any statement made against apartheid.” U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) visited Firestone Plaza to speak in favor of divestment.
The spring of 1989 marked twenty years of student activism against Princeton’s holdings in South African companies. In a column published by The Daily Princetonian, Gautam Gode (’1990) criticized his peers’ “faddish concern” with apartheid and questioned why they ignored Princeton’s role in oppression elsewhere. “We are vociferously protesting Princeton’s links with apartheid,” Gode wrote, “but we forget that it also invests in multinational companies that exploit and degrade cheap labor, buy out democratic institutions and contribute to the growing economic inequalities in the developing world.”
“We are vociferously protesting Princeton’s links with apartheid,” Gode wrote, “but we forget that it also invests in multinational companies that exploit and degrade cheap labor, buy out democratic institutions and contribute to the growing economic inequalities in the developing world.”
In the next paragraph, the author named Firestone Plaza, where students had erected an anti-apartheid “shanty,” as the place that gave him “the idea of writing this column.” If Gode knew of Firestone’s record in Liberia, he made no mention.