Princeton Digs Deep Into Its Fraught Racial History

Princeton Digs Deep Into Its Fraught Racial History


Princeton’s heavily Southern antebellum student body — and its desire to keep the sons of slaveholders comfortable — may have set it apart. But its deep entanglements with slavery did not.

“Princeton’s history is American history writ small,” said Martha Sandweiss, the history professor who led the project. “From the beginning, liberty and slavery were intertwined.”

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Martha Sandweiss, a professor of history, led the five-year Princeton and Slavery Project.

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Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

The Princeton research is being released amid renewed debate about slavery, the Civil War and national memory. It also arrives nearly two years after a student group at Princeton called the Black Justice League occupied the president’s office and demanded, among other things, that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from places of honor on campus because of his racist ideas and actions.

Wilson, a Princeton graduate and former president of the university, kept his place, and that controversy quieted down. The new research does not come with any recommendations for action. But Professor Sandweiss said she hoped it would foster a broader, more fully informed conversation about history and racial justice.

“Woodrow Wilson doesn’t just come from nowhere, “ she said. “He comes from this particular place.”

Unlike slavery research at some other institutions, the Princeton project was a bottom-up affair, originating with an undergraduate class that Professor Sandweiss began teaching in 2013, with help from the university’s archivist, Dan Linke. Early on, she told the administration what she was doing and said she didn’t think it would be “embarrassing to Princeton,” she recalled.

As the project grew, it was supported piecemeal by various partners, including the university’s art museum, which has commissioned a large-scale outdoor installation by the artist Titus Kaphar commemorating the 1766 slave sale, and the McCarter Theater, which has commissioned seven plays inspired by the research, to be performed later this month as part of a two-day public symposium.

[ Playwrights on putting the ghosts of Princeton’s racial past onstage ]

Earlier this year, the project got more formal support from the administration, in the form of a grant from the Princeton Histories Fund, established in the wake of the Wilson controversy to support “aspects of Princeton’s history that have been forgotten, overlooked, subordinated or suppressed.”

Princeton’s current president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, who will speak at the symposium, issued a statement praising the project’s “creativity, diverse perspectives and rigorous academic standards,” which he said he hoped would promote “a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of our history.”

That history is certainly imposing. Princeton, founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, is the nation’s fourth-oldest university, and the one most associated with the American Revolution. Its sixth president, John Witherspoon, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1783, the Continental Congress briefly met in Nassau Hall, in the same room where campus lore holds that a cannonball (fired by Alexander Hamilton, no less) decapitated a portrait of George III six years earlier.

Today, that room is lined with oil portraits of the university’s presidents, the first nine of whom owned slaves. (The researchers found no evidence that the university itself ever owned slaves.) On a recent morning, Professor Sandweiss paused in front of the likeness of Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751-1819).

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Samuel Stanhope Smith, Princeton’s seventh president (and a slaveowner), believed that race was malleable, and proposed that freed blacks should live alongside whites in a new territory in the West, and even intermarry. “In a course of time,” he told students, the plan would “obliterate those wide distinctions which are now created by diversity of complexion.”

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Princeton University Art Museum

Smith, a Presbyterian minister, helped inspire the colonization movement, which advocated resettling freed slaves in Africa. (Many leading colonization advocates, the researchers discovered, had Princeton connections.)

But at a time when many educated whites believed that blacks had separate evolutionary origins, Smith also argued that racial differences were purely due to environment, and even advocated interracial marriage.

“Historians are fond of going around saying, ‘It’s complicated,’” Professor Sandweiss said. “But it is complicated.”

Professor Sandweiss’s team, which included some 30 students and two full-time postdoctoral fellows, Craig Hollander and Joseph Yannielli, looked at subjects familiar from studies at other universities, like slavery-related donations and slave ownership among professors, including one who owned a slave as late as 1840.

But they also zeroed in on one of the distinctive, and fateful, aspects of Princeton’s history: its heavily Southern student body.

In the archives, they found evidence of early administrators’ eagerness to recruit students from the South. To nail down some hard data, a dozen graduate students gathered in the archives one night and, with the cast album of “Hamilton” blaring, tracked down the places of origin for more than 2,000 names in their database of pre-Civil War students.

Roughly 40 percent of students from the college’s founding until 1861, the researchers determined, came from the slaveholding South, with the figure spiking at two-thirds in the early 1850s. (The figure for Harvard and Yale at that time was about 9 percent.) And as slavery moved southwest, a heat map on the website shows, so too did the student body.

“Princeton had more students from Mississippi in the decades before the Civil War than it does today,” Professor Sandweiss said.

This fact heavily influenced the culture at Princeton, which became more conservative as the sectional crisis over slavery intensified.

In town, Southern students (as well as many Northern ones) encountered something unfamiliar: a proud, and longstanding, free black community. But inside the campus gates, the university was maintained as a safe space for the sons of slaveholders.

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Princeton Theological Seminary, an independent Presbyterian institution, began graduating African-American students in the 1830s, more than six decades before Princeton University had its first black graduate, a master’s student. At Princeton’s 1836 commencement, a black seminary graduate, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, was attacked by a white student. The university’s president later suggested Wright was to blame.

Unlike at Harvard and Yale, abolitionists were generally not invited to speak on campus. And when they did show up, violence sometimes ensued. In 1835, a gang of students descended on the town’s African-American neighborhood in an attempt to lynch a white agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society who had come to address a secret meeting. (Researchers found no records of any attempts to discipline those students.)

The next year, at commencement, a white student from South Carolina attacked a black abolitionist minister, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, shouting a racial slur. The university’s president, James Carnahan, a onetime slaveholder, published a letter denying that the attacker was a Princeton student or that any actual violence had occurred, and blaming Wright for the disturbance.

But Princeton’s compromise over slavery, like the nation’s, didn’t hold forever. In the university’s archives, R. Isabela Morales, a graduate student, found an 1846 diary in which a student from Mississippi described going out with other “Southern bloods” to hunt down a local black man they had scuffled with and “try him in the worshipful court of Judge Lynch.”

Another group of students, led by John Maclean Jr., a professor who later became Princeton’s first nonslaveholding president, mustered to try and stop them. The man was still “whipped within an inch of his life,” the diarist exulted, “to the silent Satisfaction of all the arrayed collegians from the South!”

“Princeton had a reputation as this moderate place, where Northerners and Southerners got along,” Ms. Morales said. “But here, 15 years before the Civil War, you have them dividing along battle lines to fight over the question of race.”

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The town of Princeton had a sizable free black community, amounting at times to as much as 20 percent of the population. Encounters with white students, like the one shown in this 1853 cartoon from The Nassau Rake, a student newspaper, sometimes led to violence, including an attempted lynching in 1846 that sparked a student riot pitting northerners against southerners.

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The Nassau Rake

As Southern states began seceding, southern students began leaving campus. In student autograph books, Ms. Sandweiss’s team found poignant inscriptions traded by friends who would soon meet on the battlefield. “Basically, they’re going off to kill their roommates,” Professor Sandweiss said.

The researchers have yet to figure out just when southern students (like the Virginia-born Wilson, class of 1879), started coming back after the Civil War, and in what numbers. But the instinct to keep the sectional peace reasserted itself.

An article on the website tells the story of the Civil War memorial carved on a wall just inside Nassau Hall in the 1920s — the only one anywhere in the country, Professor Sandweiss said, to give no indication of which cause the names inscribed there fought for.

The initial plan was to group them by side. But the university’s president at the time, John Grier Hibben, overruled it, saying “no one shall know on which side these young men fought.”

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During the Civil War, more Princetonians fought for the Confederacy than for the Union. Originally, the memorial in Nassau Hall, carved in the 1920s, was to separate the fallen by side, but the university’s president overruled the plan, saying “No one shall know on which side these young men fought.”

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Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

On today’s campuses, the battles are often fought over monuments themselves. One of the new plays commissioned for the project, by Nathan Alan Davis, features a rawly funny dialogue between a statue of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s slave-owning Revolutionary War-era president, and a contemporary African-American student armed with a blowtorch.

As part of the aftermath of the Wilson controversy, Princeton is already discussing ways to make its iconography more reflective of its current diversity.

“If you walk around campus, you see a lot of dead white men,” Professor Sandweiss said. “That’s not untrue to our history, but it is deeply untrue to what Princeton has worked hard to become in the past few decades.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s hard for history to catch up.”



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