[Marxism] Princeton Digs Deep Into Its Fraught Racial History

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 7 07:38:36 MST 2017

NY Times, Nov. 7 2017
Princeton Digs Deep Into Its Fraught Racial History

PRINCETON, N.J. — Take a tour of the idyllic campus of Princeton 
University, and your guide is likely to stop in front of the 
18th-century clapboard building, fronted by two graceful sycamore trees, 
that housed the school’s early presidents. The trees were planted in the 
spring of 1766, the legend has it, by the school’s fifth president, 
Samuel Finley, to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act.

But a few months later, they were chosen as the backdrop for a rather 
different event: the auction of Finley’s slaves.

That sale is not part of Princeton’s official history. It was all but 
unknown until a few years ago, when researchers came across a newspaper 
advertisement listing the liquidation of Finley’s human property, along 
with horses, cattle, furniture and “a choice collection of books.” Now, 
it is one of many forgotten stories being brought to light as part of an 
ambitious effort to acknowledge and explore the darker aspects of 
Princeton’s past.

In recent years, more than a dozen universities — including Brown, 
Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Virginia — have acknowledged 
their historical ties to slavery. But the Princeton and Slavery Project, 
officially unveiled on Monday, stands out for the depth of its research.

The project’s website includes hundreds of primary source documents and 
more than 80 articles exploring topics like early slavery-related 
university funding, student demographics and the sometimes shocking 
history of racial violence on a campus long known as the most culturally 
“Southern” in the Ivy League.

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.”

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.

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).

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 as high as nearly 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.

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.”

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.”

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.” Credit 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 

“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.”

Correction: November 6, 2017
A picture with an earlier version of this article was published in 
error. It showed John Witherspoon, a different early Princeton president 
— not Samuel Stanhope Smith.

Follow Jennifer Schuessler on Twitter: @jennyschuessler

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