Princeton's Complicated Legacy: Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson, and Recalling a Slave Named Jimmy Johnson
Every year, freshmen at Princeton University attend opening exercises at the campus chapel, then exit through an iconic archway into the heart of campus.
This year, that easternmost arch in East Pyne Hall will for the first time carry a name: Jimmy Johnson, who worked as a Princeton janitor in the mid-19th century until a student reported him as a runaway slave.
A local woman paid $500 for Johnson’s freedom, and for more than 60 years he sold snacks to students on Princeton’s campus. When he died in 1902, students and alumni paid for his gravestone, inscribed “the students [sic] friend.”
Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber plans to tell this fall’s incoming class about Johnson during opening exercises in a few weeks. He’ll also point out that beyond that archway lies a statue of John Witherspoon, one of nine Princeton presidents who owned slaves but one who also profoundly influenced the campus. In fact, one of Witherspoon’s descendants purchased Johnson’s freedom.
Both steps exemplify new efforts at one of the nation’s oldest elite universities to embrace and reveal its complicated past and become more welcoming to an increasingly diverse student body.