Maintaining Racial Segregation

In an effort to make white southern students comfortable on a northern campus, Princeton administrators excluded African American undergraduates well into the mid-20th century. One dramatic example of this occurred in 1935 when a black student—whose race was presumed to be white until he arrived on campus—had his offer of admission revoked.

Bruce Wright 2001

Bruce Wright at Class Day, June 4, 2001.

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Bruce Wright, who had spent some of his childhood living in the university’s shadow, applied to Princeton in the 1930s.  Wright was accepted and awarded a scholarship, and he arrived in the fall excited to join the freshman class.  So far as Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance was concerned, however, there was a problem: Wright was black, something the Office of Admissions hadn’t know when they offered him a place among a class of Princetonians without any other black students. Though many students stood in line with Wright to register for classes at the start of the academic year, Heermance refused to admit him. In a later interview, Wright recalled what Heermance had told him:

If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.[1]

With no other recourse he could see, Wright went outside, sat down on his suitcase, and waited for his father to drive down from New York to pick him up.[2]

The words lingered in Wright’s mind. “I was shattered, and I became more so as time went on,” Wright said. “For some reason I persisted in writing to Heermance to demand to know why. Was I a danger, a menace to a great university?”[3]

Heermance answered Wright in a 1939 letter. He began by asserting that “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed,” nor ever had in its long history. Heermance then claimed to hold no personal prejudice against him, stating: “I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race, because I have had very pleasant relations with your race, both in civilian life and in the army.” Yet Heermance also admonished Wright that he would have been unhappy at Princeton because there were no black students there (something within Heermance’s direct control as Dean of Admission) and because of the racial prejudices of Princeton’s student body:

This has been a tradition of long standing in Princeton, and as you know, there is still a feeling in the south quite different from that existing in New England.[4]
Heermance Letter Preview

Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance's letter to African American student Bruce Wright, whose admission to Princeton was revoked on account of his race.

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Wright jotted his frustrations with Heermance’s reply in the margins of this letter: “Damn the pleasant relationships[;] want to go to college.”[5] He ultimately earned a B.A. from Lincoln University in 1942, after the University of Notre Dame also turned Wright away on account of race. Wright then attended New York Law School and went on to a twenty-five year career as a judge in New York, including a term on the New York Supreme Court from 1982 to 1994.[6]  

Black Students at Princeton

Princeton University’s Class of 2001 named Wright an honorary member at their Class Day on June 4, 2001.[7] Even at the time of Wright’s admission to Princeton, not all alumni had agreed with Heermance’s decision to revoke his offer. Pressure to admit African American undergraduates to Princeton began appearing in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly in the mid-1930s, around the time Heermance sent Wright away.[8] These pressures intensified during World War II, when the Navy sent four African American students to Princeton in 1945 to attend a V-12 program on campus.[9] In 1947, John Howard became Princeton’s first black undergraduate alumnus.[10] Robert Joseph Rivers, named the first black member of the Board of Trustees in 1969, graduated with the class of 1953.

Thanks to student activism, outside pressures, and changes to state law, Heermance was forced to reverse his position in 1948 and open Princeton to black applicants. African Americans students trickled in very slowly, however.  In 1963 Princeton had only ten black students enrolled.[11] In 2016, Princeton reported an enrollment of 401 African American undergraduates, about 7.7% of the total undergraduate population.[12]

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April C. Armstrong earned her Ph.D. in Religion with a concentration in Religion in the Americas from Princeton University in 2014. Since 2014, she has been responsible for managing social media and blogs along with other work in public services as a Special Collections Assistant at Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, part of the Princeton University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and the repository for the Princeton University Archives.

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[1]

Radcliffe Heermance as quoted by Bruce Wright in “Wonderful, Painful: 250th Video is Looking Back at Black Undergraduate Experience at Princeton,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin 86, No. 23 (7 April 1997): 1+.

[2]

Karen W. Arenson, “Princeton Honors Ex-Judge Once Turned Away for Race,” New York Times, 5 June 2001: B1.

[3]

Bruce Wright in Melvin McCray, Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni, VHS (1996: Media Genesis), Historical Audiovisual Collection, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[4]

Radcliffe Heermance to Bruce Wright, 13 June 1939, Box 73, Folder 6C, Historical Subject Files Collection, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[5]

Bruce Wright, note in margins of Radcliffe Heermance to Bruce Wright, 13 June 1939, Box 73, Folder 6C, Historical Subject Files Collection, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[6]

Joyce Wadler, “From a Published Judge to a Published Poet,” New York Times, 28 August 1998: B2.

[7]

“Pomp, Circumstance, and a Little Levity,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin 90, No. 30 (18 June 2001): 8.

[8]

Aims McGuiness and Joelle Godfrey quote several alumni letters in “Opening the Door to Blacks,” Daily Princetonian 28 February 1989: 4, including one from 1935. David V. Landsen, a member of the Princeton University Class of 1927, had written to the editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “I cherish the hope that within the next forty years I will witness the M. Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, ‘usually considered the highest honor which an undergraduate can receive,’ being presented on Alumni Day to a Negro.” Idem, “A Negro at Princeton,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 35, No. 23 (29 March 1935): 533. Landsen’s estimate of the time it would take was about right; approximately 35 years later, Howard W. Bell became the first African American to win the M. Taylor Pyne Prize, sharing the honor in 1970 with Raymond J. Gibbons. See “Engineers Bell, Gibbons Split Annual Pyne Prize,” Daily Princetonian 28 February 1970: 1.

[9]

Kelly Lack, “Alumni Remember Journey to Integration,” Daily Princetonian 18 February 2008: 1.

The V-12 Navy College Training Program enrolled recruits in colleges and universities in the United States. They attended classes and received a basic education as they trained to become commissioned officers in the Navy during World War II.

[10]

“Howard, John L.,” Box 89, Undergraduate Academic Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[11]

“This is Princeton,” Town Topics, 10 October 1963: 1.

[12]

Princeton University, Profile 2016-17 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2016).

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