When Dean Radcliffe Heermance revoked Bruce Wright’s offer of admission on the basis of his race in 1935, he was working to ensure that white southern students felt comfortable on campus: “a tradition of long standing at Princeton,” as he said.[1] This was, however, an act of selective memory. While it is true that a significant percentage of Princeton’s student body originated in the South prior to the Civil War, the vast majority left en masse in 1861. College president John Maclean Jr.’s prohibition of overt displays of pro-Union patriotism during the Civil War ensured that many Confederate veterans remained loyal to Princeton, but other southerners no longer considered Princeton the right school for their sons.

Feelings of animosity lingered. Enrollment from the South did not rebound until the early 20th century, and Princeton instead drew its students primarily from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.[2] James McCosh, who served as president from 1868 to 1888, lacked patience with white southerners who opposed the presence of black students in his classroom; evidence suggests that his defense of black students at Princeton discouraged a resurgence of white southerners after the Civil War. A resurgence did eventually occur, however, around the time that Woodrow Wilson (a Virginian) ascended to the presidency of Princeton University in 1902.

Princeton's First African American Students

According to records in the Princeton University Archives, the first African American student to receive an A.B. from Princeton University was John Leroy Howard in 1947—but Howard was not the first black student to earn a Princeton degree.[3] Abraham Parker Denny (A.M. 1891), an alumnus of Lincoln University, and James Monroe Boger (A.M. ‘1893), an alumnus of Biddle University, both earned master’s degrees from the College of New Jersey. Denny was the superintendent of the town of Princeton's Witherspoon School for Colored Children and had attended Lincoln University with another prominent local resident, Rev. William Drew Robeson. In 1898, the two worked as activists in Princeton, pressuring U.S. President William McKinley and Congress to pass laws to help end the epidemic of lynchings throughout the country. Kathryn Watterson argues this is the reason Princeton’s white school board fired Denny and the white presbytery forced Robeson out of his job as pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.[4] Boger, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, died before completing his seminary course less than a year after earning his A.M. at the College of New Jersey.[5] The Princeton University Archives has a file on Denny consisting only of a note stating that he was presumed dead. There is no file on Boger. The fact that records of these African American alumni were not maintained reflects the values of the institution in the early 20th century.

Irwin William Langston “Dominie” Roundtree earned a Master of Arts (A.M.) from Princeton in 1895. Roundtree was born in Georgia some time between 1855 and 1865, and may have in fact have been born into slavery—the only previously enslaved person known to have attended the institution.[6] Archival documents reveal three other African Americans enrolled as graduate students at Princeton prior to World War I: Thomas McCants Stewart (non-graduate, 1870s), Leonard Zachariah Johnson (A.M. 1904), and George Shippen Stark (A.M. 1906). Like Denny, Roundtree, Johnson, and Stark were all alumni of Lincoln University, the country’s first degree-granting historically black university. As files were not necessarily maintained on all graduates, an unknown number of black men might actually have received graduate degrees in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Roundtree Article Preview

Newspaper article profiling I. W. L. Roundtree, a late-19th century Princeton graduate who was born a slave.

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Like Boger, Stewart, Johnson, and Stark also each attended the Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), though not necessarily concurrently with their enrollment at Princeton—continuing a historical pattern of cooperation between the two institutions.[7] Though PTS was originally and remains separate from Princeton University, the two schools shared students and faculty from the outset. Ashbel Green, Princeton’s eighth president, was one of the seminary’s founders and served as president of its Board of Directors in 1819, while also president of the College of New Jersey. Seminary students were permitted to use the college library, and often attended classes at the college in the latter half of the 19th century.[8] College catalogues described these students as “resident graduates” when such lists were published. PTS admitted its first black student, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, in 1825. Its board of directors wrote, in admitting him, that they were “resolved, that color shall form no obstacle in the way of his reception.”[9]

Yet despite their significance as Princeton’s first African American graduates and their accomplishments later in life, these men would fade into institutional obscurity after Woodrow Wilson took the helm as Princeton’s president. Wilson was a contemporary of Stewart while an undergraduate at Princeton, and almost certainly knew that black students had attended classes at the school since as early as 1868. As president, however, he claimed that no African Americans had ever attended Princeton—and in doing so, provided an inaccurate historical justification for his policy of discriminating on the basis of race. Over time, Wilson’s version of Princeton’s past came to predominate, erasing the presence and accomplishments of Princeton’s early African American students.

Lincoln University

Fundraising appeal for Lincoln University, endorsed by the Professors of the Theological Seminary and the College of New Jersey. Several of Princeton's early black graduates attended Lincoln University.

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Integrating Graduate Education

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, admission to the graduate program at Princeton was left entirely at the discretion of individual professors.[10] College regulations required undergraduate applicants to pass an entrance exam, provide letters of recommendation (“testimonials of good moral character, preferably from their last instructors” and “a statement, signed by his teacher, as to his fitness to be examined”), and submit records of previous enrollment in other colleges, if any. The faculty would then vote on undergraduate applicants after they completed their exams.[11] Graduate students, by contrast, needed only to respond to the announcement of available courses, make arrangements with the instructor to attend, and pay a course fee of ten dollars unless “the circumstances of the student” warranted waiving this charge. Once admitted to a graduate course, these students were also given liberty to audit any undergraduate course they wished to attend.[12]

Roundtree, Johnson, and Stark all took classes under Professor Alexander T. “Senator” Ormond when they attended Princeton. Ormond (class of 1877) was a non-traditional Princeton student himself, having grown up on a farm in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in a Scotch-Irish and Huguenot family of limited resources. He applied for admission to the freshman class at the College of New Jersey in 1873 at the age of 26, having previously had very little formal education. Though he performed miserably on his entrance exams, the faculty were nonetheless impressed with his abilities and he was admitted on trial. (Princeton legend has it that after failing the entrance exams, Ormond stopped by the residence of College president James McCosh. McCosh himself answered the door. Ormond supposedly then said, “Dr. McCosh, I failed in my examinations and I am on the way home and I want to thank you for showing me how little I know.” McCosh is said to have replied, “Come in—we want you,” and thus Ormond became a member of the freshman class.)[13] By his senior year, Ormond had advanced toward the head of his class. Ormond remained at Princeton to pursue graduate studies and earned his Ph.D. in 1880.

Young Ormond Photo

Photograph of Professor Alexander T. Ormond, who taught several African American graduate students during the late 19th century.

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Given the dearth of graduate courses available between 1877 and 1880, Ormond would likely have been enrolled in at least some the same classes as Thomas McCants Stewart, and would have therefore shared a classroom with one of the school’s first black students. He may also have encountered other African Americans (PTS students Matthew Anderson, Hugh Mason Browne, Francis James Grimké, and Daniel Wallace Culp) auditing James McCosh’s classes in the 1870s.[14] The Princeton Alumni Weekly eulogized Ormond in 1915 as being well known for “his helpful sympathy with others similarly situated” in having to “fight for an education against great odds…”[15] Roundtree, Johnson, and Stark would have faced unusual difficulties in pursuing a Princeton education themselves, perhaps making Ormond a natural choice of instructor for them. Graduate students’ freedom to attend undergraduate courses also meant that Ormond’s decision to accept African American students could well have forced the integration of any classroom at Princeton, albeit not full institutional integration.

Johnson Record 5 Ac105 Box 6

Graduate school record book entry for African American graduate student Leonard Zachariah Johnson (A.M. 1904).

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Admitting African American students to graduate programs would serve as a first step toward full school integration throughout the nation in the 20th century. Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, followed Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Sipuel v. University of Oklahoma (1948), and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950)—all precedent-setting cases brought by African Americans seeking to enroll in white schools as graduate students.[16] Full integration did not occur at Princeton until World War II due to administrative resistance in the first half of the 20th century. The first African American admitted to Princeton after the war (Simeon Moss, ‘1949) and the first woman admitted to a degree program at Princeton (Sabra Meservey, ‘1966) were both graduate students.[17] They paved the way for integration of Princeton’s undergraduate student body, including the admission of Simeon Moss’s brother Joseph R. Moss (’1951), the first regularly admitted black undergraduate student.[18]

Changing Institutional Memory

It is worth noting that Professor Ormond remains well-known in Princeton history while his graduate school peer Thomas McCants Stewart and his African American students are not. Ormond, Stewart, and Roundtree all rose to prominent positions and were also well-known in their own time, but their names and accomplishments have been forgotten at Princeton. This may have been a deliberate act of erasure on the part of certain Princeton administrators who actively worked to remove graduate students (and particularly black graduate students) from institutional memory during Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

On January 5, 1907, Princeton University Secretary Charles A. McAlpin wrote to trustee and prominent benefactor Moses Taylor Pyne about whether or not former graduate students—many of them also seminarians (or “seminoles”)—could truly be considered alumni. McAlpin seemed deeply offended by the suggestion that graduate alumni be considered Princetonians and defended his decision to omit them from the most recent alumni directory:

The great majority of them consisted of seminoles [sic] whose interest in Princeton University amounted to nil. … I do not think it wise to try to incorporate these men with the regular graduates of the University.[19]

Pyne disagreed just as strongly, stating that it would be fine to exclude those who did not receive degrees, but “it seems to be absolutely necessary that those who received their M.A. [sic] or Ph.D. should be included … since they are as much Princeton men as anyone else.”[20]

This question of whether or not graduate alumni truly counted as Princetonians provides insight into Woodrow Wilson’s own views on race and education. In 1904, the same year Leonard Zachariah Johnson earned his A.M. from Princeton University and George Shippen Stark was in the process of earning his, Woodrow Wilson wrote:

The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems extremely unlikely that the question will ever assume a practical form.[21]

Wilson, however, had been a Princeton sophomore when President James McCosh accepted an African American student into one of his lectures; it is unlikely he did not know about this incident, as this particular student caused significant controversy and several white students threatened to withdraw over it.[22] Wilson was on the editorial board of the Prince when a writer under the alias “W” complained about a seminary student (potentially Thomas McCants Stewart) using the college library.[23] He was a professor at Princeton when Irwin Roundtree enrolled as a graduate student. He was president of Princeton when Johnson and Stark earned their degrees. Wilson almost certainly knew that Princeton had awarded graduate degrees to black students, but used a false version of the institution’s history to justify excluding African American undergraduates.

In 1909, Virginia Theological Seminary student McArthur Sullivan wrote to Wilson seeking admission to Princeton University. Considering Princeton’s history of admitting PTS students, it was not unreasonable for Sullivan to believe that he could matriculate. Wilson, however, rejected the idea outright, saying:

It is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.[24]

As Wilson biographer W. Barksdale Maynard has noted, Wilson’s “vision for reform at Princeton had no place for African Americans, whom he wrote off as a race incapable of achieving greatness.”[25]

Meanwhile, Roundtree, still living in nearby Trenton, was the subject of frequent press attention for his political engagement and civil rights activism.[26] Though Princeton’s graduate students were generally separated from undergraduate alumni and typically not considered alumni at all until the 1950s, it is still curious that such a prominent local alumnus could have his connection to Princeton totally severed in institutional memory.[27] It is also worth considering that the presence of black students in Princeton classes did not occur without objection. African Americans whose presence provoked white students so much at the time would likely have been memorable.

And yet, backed by a distorted history of black students, Princeton stood alone among its peer institutions in excluding African Americans well into the 20th century. Out of the fourteen original members of the Association of American Universities, only Princeton barred black students from enrolling before World War II—something Paul C. Kemeny highlights as ironic given Princeton’s professed “devotion to serving national educational interests…”[28]

Despite occasional reminders that there had been black students enrolled prior to World War I in publications like the Princeton Alumni Weekly and in correspondence hidden away in alumni files, even the University Archivist dismissed black students’ presence. In 1974, in response to an inquiry about Thomas McCants Stewart from a professor at Howard University, archivist Earle Coleman said:

There was never any rule that Negroes could not attend Princeton, but any who applied were advised that they would probably not be happy here because of the large segment of white student population from the South. I am sorry that my reply is so flatly negative…”[29]

An unsigned 1987 memo bearing Coleman’s name also rejected out of hand any claim that Wilson had changed Princeton’s approach to race, though African American newspapers reportedly charged him with reversing the progress that they had made at Princeton before he became its president. The memo Coleman wrote in response to a question about the claims in these newspapers read:

Accusing Wilson of turning ‘Princeton back into an all-white school’ shows a lack of knowledge of Princeton’s history. Up to the time of World War II it was just that insofar as regularly enrolled, fully participating students were concerned.[30]

Coleman’s reference to “regularly enrolled, fully participating students” may make his statement technically correct with respect to black students (though not for other nonwhite students) if graduate students were not viewed as such, yet this way of remembering the past may reflect the post-Wilson era as much as that which came before it.[31]

Memory is about more than the past. The things people collectively remember, and the way they choose to remember them, significantly influence their present realities. The Jim Crow South was constructed out of what C. Vann Woodward called an “illusion of permanency,” a belief that things were as they always had been and always would be.[32] Grace Elizabeth Hale’s research has further shown how this imagined history was a way “to deny and escape the present and then to reconstruct the foundations of racial difference,” and thus to “[absolve] white southerners of moral obligation to the freedpeople…while legitimating segregation as the only possible southern future.”[33] This is not to suggest that southern (or northern) racial prejudice did not have deep historical wells from which to draw. But it was, as Woodward also noted, not the only possibility that presented itself at the time, and the appeal to this imagined history worsened and more deeply entrenched discriminatory policies against African Americans.[34]

The act of remembering—and forgetting—Princeton’s African American alumni had consequences, as generations of Princetonians came to see themselves as part of an institution that excluded black applicants because it always had, rather than because it was actively choosing to do so. It was Wilson’s Princeton and not McCosh’s that came to predominate not only in memory, but in practice.

BibliographyPanel Toggle

I offer thanks to Princeton University’s Religion in the Americas Workshop for their feedback on an early draft of this essay. The essay has been divided into multiple parts for the Princeton & Slavery Project website, including this story as well as “James McCosh and Princeton’s First Integrated Classrooms” and “Reverend I. W. L. Roundtree.” [link]

Special acknowledgments go to my undergraduate assistants at Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library (Zachary Bampton, Mario Garcia, and Arthur Kim) for help with proofreading and serving as a soundboard for refining the text of later drafts.

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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.


See Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946), 288.


See also April C. Armstrong, “Integrating Princeton University: Robert Joseph Rivers ’53,” Princeton & Slavery Project,


Kathryn Watterson, I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 259-260.


See Necrological Reports and Annual Proceedings of the Alumni Association of Princeton Theological Seminary, Vol. II (Princeton: O. S. Robinson & Co., 1899), 336-337.


“Rev. I. W. L. Roundtree Has Risen from Slavery’s Estate,” Trenton Times, 27 August 1904: 12.


“Johnson, Leonard Zachariah,” Box 6, Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University; and “Stark, George Shippen,” Box 8, Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


See Moorhead, Princeton Seminary, 22-26; Princetonian 5 October 1876: 3.


Board of Directors of Princeton Theological Seminary, quoted in James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 83. Sources that claim Theodore Wright was also a graduate of the College of New Jersey appear to be in error.


See Thorp et al., The Princeton Graduate School, 51.


See, for example, Catalogue of Princeton University (1899): 30-31 and 90-91.


Ibid., 124-125.


See William K. Brown, Rhinebeck, New York, letter to Howard W. Dodds, 30 June 1951, “Ormond, Alexander Thomas, Sr.,” Faculty and Professional Staff Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


See Anderson, Presbyterianism, 174-176; and McCosh, quoted in Woodson, ed., The Works of Francis J. Grimké, x.


“The Death of Professor Ormond,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 14, no. 13 (22 December 1915): 1.


William T. Coleman, Jr. and Donald T. Bliss outline the strategy civil rights lawyers employed in Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2010), 105-119. For more on the ways black graduate students paved the way for full integration in American higher education, see “JBHE Chronology of Major Landmarks in the Progress of African Americans in Higher Education,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 53 (Autumn 2006): 77-78; and John T. Hubbell, “The Desegregation of the University of Oklahoma, 1946-1950,” The Journal of Negro History 54, No. 4 (October 1972): 370-384.


See Axtell, The Making of Princeton University, 420; “Moss, Simeon,” Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.; “Simeon F. Moss *49,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 108, no. 5 (21 November 2007), 55; and “Toback, Sabra,” Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


“Simeon F. Moss *49,” 55.


Unsigned carbon copy of Charles W. McAlpin, Princeton, New Jersey, to Moses Taylor Pyne, January 5, 1907, Box 44, Folder 3, Office of the Secretary Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


Moses Taylor Pyne, New York, New York, to Charles W. McAlpin, January 7, 1907, Box 44, Folder 3, Office of the Secretary Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University. My thanks to Sara Logue for telling me about this exchange between McAlpin and Pyne.


Woodrow Wilson, Ontario, Canada, letter to John Rogers Williams 2 September 1904, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson 15, ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 462. As Link notes, Wilson was probably referring to undergraduate admissions. Even so, not acknowledging African American graduate students is unlikely to have been a mere oversight. Wilson may have been attempting to establish a tradition rather than maintain it.


“Persons and Things,” Nassau Literary Magazine 25, no. 3 (1 December 1868): 197.


William Royal Wilder, Charles L. Williams, and Woodrow Wilson were all editors of the Princetonian at the time, and “W.” could refer to any of them. See “Editors,” Princetonian, 1 November 1877: 97.


Woodrow Wilson, draft of a letter to G. McArthur Sullivan, 3 December 1909, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson 15, ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 550.


W. Barksdale Maynard, Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 71.

African American graduates were not the only ones whitewashed out of Princeton’s history during and after the Wilson administration. Stark had received his M.A. in 1906, the same year as Howard Edwards Gansworth did. Records indicate that Gansworth was the first Native American to receive a graduate degree from Princeton. He had previously earned his A.B. from Princeton in 1901, the year before Wilson ascended to the Princeton presidency (See “Gansworth, Howard Edwards,” Box 8, Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.; “Gansworth, Howard E.,” Box 298, Folder 10, Historical Subject Files, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University; and “Gansworth, Howard Edwards,” Box 275, Undergraduate Alumni Records 1900-1920, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.  See also April C. Armstrong, “Howard Edwards Gansworth and the ‘Indian Problem’ at Princeton,” Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library Blog, 10 August 2016,

A Cuban national, Evaristo Vicente de Montalvo, had graduated with the Class of 1897. “De Montalvo, Evaristo Vicente,” Box 244, Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University. For more on de Montalvo, see Paul Kramer, “Princeton and the Spanish American War,” in The Best of PAW: 100 Years of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2000), 59-60.

A handful of Japanese students earned graduate degrees in the early 20th century, including at least three in 1906: Taketaro Nakagawa, Wachi Seki, and Hironari Senouye. See “Nakagawa, Taketaro,” “Seki, Wachi,” and “Senouye, Hironari,” all in Box 9, Graduate School Academic Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University..

In addition to these students, a significant number of Chinese students earned undergraduate degrees at Princeton prior to World War I. See, for example, “Chinese Student Members in America on Increase,” Daily Princetonian, 16 November 1914, 3.

These students were undoubtedly exceptional for Princeton of the era, but their presence somewhat reshapes the image of the institution at the time in ways typically overlooked.


Hundreds of articles on Roundtree appeared in the Trenton Evening Times during his lifetime. In one, the Times said Roundtree “is perhaps more widely known in this section than any other colored clergyman.” “Rev. I. W. L. Roundtree,” Trenton Evening Times, 17 May 1899, 4.


For more on the lack of enthusiasm for graduate alumni by comparison to undergraduate alumni at Princeton, see Thorp et al., The Princeton Graduate School, 267-268.


Paul C. Kemeny, Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice, 1868-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 167.


See Earle E. Coleman, Princeton, New Jersey, to Clarence G. Contee, 11 July 1974, Box 295, Folder 2, Historical Subject Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University. Coleman did later find evidence confirming that Stewart had indeed enrolled at Princeton as a graduate student.


Earle E. Coleman, Princeton, New Jersey, to Robert K. Durkee, 17 September 1987, Box 295, Folder 2, Historical Subject Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


Moses Taylor Pyne, New York, New York, to Charles W. McAlpin, January 7, 1907, Box 44, Folder 3, Office of the Secretary Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University.


C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 8.


Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 44.


Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 47.

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