A Southern School

In the 19th century, Princeton University earned a reputation as a school particularly welcoming to slaveholding southern students. (As one South Carolinian wrote, Princeton was “almost a Southern college.”)  In the 20th century, Princeton strongly identified with this part of its past, working to ensure that white students from the former Confederate states would feel at home. When changes to state law required Princeton to accept African American students, the school struggled to adapt to the upending of its tradition as a northern stronghold for southern racial mores. As a result, its first black students faced unique challenges.

Princeton’s first African American undergraduates were brought in as part of a Navy training program during World War II. In 1945, trustee Laurence G. Payson wrote to a fellow member of the class of 1916, John McFerran Barr, to explain the presence of black students in response to objections from students and alumni:

When the personnel [for the Navy unit] arrived its members included, unbeknownst to us in advance, four negroes.[1]

Princeton was known to be wary of challenges to its traditions. In 1935, Dean Radcliffe Heermance (who headed the Office of Admission) revoked a black student’s offer of admission when he was made aware of the man’s race.[2] But when Payson wrote his letter in 1945, the New Jersey legislature had recently passed a law requiring tax-exempt institutions not to discriminate on the basis of race. The Office of the President, not Heermance’s Office of Admission, would evaluate all future applications for admission from African American men. In this changing context, Payson wrote:

If Princeton were to stand against the negroes who were admitted under the Navy War-time ROTC the Trustees would be in a very difficult spot.[3]

A Defining Moment

The dividing lines in Princeton were starkly black and white before the Navy and external and internal pressures began to upend the status quo. Robert Joseph Rivers, who graduated from the recently integrated Princeton High School in 1949, had attended the segregated Witherspoon Elementary School as a child. As was the case with many of the town’s black residents, the Rivers family made their living working for Princeton University. Rivers’s grandfather had planted the elm trees lining Washington Road; his mother was the live-in maid for engineering professor Lewis F. Moody; his father worked as a servant at the Tiger Inn and as a dormitory janitor; and aunts and an uncle tended to students at McCosh Infirmary.[4] But Rivers saw the presence of black Navy V-12 students at the prestigious university as a promise of new possibilities.

One voice calling for change from within Princeton University had a direct impact on Rivers. Frank Broderick (‘1943), chair of the Daily Princetonian, shook the campus in 1942 with a three-part series of front-page editorials under the header “WHITE SUPREMACY AT PRINCETON.”[5] Broderick’s scathing columns called for an accounting of Princeton’s sins: “Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies than of an American university…”[6] Another editorial proclaimed,“the time is here when Princetonians must face courageously the shameful conflict between their principles and their practice.”[7] The editorials were met with mostly negative reactions from students and alumni. Princeton was in many ways a southern school, some said, and should remain so.[8] Others argued that the southern prejudice was a real issue on campus.[9] In the midst of this debate, the Prince printed a letter from a young black man, Andrew Hatcher:

I was born and bred in Princeton. The events of your university during the past decade are among the most intimate of my childhood memories. … As vehemently as I condemn your prejudices, I deplore your hesitancy, first to proclaim the ideals of democracy and, secondly, to support Christianity as it applies to interracial cooperation.[10]

Broderick didn’t leave his push to integrate Princeton behind when he graduated. In 1946, the Princeton Summer Camp reopened under his leadership after closing in 1941 on account of World War II. The camp, today known as Princeton-Blairstown Center, had originally been for whites only. With Broderick as its new director, however, it accepted African American campers from the Witherspoon YMCA of Princeton alongside its usual contingent of underprivileged white boys from Philadelphia and New York. Bringing in these black campers would be, Broderick had suggested to his University advisers, “a social experiment.”[11]

Robert Joseph Rivers was one of the first eight black campers. Rivers later wrote that the experiment worked, for him and for others as well. That summer, 14-year-old Rivers had hope that a different future was possible. It was, he said, “a defining moment. … I began to think seriously about personal possibilities at Princeton University.”[12]

Princeton Summer Camp

Photograph of children attending Princeton Summer Camp, which was integrated in 1946.

View Primary Sources

Opening the Gates

More change was coming to the town of Princeton. The borough’s Board of Education had ended segregation in public schools beginning with the 1948-1949 academic year.[13] Meanwhile, Rivers watched as three more African American undergraduates cracked open the gates to Princeton University. He chose to apply to Princeton, and only to Princeton, in order to become a part of the change he was witnessing.[14]

Robert Rivers Nassau Herald

Photograph of Robert Joseph Rivers (class of 1953) in the Nassau Herald.

View Primary Sources

In 1949, Rivers entered Princeton with two other black students as part of the class of 1953, though only Rivers would receive his degree. (Grady Lee Smith tragically drowned after his first year of study, and Royce H. Vaughn left without completing a senior thesis.)[15] Though he had gained admission to the classroom, Rivers didn’t necessarily gain admission to campus social life. He avoided the eating clubs—bastions of tradition where he felt unwelcome. Regarding his time at Princeton, Rivers later told the New York Times that it had been difficult to be a black student on an overwhelmingly white campus:

It wasn’t a question of a black identity in those days, you just didn’t have any. It was a very lonely feeling for most blacks. The cooks, janitors and the black people in town were your main support system.[16]

As Rivers said on another occasion: “I had to live in two worlds” at Princeton.[17]

Rivers aspired to a career in medicine. Volunteering at the Princeton Summer Camp as an undergraduate and for a few summers thereafter, he gained the nickname “Camp Doctor.”[18] A Princeton connection opened doors for Rivers when he was choosing a medical school. E. Lang Makrauer (‘1923) contacted him and offered to fly him to Boston for an interview with Harvard. After earning his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, Rivers completed his training in surgery at the University of Rochester, where he later served as associate dean of its medical school and a professor of clinical surgery.[19]

Rivers broke new ground at Princeton in 1969, when he became one of the first two black men ever elected to the Board of Trustees. (The Board also selected 22-year-old Brent L. Henry (‘1969) to join their ranks.)[20] In 2006, Princeton awarded Rivers an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in recognition of his work toward making the institution more diverse and inclusive.[21] That legacy continued into the next generation. Of the four children Rivers had with his wife Ruth, three attended Princeton: Michael Rivers (‘1981), Scott Rivers (’1983), and Bob Rivers (’1986).

Robert Rivers 1969

Photograph of Robert Joseph Rivers (class of 1953), one of Princeton's first two African American trustees.

View Primary Sources

The experiences of Robert Rivers and his family serve as a reminder of just how much can change in a lifetime, and how a handful of people pressing Princeton to live up to its expressed ideals can shape the institution. They are also a reminder that the past is not so far away. As Rivers’s story demonstrates, the legacy of Princeton’s relationship to southern students and racial prejudice did not die out with the Civil War generation.

About the AuthorPanel Toggle

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.

View all stories by April C. Armstrong »

ReferencesPanel Toggle

[1]

Laurence G. Payson to John McFerran Barr, 2 October 1945, Box 295, Folder 2, Historical Subject Files Collection, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[2]

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.

[3]

Laurence G. Payson to John McFerran Barr, 2 October 1945, Box 295, Folder 2, Historical Subject Files Collection, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Payson referred to the black students as part of an ROTC program, when they were actually in the Navy V-12 program.

[4]

Robert J. Rivers, Jr., “Growing Up in a Neighborhood where History Matters,” Mercerspace, 1 February 2016. http://mercerspace.com/2016/02/01/growing-up-in-a-neighborhood-where-history-matters-2/

[5]

Frank Broderick, “White Supremacy at Princeton,” Daily Princetonian, 28 September 1942, 1.

[6]

Ibid, 30 September 1942, 1.

[7]

Ibid., 3 October 1942, 1.

[8]

Thomas Ennenga, letter to the editor, Daily Princetonian, 30 September 1942, 2.

[9]

Allen Colley, letter to the editor, Daily Princetonian, 7 October 1942, 4.

[10]

Andrew Hatcher, “An Open Letter to the Students of Princeton University,” Daily Princetonian, 19 October 1942, 2.

[11]

Rivers, “Growing Up in a Neighborhood where History Matters.” See also “Legacy of Students who Fought for Integration is Honored by Panel at Princeton University,” (Princeton) Town Topics, 4 June 2003, 3; and William K. Selden, The Princeton Summer Camp 1908-1975 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1987), 49-50.

[12]

Rivers, “Growing Up in a Neighborhood where History Matters.”

[13]

“Board of Education Vetoes Segregation in Borough Schools,” Daily Princetonian, 13 April 1948.

[14]

Rivers, “Growing Up in a Neighborhood where History Matters.”

[15]

“Smith, Grady Lee,” Box 347, Undergraduate Alumni Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.; “Vaughn, Royce H.,” Box 133, Undergraduate Academic Files, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[16]

Robert J. Rivers, Jr., quoted in “Princeton’s Black Alumni Express Mixed Feelings During Conference,” New York Times, 25 April 1977, 67.

[17]

Robert J. Rivers, Jr., quoted in Maggie Shi, “First Black Students Face Isolation, Racism,” Daily Princetonian, 7 March 1995, 1.

[18]

“Princeton’s Man of the Week,” Town Topics, 1 August 1954, 1.

[19]

Rivers, “Growing Up in a Neighborhood where History Matters.”

[20]

“First Blacks Added to Board,” Daily Princetonian, 8 September 1969.

[21]

Karin Dienst, “Princeton Awards Six Honorary Degrees,” Princeton University, 31 May 2006, https://www.princeton.edu/news/2016/05/31/princeton-awards-six-honorary-degrees?section=topstories.

Share this Story:
Did You Know...?Most of Princeton's founding trustees bought, sold, traded, or inherited slaves. Read More