Early Graduate Education

When James McCosh (1811-94) assumed the presidency of the College of New Jersey in 1868, the institution had ten full-time faculty, none of whom held a Ph.D.[1] McCosh wanted his faculty to be professionally trained and began hiring professors who had pursued graduate degrees—initially hiring from outside of Princeton, but pushing for graduate training at the college as well. Princeton had been sending its brightest students to Europe to earn graduate degrees, but McCosh believed an advanced program at home might keep this talent within Princeton’s orbit. Professor William M. Slone offered the college’s first graduate class, Latin, in 1877, and course offerings continued to grow slowly throughout the 1880s.[2] By the end of McCosh’s presidency in 1888, a full quarter of the faculty held Ph.D.s, compared to just ten percent of Harvard’s. Combining teaching and research, the College of New Jersey’s slow transformation into Princeton University was underway.[3]

Mc Cosh Photo

Photograph of James McCosh, Princeton's tenth president.

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Almost as soon as graduate courses were offered, African American students began to formally enroll in the college. Thomas McCants Stewart—born to free black parents in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1852—had begun his higher education at Howard University but found that it was not challenging enough. He transferred to the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where he received a B.A. in 1876, and subsequently attended Princeton Theological Seminary from 1877 to 1880.[4] Stewart enrolled in classes at the College of New Jersey in the late 1870s. Though there is little information about his time at the college, a few sources attest to his enrollment as a graduate student during the 1878-79 academic year, when he was concurrently enrolled at PTS.[5] Another source indicates that Stewart studied philosophy under James McCosh, and in 1882 McCosh referred to Stewart as one of his former students.[6]

T Mc Cants Stewart

Portrait of Thomas McCants Stewart, Princeton Theological Seminary student who enrolled as a graduate student at Princeton under President James McCosh. Stewart later traveled to Monrovia, Liberia, to teach at Liberia College.

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"Under no circumstances would he exclude the Negro"

Stewart and other early black graduate students faced opposition and harassment from white undergraduates. A Princetonian editorial from 1877 reveals resentment about the presence of a specific seminary student on campus; based on the date of the editorial, this student might have been Stewart himself. Under the heading “A Wail,” a writer identified only with the initial “W” complained about a “hirsute ‘Seminole’ roaming through the alcoves” of the college library.[7]

“Seminole” was common College of New Jersey slang for a seminary student and does not indicate Native American descent in this context. The comment may have had racial undertones, however, coming from an era when it was not uncommon to describe non-white people as hairy as a way to suggest they were representative of an earlier evolutionary phase.[8] “W” was particularly alarmed that this student did not solely study theological books in the library, but also history, geography, and literature—which “W” felt should be reserved only for college students. “I regard this as one of the densest problems of perverse human nature,” he protested.[9]

The situation grew more fraught outside the library. One of Stewart’s fellow seminarians, Daniel Culp, became the focus of undergraduate displeasure in 1876 when James McCosh allowed him to attend his lectures. In his memoir of the class of 1878, white Princeton alumnus Arthur Bryan describes Culp as “a negro ‘Seminole’” whose presence in McCosh’s undergraduate psychology class provoked some southern students at to leave the college.[10] “He was perfectly harmless and inoffensive,” Bryan wrote:

But the fact of his being there was in direct opposition to their [the students’] wishes. They waited upon Dr. McCosh and told him that either the negro would have to “vamoose the ranch” or they would leave college. The Dr. told them they had better leave then, as he saw no harm in said negro attending the lectures. They left, but soon, with one exception, returned to their duties. The negro remained and continued the course in Psychology. The persons implicated in the affair were slightly “bored” when they returned, and found their object of hate still attending the lectures. The whole proceeding was very foolish and unwise. The cause of the trouble sat apart from the rest, and tended to his own affairs without disturbing any one. One of the party who left, is a bosom companion and friend of A. Black, yet he would not allow a negro to be in the same room with him.[11]

The Princetonian also reported on the conflict in October 1876, stating that “five young gentlemen…recently left Princeton College rather than sit in the same room with a negro one hour a week,” although four soon returned at the wishes of their parents.[12]

Daniel Wallace Culp

Photo of Daniel Wallace Culp, Princeton Seminary class of 1879.

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James McCosh’s defense of the black students who sat in on his classes impressed Matthew Anderson, another African American seminary student, who graduated from PTS in 1877. According to Anderson, McCosh told the southern boys:

That while he would be sorry to have them leave, still if their staying would depend on the expulsion of the Negro they would have to go, for under no circumstances would he exclude the Negro from his class so long as he wanted to attend. …
Here is an example of what one man can do, who will take his stand firmly on the side of truth and principle.[13] 

Anderson wrote that white students should have expected pushback from McCosh, who had promised in his 1868 inaugural address that Princeton’s “doors should be open to all nationalities…”[14] Though McCosh said nothing explicit about changing Princeton’s racial composition in his address, he did praise the United States for its ethnic diversity, saying that “drawing its population from all regions,” it should be “ready to take knowledge from all lands.”[15]

It is not clear whether any African American students formally applied for admission as undergraduates during McCosh’s presidency, or whether McCosh would have permitted them entrance if they had. He did, however, express support for the entry of black men into professions beyond the clergy and advocated that higher education be made more widely accessible to them.[16] Although we do not know how McCosh would have responded to efforts to fully integrate the college, no evidence suggests that he had patience with demands that racial exclusion be practiced at Princeton, and he was known for being wholly unwavering in his convictions.[17]

The 1876 uproar over his psychology lectures was not the first time McCosh resisted pressure from white southerners to bar African Americans from the college. In 1868, his first year as president, McCosh allowed an African American man to attend his lectures on the life of Jesus. “Though his appearance there was very distasteful to many of the students,” the Nassau Literary Magazine explained, “no demonstrations were made” until the African American man sat next to the mother of one of the undergraduates. A number of southern students threatened to withdraw from the college, while others circulated a petition among faculty members asking McCosh to ban African Americans from his lectures. With few faculty members willing to sign, the matter was dropped. As the Lit concluded:

The attendance of the negro is certainly very disagreeable to many, but we leave it to wiser heads than ours to determine whether or not it is advisable to suffer him to come.[18]
Mc Cosh Inauguration 1868 Box Ad65 1

Photograph of James McCosh's inauguration as Princeton's tenth president in 1868.

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McCosh and Race

As an immigrant from Scotland, McCosh developed his views on race in a different context than that of his students, and the North/South and black/white divides may have held less power for him than for young American students shaped by the recent Civil War. One southern Presbyterian minister, James H. McNeilly, attributed McCosh’s behavior to his exposure to British abolitionism:

In Great Britain the anti-slavery sentiment expressed itself in self-righteous glorification of English freedom in contrast with the slavery-darkened United States. … The abolitionist thought he was doing “God’s service” by his crusade against an institution which he regarded as the “sum of all villainies.” And so he demanded “an anti-slavery constitution, an anti-slavery Bible, and an anti-slavery God.” It was not the first time that conscience has trampled on justice in the name of religion.[19]

McCosh wrote briefly about race in one of his textbooks, which uses occasional references to African Americans and Native Americans as illustrations of how to think logically about ethics. In one passage, McCosh writes that “the negro race are human beings” and that any attempt to understand humanity as only the white race is incomplete.[20] “Thus if it be declared that ‘a negro is a fellow-creature,’” McCosh says elsewhere, “we may say ‘a negro in suffering is a fellow-creature in suffering.” McCosh immediately follows this example with another about education: “If ‘learning be useful’ then ‘injury to learning would be injury to what is useful.’”[21] Though McCosh’s textbook does not explicitly link depriving African Americans education with suffering or injury, it may be telling that one directly follows the other.

McCosh expressed belief in the abilities of African Americans. “I am here,” he said at a meeting of African American ministers in 1882, “to bear testimony to the capability of the colored race to receive great education. They have a capacity for indefinite improvement.”[22]  He spoke highly of the intellectual and spiritual qualities of the black students he had taught at Princeton, to the extent that he was willing to follow their spiritual leadership as well as to be their educator.[23]  On another occasion, he said that he had benefitted from the preaching of Francis Grimké, an African American PTS graduate who had sat in on one of his graduate courses: “I feel as if I could listen to such preaching and profit from Sabbath to Sabbath.”[24]

White southerners denounced McCosh’s administration for his defense of black students and fraternization with African Americans. In 1909—explaining why most southerners had avoided attending Princeton in the aftermath of the Civil War—James H. McNeilly described McCosh’s mid-1860s visit to Richmond with William Arnot, another Scottish minister. He referred to McCosh and Arnot as “foreign critics” of the former Confederacy. The two had apparently rejected their hosts’ claims that their slaves had been treated well, with Arnot asserting:

No, sir! I know better than that; you can’t deceive me. … there was not a redeeming feature in the system.[25]

Furious, the southerners told Arnot and McCosh that they would be on their own for the rest of their trip. But to McNeilly’s horror, after their white hosts threw them out, the two men stayed instead with “a prominent negro family.” Ebenezer Thompson Baird, one of Arnot and McCosh’s original hosts, said that he “could not explain such boorishness, in men of such unquestioned ability and high position except on the ground of inveterate prejudice and boundless self-conceit.”[26]

For his part, McCosh was equally certain that he and Arnot were correct to condemn American slavery in unqualified terms. As McNeilly editorialized:

I suppose all who know anything of Dr. McCosh know how profound was his confidence in his own opinions.[27]

And knowing this, McNeilly concluded: “I can’t see how any Southern man could attend Princeton under his presidency.”[28]

Indeed, the southern enrollment that had been so strong in numbers in the antebellum period did not recover until the early 20th century, when Woodrow Wilson took the helm as Princeton's president.

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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.

View all stories by April C. Armstrong »

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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 “Erased Pasts and Altered Legacies: Princeton’s First African American Students” and “Reverend I. W. L. Roundtree.”

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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[1]

The Ph.D. was a fairly recent development, first awarded in the United States in 1861.

[2]

See Willard Thorp, et al., The Princeton Graduate School: A History, 2nd ed., ed. Patricia H. Marks (Princeton, NJ: Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, 2000), 8, 39-42.

[3]

Paul Kemeny, Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice 1868-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 63-64. See also Andrew F. West, “Biographical Notice,” Princeton College Bulletin 7, no. 1 (February 1895): 7-8.

[4]

Albert S. Broussard, African-American Odyssey: The Stewarts 1853-1863 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 19-21; Catalogue of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, New Jersey (1877-1878): 9; and Catalogue of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, New Jersey (1879-1880): 20.

[5]

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (1878-1879): 9; G. F. Richings, Evidences of Progress among Colored People, 11th ed. (Philadelphia: George S. Ferguson, 1904), 293; and William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Cleveland: George M. Rewell & Co., 1887), 1052-1054. Simmons indicates that Stewart was a student at the College of New Jersey for two years.  Charles E. Wynes asserts erroneously that Stewart entered Princeton in the same graduating class as Woodrow Wilson and should be considered his “classmate.” As an undergraduate, Wilson would not have been a candidate for the same degree, were Stewart considered a degree candidate at all. However, Wilson and Stewart would have been in attendance at Princeton at the same time, though as Wynes also notes, “There is no record…of Stewart and Wilson’s having been acquainted.” See Wynes, “T. McCants Stewart: Peripatetic Black South Carolinian,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80, No. 4 (October 1979): 311-312.  Princeton Theological Seminary General Catalogue (Trenton, NJ: William Sharp, 1881): 294.

[6]

Richings, Evidences of Progress among Colored People, 293. Though the Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (1878-1879) would typically indicate which classes postgraduate students were taking via the numerals after their names, there are no numerals after Stewart’s name. James McCosh taught Contemporary Philosophy and History of Philosophy that year. See Earle E. Coleman, Princeton, New Jersey, letter to Clarence G. Contee, 22 July 1974, Box 295, Folder 2, Historical Subject Files, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University. For more on the life of Thomas McCants Stewart, see Broussard, African-American Odyssey, 16-48.

See “Colored Professors for Liberia,” African Repository 59 (January 1883): 27. During this same speech, McCosh referred to Hugh Mason Browne as a student of his; records of this have not survived in the Princeton University Archives beyond a folder under the heading of “Dubious Alumni.” Browne was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1875-1878. See “Browne, Hugh Mason,” Box 101, Folder 25, Historical Subject Files, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.

[7]

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.

[8]

As an example of this, P.T. Barnum states in 1884: “the first man was a Hairy Man, from whom all the inhabitants of the earth are descended, with each succeeding generation the hair growing less and less until it will finally disappear. Barnum, quoted in Jane Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order (Routledge: New York, 2002): 77. See also Ibid., 75-78; and Diana Snigurowicz, “Sex, Simians, and Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century France,” Canadian Journal of History 34, no. 1 (April 1999): 52-81.

[9]

“A Wail,” Princetonian 1 November 1877: 101.

[10]

Arthur Bryan, The Mirror: A History of the Class of 1878 of Princeton College (Princeton, NJ: Charles Robinson, 1878): 80-81.

[11]

Bryan, The Mirror, 80-81. “A. Black” is most likely a reference to Alfred Lawrence Black, also a member of the class of 1878, but clearly also a play on words.

[12]

Princetonian 5 October 1876: 3. See also “A Race Trouble at Princeton,” Princeton Press, quoted in Jack Washington, The Long Journey Home: A Bicentennial History of the Black Community of Princeton, New Jersey, 1776-1976 (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2005), 119-120.

[13]

Matthew Anderson, Presbyterianism: Its Relation to the Negro (Philadelphia: John McGill White & Co., 1897), 175-176.

[14]

Ibid., 175. It remains unclear whether Princeton students would have anticipated this based on the 1868 address.

[15]

James McCosh, “Academic Teaching in Europe,” in Inauguration of James McCosh as President of the College of New Jersey, Princeton (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1868), 39.

[16]

I have found one reference McCosh made to undergraduate education for African Americans in a statement he made in relation to Lincoln University: “I am convinced that the [black] race is to be elevated by giving a high education to the better minds among them, that they may, as Ministers of the Gospel, and in the various professions, call forth the energies of their people.” He praised Lincoln’s professors, noting many were Princeton graduates. James McCosh, quoted in Catalogue of Lincoln University (1891-1892), 44.

[17]

For a good overview of McCosh’s leadership style, see J. David Hoeveler, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981). See also West, “Biographical Notice,” 9-10.

[18]

“Persons and Things,” Nassau Literary Magazine 25, no. 3 (1 December 1868): 197. “Suffer him to come” is a reference to Matthew 19:14, which in the King James Version reads, “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

[19]

James H. McNeilly, “What Caused the War,” Confederate Veteran 17, no. 1 (January 1909): 407.  

[20]

James McCosh, The Laws of Discursive Thought: Being a Text-book of Formal Logic (London: MacMillian and Co., 1870), 131, 52.

[21]

McCosh, The Laws of Discursive Thought, 115.

[22]

James McCosh quoted in “Colored Professors for Liberia,” African Repository 59 (January 1883): 27; James McCosh, quoted in Carter G. Woodson, ed., The Works of Francis J. Grimké, Vol. 1 (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1942), x-xi. See also Broussard, African-American Odyssey, 39.

[23]

“Colored Professors for Liberia,” 27; Woodson, ed., The Works of Francis J. Grimké, x-xi. See also Broussard, African-American Odyssey, 39.

[24]

James McCosh, quoted in William Henry Ferris, The African Abroad or His Evolution in Western Civilization: Tracing His Development Under Caucasian Milieu, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1913), 892.

[25]

McNeilly, “What Caused the War.”

[26]

Ibid.

[27]

Ibid.

[28]

Ibid.

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