In 1837, the Quarry Street School for Colored Children, later the Witherspoon Street School, opened its doors in the heart of Princeton’s African American community. At that time, Princeton had a sizable free black population, with African Americans comprising about 21 percent of the total population. Princeton residents continued to own slaves in small numbers into at least the 1840s, but the number of free black residents had been growing since the time of the American Revolution.
The former Quarry Street School, also called the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, on the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean Streets.
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African Americans settled on Witherspoon Street and in the surrounding neighborhoods, forming the foundation of the historic Witherspoon-Jackson community—home to African American businesses, churches, schools, and residences throughout the 19th century. The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) lay just across Nassau Street. But according to one local historian, for the African American community beyond the college’s gates, Princeton was “a place to labor, not to study.”
Tensions existed between town and gown. Though the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton admitted both black and white worshippers in the 19th century, African Americans were required to sit in a segregated section of the balcony. In 1835, after a fire burned down the church, its African American members formed a new congregation: the First Presbyterian Church of Color, later renamed the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. This church would go on to provide a Sunday School that gave African American children a religious education and promoted literacy.
Betsey Stockton, a former slave of Princeton president Ashbel Green, was a founding member of the Witherspoon Street Church. Emancipated in 1817, Stockton travelled as a missionary to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) in 1822. Upon returning to the United States in 1828, she founded a school for black children in Philadelphia. After this success, Stockton returned to Princeton and taught Sunday School at Witherspoon Street Church; in 1839, she also began teaching at the Quarry Street School. Upon visiting the church, the white Presbyterian minister James W. Alexander wrote to a friend:
Yesterday I examined Betsey Stockton’s school; I wish I knew of a white school where religion was so faithfully inculcated.
Betsey Stockton was beloved by her students and year after year received positive reports from the school superintendent. Her story, and the story of Princeton’s two churches, exemplifies both the racial divisions in Princeton and the black community’s commitment to education.
Princeton in the 1940s
Flash forward 100 years and those legacies still remained. On September 28, 1942, the Daily Princetonian ran the first story in a series of three articles titled “White Supremacy at Princeton.” The Daily Princetonian stood against the University’s policy of racial exclusion, which had only been bridged only a few times in the town’s history.
In 1828, Theodore S. Wright graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary, becoming the first African American man to graduate from a seminary in the United States. At the College of New Jersey, President James McCosh accepted black seminary students into his undergraduate classes throughout the 1870s. Several African American graduate students received Master’s degrees from Princeton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; one of them, Irwin William Langston Roundtree had been born into slavery. Yet over the decades, Princeton’s early African American students had been forgotten and erased. In 1935, black Princeton resident Bruce Wright’s offer of admission to Princeton as an undergraduate was revoked on account of his race.
Finally, in October 1942, in the midst of the Daily Princetonian’s campaign, four African American men—John Leroy Howard, Arthur Jewel Wilson, James Everett War, and Melvin Murchison Jr.—were admitted to Princeton under the US Navy’s V-12 officer training program.
The context of World War II was central to the Princetonian series. As the first editorial stated:
Thirteen million colored Americans are asking today if the American democracy for which they are fighting will return after the war to the caste system which deifies the white man and condemns the black man to the indignities of segregation and discrimination.
The second editorial appealed to the University’s reputation:
Princeton is the last of the leading institutions outside the deep South which still adheres to this faith in racial superiority. Conversion of Princeton and the admission of Negro students will mean that Princeton is returning to its rightful place in American progress and to a century-old tradition of developing leaders devoted to the practice of democratic principles…in proclaiming its devotion to democratic principles, it is time for Princeton to put up or shut up.
One of a series of Daily Princetonian editorials arguing for the integration of Princeton University.
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The final article of the series, entitled “We Make Answer,” addressed some of “the most cogent and most frequently offered arguments of the opposition,”: that “the ‘Prince’ is only aggravating the racial problem and creating ill feeling,” that “it would be no kindness to the Negro to admit him to Princeton, for he would be miserable and unhappy,” and that “the distinctive culture and capabilities of the Negro should be preserved by offering him educational institutions of his own.” Finally, opponents argues that “one of the tenants of democracy is that men be permitted to choose their associates and, as a private institution, Princeton is not compelled by any ethical concept to admit Negroes.”
Those arguments were reflected in many opinion pieces featured in the Princetonian during the debates. In a letter to the editor, southern student Allen Colley was extremely frank, writing:
The problem then, in this question is not the Negro; it is the prejudice which we hold against him. The problem, you might say, is we – the prejudiced ones. And the question is not one of admitting the Negro so much as it is one of giving up the right to choose our classmates. The fact is that at the moment, a great many of us are not willing to give up that right.
Another southern student, Thomas Ennenga, wrote:
There is a large southern element in our student body, to whom negro equality means negro political dominance. The effect of negro students upon this large group and its ultimate effect on the university, should be carefully considered…the bad effects of such a move at Princeton seem to far outweigh the benefits which would be rendered to the negro race.
On October 1, the Whig-Clio Society held a forum on the question “Should Negroes Be Admitted to Princeton?”—unconsciously echoing the heated debates over slavery held at the Whig and Clio societies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Daily Princetonian chairmen Francis Broderick and C. Powell Whitehead Jr. spoke in favor of integration, while Lemuel Hutchins, President of the Princeton Senate, and Wallace J. Williamson spoke against it. The audience was divided: 51% voted in favor of integration, while 49% were opposed. In an 1946 article, Harvard Crimson writer J. Anthony Lewis, who would go on to become a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a New York Times columnist, would attribute Princeton’s reluctance to integrate to the conservative southern history and values of the student body.
In the midst of these debates between white Princeton students, one African American voice was heard in the Daily Princetonian. Andrew T. Hatcher, a black resident in town, wrote “An Open Letter to the Students of Princeton.” Asserting that he was “just as much a son of Old Nassau as many of you are,” Hatcher wished to “define the desires of Negro youth and to eradicate any ideas concerning his complacency.” Essentially, it was not Princeton students’ business to decide in what situation African American students would be happiest:
If you discriminate against me because I am uncouth, I can become mannerly. If you ostracize me because I am unclean, I can cleanse myself. If you segregate me because I lack knowledge, I can become educated. But if you discriminate against me because of my color, I can do nothing. God gave me my color.
Hatcher’s words highlighted the barrier Princeton’s discriminatory policies put between the African American community and access to high quality higher education at the town’s leading institution.
Letter from Andrew Hatcher, a black Princeton resident, regarding the debates over integration on campus.
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African American Princeton resident Joe Moore said that “the university was not an area that wanted us. It was a privileged place – not for us.” Another black resident, Leonard Rivers, recalled: “We had the John Witherspoon area, that was our community. We knew that when you crossed Nassau Street and you went to the university, that was not us.”
Most of the interactions between the Witherspoon community and the University were centered around labor. Leonard’s brother Robert Rivers, who would go on to attend Princeton as an undergraduate, explained:
Service people that worked at the university lived in the community across Nassau Street. It was pretty hard to separate one from the other…most folks really prized when they got jobs over there as doormen, or janitors, or whatever.
Prized as these jobs may have been, the fact that these men were barred from admittance to the school was hard to ignore. Romus Broadway summed up the tension nicely:
Princeton University has always been viewed, at least to my knowledge, as not antagonistic, but not a voluntary participant in leveling the playing field…When you finished high school, there were jobs waiting for you as a waiter or a dishwasher or a cook, but not as a student.
Members of the Witherspoon-Jackson community, however, would not let their children be denied access to a good education. At the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, students were taught:
Be a credit to your race. Racism will always be with us. Don’t use it as a crutch. You have to work twice as hard and put twice the effort into what you do.
The integration of Princeton’s public schools was set in motion by the ratification of the 1947 New Jersey State Constitution, which, with amendments, is still in effect today. Prior to the adoption of this constitution, New Jersey was governed by its 1844 constitution. When Charles Edison became governor of New Jersey in 1940, he pushed for change, saying:
When the war [World War II] ends, the states and the nations will be faced with tremendous and complex problems…We cannot expect that the haphazard, inefficient, and irresponsible state government that we have under the constitution of 1844 will be half-way competent to deal with the new problems it will have to face.
In response to this call to action, the state legislature created a commission to study the constitution and to make recommendations. This group initially gave no indication that it would address civil rights, but the committee did report public support for the addition of anti-discrimination clauses. In 1943, the state senate passed a referendum that would allow the 1944 legislature to draft a new constitution, with the limitation that it would not make any changes to the state’s bill of rights. When this new constitution came to the polls in 1944, however, it was defeated.
The push for revision was taken up once more in 1947 when Alfred Eastlack Driscoll was elected governor. Driscoll put together a delegation of 81 members, which included eight white women and one African American man, to discuss and draft a new constitution. He solicited the opinion of the public, holding hearings on each article, and organized a speech by a representative from the Division Against Discrimination. Through the advocacy of Oliver Randolph, the only black member of the Committee on Rights and Privileges and the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Bill of Rights, this broad anti-discrimination campaign came to include the desegregation of schools.
The 1844 and 1947 state constitution largely followed the same format in their opening articles on Rights and Privileges. The first three clauses addressed unalienable rights, the government’s service on behalf of the people, and freedom of worship with only minor changes, such as swapping the words “all men” for “all persons.” This conscious attention to inclusivity became even more apparent in the fourth clause of the 1947 constitution. While the 1844 constitution declared that “no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust,” the 1947 revision read: “no religious or racial test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust.” Finally, an entirely new addition was made in the fifth clause:
No person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil or military right, nor be discriminated against in the exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.
The Princeton public was keenly aware of the ratification of a new constitution. In the November 2, 1947 issue of Town Topics, the candidates for the newspaper’s “Man of the Week” competition all took a position on the new constitution. The article suggested that it was important to Princeton that the men who represented the town were politically engaged. That same day, a “Topics of the Town” article urged Princetonians to “do themselves and New Jersey a favor by making sure that the light vote in an off-year will be adequate for adoption” of the constitution. In that same issue, an enormous advertisement asked residents to “Vote Republican for a new state constitution.” Civic engagement mattered to Princeton residents, and once the constitution came into effect, the clause regarding school segregation had to be addressed.
Advertisement urging Princeton residents to vote Republican to support the new state constitution, which prohibited the segregation of public schools.
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The "Princeton Plan"
In 1940, Governor Edison had predicted that “the states and nations will be faced with tremendous and complex problems” in the coming years. A February 15, 1948 Town Topics article reflected the same sentiment—this time specific to school integration—stating that “already harassed school officials…have a new and probably their toughest nut to crack.” The Princeton public school system’s foundation lay in the segregation that had been inherent in the town since the early 19th century. Even in 1948, there were still restaurants and other town facilities that African American residents were not permitted to enter.
The Town Topics article billed the issue of desegregation as a “controversial subject” and went on to describe the questionnaire sent by the State Department of Education to the 554 school districts in New Jersey. By March 15, Princeton’s Borough Board of Education was required to answer “whether it considers any of the children in the Witherspoon School intentionally segregated because of color.” The township also had to answer: “Does your district pay tuition for colored children to attend a segregated school in another district?” Though the public high school had integrated in 1916, the borough was in fact home to one all-white and one all-black elementary school, and the township did in fact pay the borough to educate its black elementary school students in that segregated school.
The truth was undeniable: Princeton’s segregated school system was unconstitutional, and town officials quickly formed a plan to address this. Stated simply, the plan would “distribute the children according to grades, not to neighborhood.” The Witherspoon Street School became the junior high school for both black and white children, housing grades six, seven, and eight, while the Nassau Street School became the integrated elementary school, housing grades kindergarten through five.
In the 1960s, the “Princeton Plan” became a national model when many school administrators—most notably the New York City Board of Education—adopted it following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
Photograph of students at the segregated Witherspoon Street School in the 1920s and 1930s.
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At this same time, Princeton University began to integrate in earnest, admitting three members of the Witherspoon community—Joseph Ralph Moss, Robert Rivers, and Simeon Moss—as undergraduates in the late 1940s. The experience of these men was not entirely easy. Robert Rivers remembered having “to live in two worlds. My social life was not on campus.”
In an attempt to help the plan run more smoothly for elementary school students, the Borough Board of Education initiated programs that would allow students to interact more extensively before the previously-segregated schools were integrated. At this time, the Board was comprised of seven white men and two white women, with no African American members. According to a 1962 Daily Princetonian article, the board “set up a joint reading workshop for the schools and there was an exchange of assembly programs.” Over the summer, the board also held open houses at each school so that parents could take tours of the schools and meet the teachers. When the white Parent Teacher Council of the Nassau Street School was told of the board’s decision to integrate, the action was met with a certain amount of tension and dissent, but not enough to block its passage.
Photograph of the fourth grade class at the segregated Nassau Street School in the 1910s.
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The newspaper coverage of this shift was revealing. Desegregation went largely unreported in New Jersey, and when it was mentioned was often referred to as “centralization,” “reorganization,” or “change.” Reluctance was palpable. The Trenton Evening Times reported on April 7, 1948 that:
Although the board is unanimous in its feeling that the organization which has prevailed up to this time has been of the greatest possible service to all residents of the community, it does not wish to continue any system which would appear to be contrary to the will of the people as expressed in the new Constitution.
A few days later, the Trenton Evening Times ran another article that focused on the monetary benefits of the plan to “accommodate all children.” Town Topics repeated both this focus on financial savings and the necessity of following the new constitution. The article quoted the borough school board as pointing out that “it could not possibly produce a plan which would meet with the unanimous approval of all the citizens of Princeton” but that “it was worth recalling that the new constitution, motivating factor in the decision, was passed in Princeton last Fall by the overwhelming margin of 8 to 1.”
In an April 1948 Daily Princetonian article, three prominent Princeton locals gave their opinions. Secretary of the Board of Education Irving W. Mershon stated that “up to this time, we have had no unpleasant kick-backs pursuant to that decision.” Yet some African Americans felt that desegregation would cause its own problems. John Richmond, the African American sexton of Trinity Church, said that he favored separate schools “because a Negro child going through mixed schools is badly outnumbered by the white students, and he is bound to pick up an inferiority complex.” The African American rector of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, Rev. M. A. Galamison, partly disagreed:
School integration will lead to better understanding. As it is now, when Negroes get to high school, they are unprepared for the integration of races they find there, and only the outstanding Negroes and whites can overcome the mental barriers which segregation sets up.
Unlike Richmond, Galamison supported the Princeton Plan. But at the same time, he alluded to the struggle that African American students would face upon integrating. Many black parents worried about the safety of their young children walking to the Nassau Street School, how they would be treated, and about the loss of many of their beloved teachers, for the teaching staff were to be integrated as well and many children could potentially miss the opportunity to be taught by Witherspoon Street School’s best. It was this struggle that would be remembered by the African American students of the Princeton Plan.
Photograph of the Witherspoon School on Quarry Street, the new building constructed in 1908.
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Fifty Years Later
Today it is easy to see school integration as a purely positive event, educating children and promoting racial equality. The students involved made clear, however, that integration was not without its costs.
In 2013, the Princeton Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund created a short film titled The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later, which featured interviews with historians as well as students and teachers involved in the desegregation process.
Many of the African American students who were a part of the first integrated class recalled the difficulty of losing their favorite teachers from the Witherspoon Street School. Shirley Satterfield remembered being “treated differently” and feeling “a lack of caring because it wasn’t the same type of caring that we had before we left Witherspoon.”
At Witherspoon Street School “we were just like a big family,” said Henry Pannell. But “when we got to Nassau Street School, well I got the impression that we were just about ignored. We used to compete among ourselves, we weren’t asked to answer questions. Pannell recounted a conversation with the black principal, Howard Waxwood, in which it was explained to him that “subconsciously, white people don’t realize, at times, what they’re doing, and how you feel about things.” Waxwood’s widow, Susie B. Waxwood, attributed this insight to her husband’s own struggle in the Princeton school system: “Mr. Waxwood himself…was rejected, was humiliated, but through it all he kept fighting, and I think that is why he tried to get those students…to not give up.”
Susie Waxwood, Chester Stroup (the white principal of Nassau Street School), Janet Penfield (a white member of the Nassau School PTA), Thomas Artin (a white student from the first integrated class), and Albert E. Hinds (a local African American activist), viewed the integration as largely positive—perhaps an easier perspective to take as adults or as white students who did not directly experience some of the negative effects of the Princeton Plan. Hinds said:
We went with the Princeton Plan, that’s why we felt proud that we were a part of something of that plan that everybody is picking up on! We must have been doing something good because it spread – other cities took on some phase of the Princeton Plan.
For Principal Stroup, “it was like a breath of fresh air to see all this thing coming together with good people of good will.” Artin remembered feeling “pleased, amused, proud that Princeton had been a pioneer in this,” and was inspired by one of his new African American teachers, Mrs. Scruggs, to become an author. Meanwhile, some African American students, like Satterfield and Pannell, felt “cheated,” with their “education seem[ing] to go down a little bit when they integrated the schools.”
The Witherspoon Street School had been a community in which teachers took personal interest in their students and made the time to teach them about their heritage. Clyde Thomas was “fascinated by some of the history or achievements that they were telling us of African Americans and people from the African Continent.” Burnetta Griggs Peterson remembered being given “lessons in regard our own people, you know, black history, and particularly during Negro History Week…We had pictures of outstanding African Americans and little essays underneath. It was something that I treasured.”
Alice Satterfield, mother of Shirley Satterfield, said that it does indeed take a community to raise a child. At the Witherspoon Street School, the teachers “taught us manners and respectability and how to carry ourselves properly, and you know that they cared for you, they went out of their way to help you,” Alice recalled. When the schools were integrated however, much of that compassion was lost:
So when one of the white boys was dancing with Shirley, this teacher, this gym teacher made them separate: ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to dance with them, with those coloreds.’ So that was one of the things that hurt Shirley very much because she didn’t think of prejudice at that time, and kids – kids are taught prejudice.
While African American teachers and “families always made sure that education was a part of your expectation,” after integration “the teachers, particularly the white teachers, did not expect a lot from us,” said Joe Moore. Kathleen Edwards remembered teachers being “simply shocked when we did succeed in spite of all adversity”:
We had teachers we would tell our dreams and everything, and they would tell us, ‘I don’t know why you are wasting your time with that because you are not going to amount to anything’ and ‘They don’t hire blacks for so and so.’
This dismal attitude towards the futures and potential of African American students continued into high school. Though by 1948 the high school had been integrated for thirty-two years, prejudice remained there as well, and black students were rarely tracked into “academic” courses. African American parents like Bessie Parago had to go to the school to ensure that their children were given the same opportunities as white students. This was the fighting spirit that Howard Waxwood did his best to instill in his students after integration.
Susie Waxwood closed The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later with the following words of hope:
If for no other reason that every child had a good book, and didn’t have a second-hand one that had come down from another school, but had the same kinds of material, the same books, the same pencils, the same drawing material, if for no other reason [Mr. Waxwood] felt that those students, that his students were getting what they had missed in a segregated school.
The desegregation of Princeton’s public schools was part of an effort to bring greater equality to the town of Princeton, an effort that began in Betsey Stockton’s time, continued into the late-19th century when civil rights activist Paul Robeson’s mother Maria taught at the Witherspoon Street School, and continues today. Contemporary responses to integration—from students at Princeton University to African American Princeton residents—were hardly unified. Recollections of the Princeton Plan reveal the racial tensions that existed in the past and continue to exist in the present.
1840 United States Federal Census, New Jersey, Mercer, Princeton, Ancestry.com, accessed 28 November 2017.
Kathryn Watterson, I Hear My People Singing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 106.
Emma Epps, “Remembering the Trolley, the Curfew and Kid Green’s Car,” Trenton Gazette, 16 April 1976.
John Hall, D. D., ed., Forty Years’ Familiar Letters of James W. Alexander, D. D. Constituting, With the Notes, A Memoir of His Life, Vol. 1 (New York: 1860), 294.
“White Supremacy At Princeton: 1. A Thousand Million Colored Allies,” Daily Princetonian, 28 September 1942.
“White Supremacy At Princeton: 2. A Time to Decide,” Daily Princetonian, 30 September 1942.
“White Supremacy At Princeton: 3. We Make Answer,” Daily Princetonian, 3 October 1942.
“The Negro Issue Defined,” Daily Princetonian, 7 October 1942.
“Opposes Admission Of Negroes,” Daily Princetonian, 30 September 1942.
“Whig-Clio Conducts Forum In Whig At 9 Tomorrow Evening,” Daily Princetonian, 30 September 1942; “‘Prince’ Speakers Challenge Princeton On Policy Of Racial Discrimination,” Daily Princetonian, 2 October 1942.
“Council Vetoes Negro Admission To College Now, 7 To 6; Princeton Faculty Backs Move By More Than 3-To-1 Vote; Poll Indicates 51 Per Cent Of Students Favor Proposal Gallup Technique Used,” Daily Princetonian, 22 October 1942.
“Contemporary Comment: Capital, South, Presbyterianism Hold Sway At Conservative Princeton Where Precious Collegiate Traditions Canalize Undergraduates’ Live,” Daily Princetonian, 15 October 1946; J. Anthony Lewis, “Champion of Underdogs,” Harvard Crimson, 4 June 1997.
Andrew T. Hatcher, “An Open Letter To the Students Of Princeton,” Daily Princetonian, 22 October 1942.
Watterson, I Hear My People Singing, 116.
Anne Robertson Buttenheim, Elementary School Desegregation in New Jersey Before 1954 (Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 1974), 56.
Ibid., 63-65, 72-75.
Ibid. Emphasis author's.
“We Nominate,” Town Topics, 2 November 1947.
“Topics of the Town,” Town Topics, 2 November 1947.
Town Topics, 2 November 1947, p. 3, advertisements column 2.
“Topics of the Town,” Town Topics, 15 February 1948.
Ibid; “Topics of the Town,” Town Topics, 15 February 1948.
“The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later,” 5:00; Watterson, I Hear My People Singing, 78.
“‘Princeton Plan’ Makes Nationwide News,” Town Topics, 23 January 1964.
Watterson, I Hear My People Singing, 110.
“‘Princeton Plan’ Makes Nationwide News,” Town Topics, 23 January 1964.
Frank B. Merrick, “Borough Solved Integration Problems 13 Years Ago,” Daily Princetonian, 20 February 1962.
“The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later,” 5:48-8:37.
Watterson, I Hear My People Singing, 79-81.
“Princeton Schools Will End Racial Segregation of Pupils,” The Trenton Evening Times, 7 April 1948.
“Princeton Township Planning To Accommodate All Pupils,” The Trenton Evening Times, 9 April 1948.
“Topics of the Town: The Will of the People,” Town Topics, 11 April 1948.
“Board Of Education Vetoes Segregation In Borough Schools,” The Daily Princetonian, 13 April 1948.
“The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later,” 10:15-10:53.
Ibid., “Final Thoughts.”
Watterson, I Hear My People Singing, 92.
“The Princeton Plan: 50 Years Later,” 20:33-21:30.