“Princeton students lived on a landscape of slavery,” Professor Martha Sandweiss said about antebellum Princeton in a meeting discussing the University’s racially charged history.
This meeting followed a wide-scale symposium on the University’s history with slavery that took place from Nov. 17-20 featuring keynote speaker professor emerita Toni Morrison and a panel of speakers from other Ivy League universities.
The University launched the Princeton & Slavery Project to bring attention to the details of slavery that have often been kept hidden from public knowledge, and in light of student agitation in recent years about how the University reckons with its past.
Sandweiss, a professor in the University’s History Department and a specialist in American History, began the project in 2013 after her undergraduate research seminar led to more and more questions about the University’s role in racial atrocities both before and after the Civil War. The University’s history has been unraveled to reveal details that had been hidden for centuries.
Students and faculty in attendance discussed New Jersey’s political history as well as how the University normalized slavery during the 19th century, in part because of a heavily Southern student population. The group also analyzed the University’s past with slavery in comparison to other Ivies at the time.
“It [slavery] doesn’t make us special,” said Sandweiss. “It just makes us American.” However, Sandweiss emphasized that the University was the “most Southern Ivy,” wryly adding, “[and] not geographically.”
Sandweiss also discussed Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, the controversial University and U.S. president known for his racist ideas and policies. She cautioned students should understand the historical context of Wilson’s ideology, where he professed segregationist ideas and policies, and its frequency in powerful figures at this time in American history.
“There is a long history here,” Sandweiss admitted. “There is a reason that his ideas found a receptive audience in this place.”
At the meeting’s conclusion, Sandweiss led the students to the front of MacLean House, where Titus Kaphar’s “Impressions of Liberty” stands. The sculpture depicts Samuel Finley, the University's fifth president, and an African American man, woman, and child overlaying his image. Sandweiss then turned toward Nassau Street and pointed to two large sycamore trees by the entrance to MacLean House, explaining that Finley had auctioned off three of his slaves under these so-called “Liberty Trees” in 1766.
The students in attendance took Sandweiss’s message seriously and hope to apply their newfound understanding to their lives in the future.
“It’s the responsibility of everyone here to understand this history,” said Akash Kushwaha ‘21. “We are history at the end of the day.”
Clarence Rowley ‘95, Head of Rockefeller College and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, was also in attendance and praised Sandweiss for all of the work that she has done with the project.
“It was great that she was able to walk us through the site and the concept, to have that face-to-face interaction,” said Rowley. “Everybody there came away with a deeper understanding of the project and Princeton’s historic involvement with slavery and the institution of slavery.”
The meeting, held for students in Rockefeller College, took place on Monday, Nov. 27 at 4:30 p.m. at MacLean House.