From a 1766 slave sale that took place on campus to the fact that the University’s first nine presidents were slaveholders, the history of the University has been tied to the history of slavery since its beginning. The Princeton and Slavery Project, a large-scale academic and creative endeavor, has been established to explore how early University trustees, faculty, and students were connected to the institution of slavery. 

The project comes as many universities are reckoning with pasts closely tied to slavery, such as Georgetown University, which in 1838 sold 272 slaves to save the institution.  

Led by History professor Martha Sandweiss, the project’s findings have been published on a website that includes articles, videos, interactive maps and graphs, and hundreds of primary source documents. 

The website will be supplemented by a range of campus events; a two-day academic symposium featuring Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison as keynote speaker, is scheduled for Nov. 17-18, and McCarter Theatre will present seven newly commissioned ten-minute plays inspired by the project on Nov. 18-19. On Nov. 16, the Princeton University Art Museum will host a conversation with Titus Kaphar, whose sculpture “Impressions of Liberty” will be temporarily displayed at the site of the 1766 slave auction on campus. 

Sandweiss explained that the project is intended to shed light on the unearthed history of slavery and the University, not only by sharing academic research but also by approaching the topic through the creative arts. 

“Historians are so good at unearthing these documents from the past and thinking about what happened, but historians have rules. They can’t make up what’s inside people’s heads,” Sandweiss said. “I wanted creative people whose discipline doesn’t need footnotes to explore [this topic] in a more creative way. All those voices add up and make this a richer project and more interesting.”

When Sandweiss joined the University’s history department in 2009, she was surprised that the University had never organized an in-depth study of its connection to slavery, as a number of other universities founded in America’s early years have done so. The results of such a study would be particularly interesting because the University is not only America’s fourth-oldest college but is also historically more national than other old schools, such as Harvard and Yale, which were largely regional.

“What happened here mattered because students came here from all across [the country] and then they went back home, so the ideas they learned here had a really large impact,” Sandweiss explained.

In 2013, Sandweiss began organizing upper-level history seminars designed to investigate slavery at the University and to expose students to the methodology of archival research. Students in these seminars, along with other scholars and researchers involved in the project, determined that the University’s first land donor, Nathaniel FitzRandolph, was a slaveholder. They also found that donors connected to slavery provided funds for the construction of campus buildings and that the University’s seven founding trustees all owned slaves.

John Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, not only owned slaves, but also intentionally increased the proportion of students from wealthy southern and Caribbean families, who often had ties to slavery. Moses Taylor Pyne, a northerner and prominent donor to the University, inherited a fortune from the slavery-dependent Cuban sugar industry.

The town of Princeton, which by the 1860s was home to a significant population of free blacks, saw violence break out over slavery. In 1843, a local citizen paid for the freedom of a fugitive slave after a student recognized him from his hometown’s plantation. In 1864, a mob of 14 students severely beat a black man despite efforts from professor John Maclean Jr. to deter them. 

Sandweiss explained that the project’s findings locate the town of Princeton and the University in a broader history of American slavery. 

“The history of Princeton and slavery is the history of America writ small,” she said. “We are a place where liberty and slavery have been intertwined from the very start.”

The project received support from the Princeton Histories Fund, which promotes research on  "aspects of Princeton's history that have been forgotten, overlooked, subordinated or suppressed.” The creation of such a program was one of the recommended initiatives in an April 2016 report by the trustee committee that reviewed Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at the University; other recommendations included diversifying campus art and iconography. The prominence of Wilson’s legacy on campus was called into question in 2015 by the Black Justice League, a student organization that held protests in part to advocate for the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, from the Wilson School and Wilson College.

Sandweiss emphasized that an important aspect of the project is its accessibility. She opted for a website to present her findings, rather than a book, in order to promote ongoing exploration of the vast amount of archival materials that the project studied. To bridge the project with the town, Sandweiss collaborated with local public schools to create high school lesson plans. 

The project is also an attempt to connect the University’s past with its current community. One of Sandweiss’s freshman seminars approached this directly by asking students to film interviews with students and alumni who are descended from slaveholders, slaves, or both. 

“Keeping stories like these secret does nobody a service,” Sandweiss said. “We owe it to ourselves to understand where we came from.”

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