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After former University president Samuel Finley passed away in 1766, the slaves he had owned were sold in an auction outside of what is now the Maclean House, underneath the American sycamore trees that are nicknamed “liberty trees.” The names and fates of these slaves are still unknown, but their stories — intrinsically tied to those of the University’s — are being assessed and analyzed for the first time in the University’s history as part of the Princeton and Slavery Project.

The project is the result of years of research led by history professor Martha Sandweiss and involving multiple graduate student seminars and first-year seminars. The research findings from these courses were published on a website this November, along with videos, interactive maps, and primary source documents.

To mark the project’s completion, the University hosted an academic symposium from Nov. 17–18, involving academic lectures, artistic exploration in plays and sculptures, panels, and a keynote address by Nobel Laureate and Professor Emerita Toni Morrison.

After Friday’s keynote address, a panel of student contributors to the Princeton and Slavery Project joined college presidents and other leaders in the movement to investigate University ties to slavery, in order to share their research findings and experiences.

According to the panel, in the mid-1800s University students largely hailed from the South. Joseph Yannielli, postdoctoral associate at the Gilder Lehrman Center of Yale University, reported that the University’s Class of 1851 was 63 percent Southern. In particular, Trip Henningson ’17 noted that Mississippians made up a significant proportion of the University’s student body by the mid-1800s.

“Slavery became part of the DNA of Princeton,” said Yannielli. “Princeton became renowned as a safe space for slaveholders.”

In fact, Craig Hollander, an assistant professor of history at The College of New Jersey, told the story of 60 University students who assaulted an abolitionist who was visiting the town in 1835. The students claimed that they had the lynch law on their side and burned the abolitionist’s papers, forcing him “to run for his life out of town.”

Hollander further explained that the more Southerners that matriculated at Princeton, the more the University depended on the South for support. Hollander noted that to maintain harmony, most members of the University’s community, Northerners and Southerners alike, avoided potentially inflammatory discussions about the morality of slaveholding. One Charleston newspaper stated in 1857 that the sentiments of Princeton students and faculty were Southern in character, and that the University was the only Northern institution in which this was the case.

Yannielli criticized the “catastrophic failure of moral leadership” among the University’s faculty who encouraged their students to put profit before people and property rights before human rights.

While, on campus, some University students favored slavery in the mid-1800s,  in town, there was a thriving free black community. According to Isabela Morales, a Ph.D. candidate at the University’s Department of History, free African Americans worked as vendors, cooks, or assistants; donated to abolitionist organizations; and sheltered refugees. University students who called themselves “Southern blood” resented the free black community’s visibility. Defenders of slavery, according to Morales, claimed that African Americans could not support themselves — that free blacks lived in destitution and were not better off than slaves. 

The University’s historical ties to slavery are further complicated by the legacy of John Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president, who simultaneously advocated for liberty and lectured against the abolition of slavery in New Jersey. Lesa Redmond ’17 reported that Witherspoon privately tutored two free African-American men, discussed the possibility of funding education for a free black Virginian, and baptized an enslaved man to free him from sin. Still, Witherspoon compared slaves to horses and and defined them as a form of property. 

After the panel discussion, Prairie View A&M University Interim President Ruth Simmons and Northwestern University professor Leslie Harris discussed the efforts their universities have made to confront their connections with slavery. The talk, titled “The Princeton and Slavery Project: How it Shapes our Broader Understanding of Universities and Slavery,” was moderated by Wallace Best, a professor of religion and African American studies at the University.

Other universities that began researching their ties to slavery before Princeton’s project have received positive feedback from their communities. Harris said that one good outcome of the Transforming Community Project at Emory University, which she co-founded and directed and was a multi-year program designed for the entire institution to rethink and confront its own race history, was that students and faculty felt great relief that they could talk about the past and be “given the permission to be honest.”

“As our community becomes more diverse, it changes the stories we want to tell,” said Harris. There was not a day when she worked on the project that she did not feel hopeful.

“If you are willing to engage the question, [through] small movements with butterfly wings, things start to change,” said Harris. “When histories or bad things are hidden, it’s in there, and you can feel it. You can feel bad things.”  

Henningson acknowledged that this project “could hurt” and that the project could “shatter some ideologies” that people have regarding Princeton.

Simmons, who established the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at Brown, faced difficulty in reconciling her identity with the investigative project. Many people urged her to not take on the project. In their eyes, the study would be “tainted” simply because she was African American. Her identity caused the validity of the study to be questioned, and the immediate reaction to the project was overwhelmingly negative.

“Those who are descendants of slaves aren’t given the same authority to talk about slavery as whites are,” Simmons said.

Despite the difficulties, Simmons recognized that “the overwhelming importance of telling the truth governed everything.” She believes that people are better served when they can talk candidly about events that have transpired.

“I think universities miss the point when they hide the light,” said Simmons. “Hiding the light means we become corrupt and scheming like other institutions, [and that is] very harmful to us as institutions. There are intruders that want to uncloak the dishonesty of the University. Our best defense is to do it in the light and with the utmost integrity because others will uncloak that if we don’t.”

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