The University Office of Communications announced in a statement on Tuesday that two prominent spaces on campus will be named after slaves who lived or worked at the University.
A new public garden located between Firestone Library and Nassau Street will be named after Betsey Stockton, and the easternmost arch of East Pyne Hall will be named after James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson.
These names were recommended to the University Board of Trustees by the Council of the Princeton University Community Committee on Naming. Composed of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the committee has previously recommended the renaming of West College to Morrison Hall after African-American writer Toni Morrison, and Dodds Auditorium as Arthur Lewis Auditorium, after West Indian economist Sir Arthur Lewis. Both figures were long-time University professors and Nobel laureates.
“Last year, with more academic buildings, we focused on names of people who were associated more with the academic side of Princeton,” said Angela Creager, the chair of the Committee on Naming chair and a professor of history.
This year, however, the committee saw an opportunity to recognize those who have served the University community outside of the faculty role.
“The committee was working really hard to recognize people from Princeton’s history who weren't just faculty members, who might not otherwise have a story on campus,” said Devin Kilpatrick ’19, who is a member of the committee.
Stockton was a slave in Maclean House, home of the eighth University president, Ashbel Green, Class of 1783. After gaining her freedom, she traveled to Hawaii as a missionary in 1822, where she established a school for native Hawaiian children. In 1828, she founded a school for African-American children in Philadelphia.
“Betsey Stockton’s life followed a remarkable trajectory from slavery to freedom, from Princeton to the Pacific, and back again,” an essay published by the Princeton & Slavery Project noted.
Returning to New Jersey in 1833, Stockton founded the first school in Princeton for children of color and helped found what is now the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1840. She went on to teach for almost 30 years in the school that she had founded.
“She was a tremendous leader in local education and especially for African-Americans,” Creager said. “When she died, citizens of the town, both black and white, came to pay tribute to her.”
The library garden will be located near both the church Stockton founded and Maclean House, where she lived as a slave.
“The space was facing the town, and we wanted to honor someone with a connection to the city as well as the University,” Creager added.
Johnson arrived at the University in 1839 after fleeing slavery in Maryland. He worked as a janitor for four years but was recognized by a student and subsequently tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Although he was indicted, Theodosia Provost — a granddaughter of Samuel Stanhope Smith, the seventh University president, and great-granddaughter of John Witherspoon, the sixth University president — paid for his freedom.
University students contributed money for his business on campus and, later, for his gravestone.
“His relationship with the campus and with Princeton students was complicated,” Creager said. “I think it forces us to reckon with our past.”
Over his six decades working as a vendor at the University, Johnson became a beloved figure among students, as an essay on the Princeton & Slavery Project website notes.
“He was a figure that every student came in contact with,” said history professor Martha Sandweiss, founder and director of the Princeton & Slavery Project. “He not only sold snacks and food, but he sold old clothes and recycled furniture.”
The Committee on Naming chose to associate Johnson’s name with the East Pyne arch in part because it “looks out on the places where he befriended students and sold his wares.”
“This archway, which was right next to the statue of John Witherspoon, seemed a great place to acknowledge the complicated history of the institution around slavery,” Creager added. According to the University statement, the University’s first nine presidents, including Witherspoon, owned slaves.
“I think for both [Stockton and Johnson], Princeton is a place where they made their long journey from slavery to freedom,” Sandweiss said.
University trustees requested submissions for naming the two proposed spaces in November. Over the following months, the committee sifted through suggestions submitted to a form on its website.
“The process was very democratic,” noted committee member Jonathan Aguirre GS. “We received hundreds of recommendations from the campus community, the town community, professors, graduate students, undergraduates, administrators.”
The Committee on Naming was established by the Council of the Princeton University Community at the suggestion of the trustees in September 2017, following controversy over the naming of the Wilson School. Its purpose is to assist the trustees in recognizing and honoring “individuals who would bring a more diverse presence to the campus.”
“It’s definitely going to shed light on the complex history of the community, but I think most importantly it engages dialogues for the future University community,” Aguirre said.
This year’s selections also come after extensive historical research by Sandweiss and the Princeton & Slavery Project.
“One of the things we at least hoped when we did the Princeton & Slavery Project, which was completely focused on the past, was that people would work with the present,” Sandweiss said. “It’s really thrilling for us that our research is now being used in the way we hoped.”
Sandweiss also expressed optimism for the future.
“This is a project that doesn’t just re-contextualize what we have, it creates something new and in doing so it enriches campus,” she added.
The selections come after recent activism and conversation regarding legacies of important figures. Last year, Yale University changed the name of Calhoun College to honor alumna Grace Hopper in a re-evaluation of John C. Calhoun’s legacy. On Wednesday, April 18, New York City took down a statute of J. Marion Sims, who “performed experimental gynecological surgeries on slave women at his home in Alabama.”