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Black History Month: Looking back at the 1980s and 1990s

Affirmative action was the political backdrop of African-American student life on campus in the 1980s, with some students and alumni questioning its place. In the 1990s, the University began examining race relations on campus, while both the Alumni Council and the Alumni Association selected the same person to be each of their first African-American leaders.

1981: The label of “products of affirmative action”


The year 1981, beginning with President Ronald Reagan's budget for fiscal year 1982, brought new budget cuts to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, heightening public scrutiny of both affirmative action and hiring and admission decisions perceived to be the result of affirmative action.

Faculty members and students were also still uncomfortable having African-Americans on campus at the beginning of the 1980s,Eric Holmes ’85 said.

Holmes said that on one of his first days at the University,a stranger from his residential advising group told him,“I understand about affirmative action, but you’re here and my friend isn’t. And that’s just not fair."

The assumption about gaining admission through special privileges predated the 1980s, Melvin McCray ’74 said.

“There was always an assumption that the reason you got in was because of a quota or because of some affirmative action,” he said.

An "undercurrent of otherness" marked a large part of the experience of Karen Ruffin ’86 at the University, she said.


"As a black student, I can’t speak for everybody but for me," Ruffin said. "I always felt like everyday, I was being asked to prove that I belonged there."

While affirmative action was a hot-button issue in the 1980s, Nneka Nwosu Faison ’05 saidaffirmative action was still featured in the news frequently during her time as a freshman.

Whenever affirmative action was brought up in her politics precept where she was the only black student, her classmates looked at her as if affirmative action was the only reason that she was admitted to the University, she said.

“I felt kind of put under the microscope," Faisonsaid. "When you’re trying to create an identity for yourself, you don’t really want everyone questioning whether you belong there."

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1982: A diaspora ofthe community into the Residential Colleges

A major change that affected the University was that the class of 1985 was the last class to arrive on campus without the residential colleges, Holmes said.

The residential college system made each residential community more representative of demographics on campus, he explained.

“Most of the student body didn’t want a change in the structure of the campus life," Holmes said. "It wasn’t a popular change across the campus."

This change had a major impact on the African-American community in particular because it was no longer concentrated in Princeton Inn College and the so-called New New Quad in what is now the Butler College area, Holmes said. However, the move also had some unintentional negative consequences, he added.

“We now, as a community, were kind of dispersed across campus and didn’t have the same kind of support that we had when we were living in larger concentrations,” he said.

However, the residential college system also fostered friendships, Perry LeBlanc ’88 said. He had carpools with his friends to go from Princeton Inn College to the Engineering Quadrangle, he said, adding he particularly remembered a time when the college took its residents up in a hot air balloon.

"[The residential college system] played an important role in the friendships that I developed because I really spent a lot of time in the residential college and got to meet a lot of interesting people," LeBlanc said. "When we extended out of the residential college as well, we had a very strong base of people that we could take with us for our junior and senior years."

1983: Interactions with the press

There were occasionally letters written to The Daily Princetonian that were not in favor of the presence of African-American students on campus, Holmes said.

In 1983, Princeton Alumni Weekly published an editorial letterCharles Huber ’51 had wrotesaying the University had gone downhill after it admitted African American students and women, Ruffin said.

“Those types of sentiments were not rare with the older alums,” Ruffin said.

Concerned Alumni of Princeton, which opposed the admittance of women and minorities to the University, distributed an unwelcoming magazine called Prospect accusing the University of diluting student life quality by admitting minorities, Holmes said.

“It was made very obvious that you were other than a real Princetonian,” he said.

CAP and its magazine attained additional public scrutiny in 2005 when U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito ’72 was undergoing his confirmation hearing.A congressional inquiry led by Democrat Ted Kennedy eventually found Alito wasn't associated with the group's activities.

"Currently alumni children comprise 14 percent of each entering class, compared with an 11 percent quota for blacks and Hispanics," the group wrote in a 1985 fundraising letter sent to all Princeton graduates, according to the New York Times.

During her freshman year, Ruffin said, the Madison Report, a student-run paper on campus, mocked the Black Thoughts Table, a group of African-American students who dined together to discuss global and campus issues from an African-American perspective.

After the Madison Report mocked the group, they were invited to attend the next meeting, which was tense, Ruffin added.

“I remember that it was civil, but terse," she explained, "and I remember thinking, 'Why is it they think its OK to belittle us in print like that?' ”

1980s: The age of romance

The 1980s also saw the beginning of a significant number of romances in the African-American community on campus, many of which have resulted in marriages even today. Both African-American students and female students had become more numerous on campus in the 1980s than they had been historically.

This trend also occurred because these students had a lot in common,Rhinold Ponder ’81 said.

“There were some special people there," Ponder said. "Some people probably found their soul mate. I know quite a few of those folks. It’s not uncommon to go to college and find someone who you’re going to marry."

Ruffin and her husband were the second couple out of their friend group to get married, she said, adding her rehearsal dinner was conducted at the former Third World Center, her wedding at the University Chapel and her wedding reception at Charter Club, where her husband was a member.

These marriages were a predictable outcome because the African-American community was extremely tight-knit during her time at the University, she added.

“We have all sorts of common bonds, and being Princetonian is just one more common bond," she explained. "So culturally, we have a common bond, and experientially, we have a common bond."

However, marriage at the University is not an African American phenomenon, LeBlanc added, but a campus-wide phenomenon among people who are like-minded and have the same values and aspirations.

"When you put such people together, you tend to find your soul mate," he explained.

1993: Recommendations for campus race relations

On March 1, then-Vice Provost Ruth Simmons issued a 50-page report, titled "Report on Campus Race Relations."

The reports resulted in the appointment of an ombudsman, the establishment of a Race Relations Working Group and an effort to better coordinate race relations activities,according to thePrinceton Weekly Bulletin.

Despite these recommendations, the same issues got raised in the same ways, Jim Floyd ’69 said.

“There certainly have been ‘Prince’ articles about how students have been disappointed that the results of the implementations of the recommendations of that study had not been heartily carried out to the point that there have been protesters and more studies and more work groups and ad hoc groups and more diversity groups,” he said.

1997: Beginning to move up the University ranks

In 1997, University Trustee Brent Henry ’69 became the first African American alumnus to be elected as the Chair of the Alumni Council and president of the Alumni Association.

“Part of my focus as Alumni Council chair at the time was really to figure out how to identify a number of ethnic groups who, because of their history with the University, they didn’t feel as connected as they seem to do now,” Henry said.

The Board of Trustees has also had a significant number of African-American trustees, Charles Brown ’92 said.

“We were able to represent a certain perspective and give voices to students who weren’t necessarily represented during previous times in the University’s history,” he explained.

Spencer Merriweather ’00 said when he was the president of the Undergraduate Student Government, ad hoc committees were not primarily focused on diversity issues, though the organization was diverse at the time, with a Korean American vice president and an Asian American treasurer.

In 2011, Henry became the first African-American alumnus to be named as the vice chair of the Board of Trustees.

One of the highlights of his experience as a trustee, Henry said, was working on a diversity plan.

The report found that progress to increase the diversity of academic departments since 1980 had been "disturbingly slow" and that graduate students and faculty were significantly less diverse than the undergraduate population, according to a September 2013 Daily Princetonian article.

“That again was an opportunity to bring a lot of voices from diverse backgrounds on the table to try to figure out how to promote ideas and University programs that would move the University in the right direction,” Henry said.

1998: The lack of a department

There were a number of protests in 1998 to raise the awareness about issues at the University that affected minorities, Merriweather said.

The protests outside Firestone had agendas that ranged from the treatment of dining employees on campus to the lack of embrace of African-American students at eating clubs, he explained.

“They all helped foster big conversations about these things,” he said.

One of the biggest points of debate surrounded the possibility of the creation of an African-American studies department instead of the African-American studies certificate that was the final result.

“We don’t have a department because an African American studies department could possibly dilute the central disciplinary contributions to the field from history, from political, from psychology, from art, from religion,” he said.

As a result of the conversation that was started, the Center for African American Studies was constructed, he added.

1999: The story of Princeton in Africa

In 1999, a group of University alumni, including Floyd, founded Princeton in Africa.

Princeton in Africa offers yearlong fellowships with African organizations with an interest in Africa’s development and advancement.

One of the things that happened to bring the program together was the 100thanniversary celebration of Princeton in Asia, Floyd explained.

“There’d never been a Princeton-any-place-else," he said. "And many of us said, 'Well, why not?' ”

The group's founders knew there was student interest in spending time in Africa, he said, adding the fact that the University's first African-American administrator, Carl Fields, had wanted to establish something along the lines of a Princeton in Africa earlier in the 1960s and 1970s motivated him.

Floyd said he never anticipated people with such diverse backgrounds to become Princeton in Africa fellows.

“An evolution has happened where not only African-American students have served as fellows with Princeton in Africa, but also people whose parents are from Africa and some of them who grew up in certain countries in Africa have become Princeton in Africa fellows,” he said.

The program has 400 alumni, according tostatistics published recently.

This article is the fourth in a five-part Black History Month feature series. Check back tomorrow for a look at the University in the 2000s and 2010s.