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Black History Month: Looking back from 1792 to 1950s

Race relations at the University have transformed significantly from a time when admitted students were turned away because of their race to a time when multiple diversity initiatives and ad hoc committees have been created to make students feel comfortable on campus.

According to sources, the history of African-American students at the University has been complex starting from 1792.


1792: The potentially first African-American University student

Although John Chavis, a young African-American man, was nominated for the Leslie Fund Scholarship set aside for poor and pious students who wanted to get a Presbyterian education, he does not appear in contemporary class rolls, andthere are no records of him having ever attended the University.

Melvin McCray ’74, who has spent considerable time preserving campus African-American history, said Chavis’ nomination for the Leslie Fund Scholarship is recorded in the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Trustees in 1792.

“All the history in his family places him at Princeton as a student,” McCray said. “I am searching for documents to prove it without a reasonable doubt, but I haven’t come across that. And I may not ever.”

Chavis moved on to study at another college upon the death of then-University President John Witherspoon for unknown reasons. In 1799, Chavis became the first African-American licensed to preach by the Presbyterian Church. He also started the Chavis School for white and free black children, considered to be the best contemporary secondary school in North Carolina.

In 1831, laws passedin North Carolina in the wake of the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia decreed that African-Americans were no longer allowed to congregate in public.Chavis was stripped of his license to preach and had to close the school.


1817: The potentially first African-American woman associated with the University

Betsey Stockton was born into slavery and given to the wife of former University President Reverend Ashbel Green upon their marriage, McCray said. She was freed from slavery in 1817 and became a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton.

Stockton was homeschooled by Green while she worked in his household as a paid domestic servant. Green even wrote her a letter of recommendation when she wished to go to Hawaii as a missionary along with Charles Stewart, a student at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

She became the first single American woman sent overseas as a missionary.

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She also helped to found a school for aboriginal people in Canada and Princeton’s First Presbyterian Church of Color, which is now the Witherspoon Street Church. Upon her return to Princeton in 1835, she taught in local schools for African Americans until her death in 1865.

“She lived a really incredible life doing missionary work,” McCray said.

1843: An escaped slave whom Princeton College “bought”

James “Jimmy Stink” Collins was born to two slaves in Maryland in 1816. On Aug. 8, 1839, he escaped from captivity in Maryland on foot with $5 in his pocket. He changed his name to James Johnson and arrived at the University, then called Princeton College, where he began working as a janitor.

In 1843, Simon Weeks, Class of 1838, a native of Maryland and also a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, recognized Johnson and informed his employers.

In a trial that ensued, Johnson was found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act. A young woman, Theodosia Prevost, purchased his freedom for $550, and Princeton students collected $100 for Johnson to start over as a free man.

In 1855, Johnson began a used clothing store on Witherspoon Street. In 1880, he secured the rights to be a monopoly in outdoor food vending on campus.

“He certainly was an integral part of the lives of many students who took a liking to him and also took care of him in his old age,” McCray said.

University students bought a tombstone for Johnson’s gravesite in Princeton Cemetery, which to this day reads, “the students’ friend.”

1870s: A race-related battle under the presidency of James McCosh

Matthew Anderson, Francis Grimke, Hugh Mason Brown and Daniel Wallace Culp were four young African-American men at the Princeton Theological Seminary who attended the classes of then-University President James McCosh in the 1870s.

Several white students in the class allegedly appealed to McCosh to expel them, threatening to withdraw if the black students were not expelled from the class.

When McCosh refused to deny the four African-American students the right to attend his class, two of the white students who were originally in his class withdrew their status as University students and returned to their respective hometowns.

However, upon what is believed to be pressure from their parents, the students returned to the University and asked for McCosh’s forgiveness. They were then readmitted and attended the same class as the four black students without further incident.

1939: A man who was turned away

Bruce Wright was an African-American student who had been accepted with a scholarship to the University in the 1930s. While he stood in line to register himself at the University, however, an upperclassman approached him and said that Radcliffe Heermance,the Dean of Admission, wanted to see him.

According to a1997 articlein The Daily Princetonian,Wrightsaid that Heermance told him, “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.”

Wright also recalled being told that the admissions committee was unaware of his race before he was admitted.

“He always felt exploited by Princeton and hurt — hurt badly,” McCray said.

Heermance told Wright he would feel alone on campus due to lack of other African-American people, and that he should consider going to a college in New England instead,according toa letter donated by McCray to Mudd Library.

“I cannot conscientiously advise a colored student to apply for admission to Princeton simply because I do not think that he would be happy in this environment,” Heermance wrote.

Wright eventually graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and went on to serve as a member of the New York Supreme Court.

Wright was later named an honorary member of the Class of 2001 before his death in 2005.

1940s: The beginning

Students began to question the status quo in the 1940s. In fall 1942, Frank Broderick ’43 began a campaign in The Daily Princetonian in favor of the admission of African-American students to Princeton.

“While 13,000,000 Negro Americans look for signs of their admission to a rightful place in American democracy, Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies,” Broderick wrote.

During the Second World War, four African-American students — John Leroy Howard ’47, James Everett Ward ’48, Arthur Jewell Wilson ’48 and Melvin Murchison, Jr.— entered the University through the United States Navy’s V-12 program.

Ward said he was not ready to attend the University because he did not have the adequate preparatory background.

“I came during World War II,” he explained. “At that time, this was a drastic break with Princeton tradition, and only the Navy could have done it.”

Ward said his arrival was remarkable and that his acceptance from much of the community led to the formation of some particularly warm friendships.

“The Navy sent me from a godforsaken island in the South to Princeton University,” he said. “So you think that I’m going to complain about anything in Princeton? That was absolutely wonderful.”

Ward was a member of Prospect Club, an eating club at the time. Members did their own work and only hired a chef, though they did have a student manager, he said.

“We had fun just like the clubs of Prospect Avenue,” he said.

Ward said he did recall some alumni concern about the presence of African-American students at the University, and he said that his navy officer gave him and his roommate, Wilson, the option to transfer.

However, Wilson was worthy of the varsity basketball team and the coach wanted him to stay, Ward explained. Since his roommate only agreed to stay if his best friendWard would stay too, they both stayed at the University, he added.

Wilson, Ward and Howard all went on to earn degrees from the University. Murchison, however, eventually graduated from Carnegie Mellon University instead, though he remained at the University long enough to become Princeton’s first African-American varsity football player.

Ward said he recalled being excited at his commencement exercises, but being unable to understand the proceedings because they were carried out in Latin.

“We had a prober that told us when we had to laugh or cheer something,” he said. “But I was impressed.”

Ward said that for his peers, he was just another student from the Navy and had a few friends. Though he was conspicuous, he was never singled out, he said.

“Some ignored me just as I ignored them,” Ward said. “I was an anomaly, but I have no problem with that. As with any changes, somebody’s got to be the first. But to me it was a tremendous opportunity and experience.”

1950s: Progress sputters

After Howard, Ward and Arthur Jewell Wilson graduated, there were not more than one or two more African-Americans per class in the following classes who graduated, McCray said.

“This was essentially the government forcing Princeton to admit these black students [in the 1940s],” McCray said. “There weren’t a whole lot since then.”

By the end of the 1940s, however, the University had begun to evaluate African-American students for admission and decided to admit Joseph Ralph Moss ’51, who then became the first African-American undergraduate to be admitted by the University’s admission process, as opposed to through the Navy.

The University’s conduct at the time was not a matter of prejudice, but rather one of neglect and failure to be aware of the issue,former University President William Bowen GS ’58 said.

“I think people were not as aware of the issues as they should have been,” he said. “It was mainly a matter, I think, of not focusing on the problem.”

A speech by Robert Rivers ’53, a former University trustee, given in 2001 at the third Pan-African Graduation in Richardson Auditorium, also sheds light on the African-American student experience in the 1950s.

Rivers’ time at the University was characterized by unpleasant social encounters resulting from white privilege and preferences, he said, addinghe was insulted without apology during the Bicker process for the eating clubs.

His experience at the University led to a number of unpredictable opportunities, he added in the speech.

Multiple African-American alumni from the 1950s either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment.

This article is the first in a five-part Black History Month feature series. Check back tomorrow for a look at the University in the 1960s.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article inaccurately stated where Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance told Bruce Wright he should consider going to college. Wright was told to consider going to college in New England. The 'Prince' regrets the error.