Sajan Rhea Young ’24 has a connection to Princeton going back 250 years — but not because he’s a legacy student.
Young’s ancestors hail from Rheatown, a small community in eastern Tennessee that was named for Congressman John Rhea, Class of 1780. Rhea was one of more than 1,800 members of Congress who owned enslaved people.
“The ‘Rhea’ in my middle name actually comes from a place called Rheatown, Tennessee, where all of the slaves who were owned in that area lived,” Young said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
Young is a Generational African American, a term that, according to the granddaughter of the person who coined the term, “implies descendants of enslaved people without having to have that in the name.”
Until recently, Generational African American students didn’t have an organization specific to their community on campus. That changed with the founding of the Generational African American Students Association (GAASA) one year ago. The number of students from Generational African American backgrounds has been part of the national conversation in the wake of the overturning of affirmative action, focusing in on the moral responsibilities incurred by historic race relations in the United States.
“I had a hard time finding a place for me as a Black person because [for] a lot of Black students here, their family or their ethnicity is from somewhere in Africa,” said Aunyae Romeo ’26. “I don’t know where I’m from.”
“Coming into Princeton, I immediately felt anecdotally that there weren’t a lot of [Generational] African American students on campus,” said Chris Butcher ’25, who founded GAASA after talking with peers at Harvard. Talking to other African American and Black students, he realized this was a widespread feeling and decided that the University needed a space for Generational African American students.
According to Butcher’s 2022 guest contribution in the ‘Prince,’ a leader of Princeton’s Black Alumni Association once estimated “that there are around 12 Generational African Americans per class at Princeton.”
In the past year, GAASA has served as a social and community-building organization for Black students, while eyeing larger advocacy on issues specific to Generational African Americans.
“We are really passionate about forming a safe space for students and for African Americans,” Butcher told the ‘Prince.’
In addition to hosting social events typical of other clubs, such as movie nights and karaoke, GAASA has built connections with similar groups at the University’s peer institutions.
On the weekend of Oct. 20, GAASA Princeton hosted a summit for GAASA chapters from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University. The weekend included a panel discussion on the African American student experience as well as professional development opportunities, such as a speed-networking event to connect African American students with internships.
“We spent a lot of time just enjoying each other’s company and building community across our campuses,” Butcher said.
“It just felt very warm,” said Romeo, the GAASA social chair. “I felt like, ‘oh my gosh, I’m finally in a room with a whole bunch of people who actually like know what it’s like to be African American.’”
“Another standout moment was the music,” said Makenzie Hymes ’26. “There was this one event, the cookout, with early 2000s music. And there’s so much camaraderie, everyone singing along, and that was really incredible.”
Beyond the social events, GAASA advocacy is largely focused on the impacts of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action.
“We’re working on the [admissions] pipeline and trying to do our own part in correcting a lot of… issues that occur for Generational African American students,” said Young, one of GAASA's political action chairs.
“There’s been some literature done here at Princeton that shows that, across socioeconomic barriers, African American students are underrepresented in comparison to their diasporic counterparts,” Butcher said.
A 2007 study by Princeton professor Douglas S. Massey and co-authors found that 41 percent of the Black students at Ivy League schools identified themselves as immigrants, as children of immigrants, or as mixed race.
As of the 2023–2024 academic year, 8.6 percent of undergraduate students at the University are African American. The University does not release specific numbers identifying Generational African Americans or other identities under the classification of “Black.”
To address this, GAASA is in the process of conducting a research survey to estimate the number of Generational African American students on Princeton’s campus. The goal of the survey is to address the historical impact of slavery on education outcomes for Generational African American students at Princeton today.
“We want to bring that data to University Admissions and help them brainstorm new ways to recruit and retain African American students, especially after the overturning of affirmative action,” Butcher said.
According to the ‘Prince’ Frosh Survey, 11 African and 4 Afro-Caribbean countries are currently represented by international students in the classes of 2024, 2025, 2026, and 2027. The most frequently represented countries are Kenya (11 students), Ghana (10 students), South Africa (six students), and Tanzania (six students).
There are also a wide array of Black affinity groups on campus, including the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Princeton African Students Association (PASA), as well as smaller groups focusing on female, Caribbean, Nigerian, and Ethiopian and Eritrean students.
Current GAASA board members say they are focused on building a strong foundation for the organization so that it persists even after the founding board members have graduated.
“Because we’re new, we want to make this a legacy thing. I personally have a fear that after I graduate, what’s going to happen to GAASA?” said Romeo.
Butcher is careful to consider a long-term trajectory by “thinking about how the group is going to be sustained on campus after I graduate,” he said.
Building GAASA has “definitely taught me how to think about the implications of the messaging of our events. It shows the importance of learning how to articulate an issue without alienating others in the process of advocating for yourself,” he added.
Sofia Arora is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Miriam Waldvogel is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.