The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, located north of campus along Witherspoon and John Streets, is an area with rich historical and cultural significance as Princeton’s historically Black neighborhood. Yet over the last few decades, the Black population in Witherspoon-Jackson has declined.
Shirley Satterfield, President of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, told The Daily Princetonian that when walking the streets of Princeton, she can still recall the residents who used to occupy those homes in the past.
“I looked at the houses just the other day, and I said, ‘This is the house where Mr. Tim Taylor used to live.’ It’s now just in this place where this architect works,” she said. “I could just go up and down the streets and just name the people who used to live there.”
Princeton Councilman Leighton Newlin described the importance of Princeton’s Black community and the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood to the town, the University, and the nation at large.
“Witherspoon-Jackson is the story of the plight, struggle, and resilience of Black people in America and a significant part of the history and relevance of the municipality and the University,” he said.
The ‘Prince’ examined demographic data from United States Censuses going back to 1930 and Princeton High School since the 1980s to examine how the diversity of the town and its schools have changed over time. The data shows that Princeton’s Black community is indeed shrinking, both in Witherspoon-Jackson and across the town, though Princeton’s Hispanic and Asian communities have markedly grown. These trends raise new questions about how Princeton’s Black history can be preserved in the face of demographic change and how to enshrine the stories of Princeton’s Black community for future generations.
Demographic data shows mixed trends
Data dating back to 1930 shows that Princeton’s Black community has shrunk in both numerical size and percentage of the population over time, while the Asian and Hispanic populations have grown dramatically in recent years.
Princeton’s Black population was 1,862 in 1940 and stood at 1,742 in 2020 — though over this period, the white population nearly doubled in size from just over 9,000 to 17,446 in 2020. Princeton, despite a much lower overall population, had a larger Black population in 1940 than in 2020. While the town was about 16 percent Black in 1930, it is just over five percent Black today.
To many community members, the factors behind this demographic shift are clear.
Denyse Leslie is the Managing Director of the Paul Robeson House of Princeton, a community space and museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of athlete and activist Paul Robeson and the Black history of Princeton. In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Leslie wrote, “There is no mystery here. The cost of living in Princeton and the surrounding areas is increasingly getting beyond the reach of middle-class and poor Americans.”
Councilman Newlin also said that “market forces and gentrification have taken their toll on the neighborhood and people of color who were longtime homeowners.”
“No neighborhood in Princeton is affordable,” Newlin continued.
The historical demographic data does not paint a complete picture of how the town has changed over time, as the Hispanic and Asian figures were not reported until 1980. Since reporting began for these groups, the Asian population has grown from just under four percent in 1980 to over 20 percent today, while the Hispanic population has gone from just two percent to nearly 10 percent.
The Black population has remained stagnant for a century, despite the town’s massive growth, while the Asian population has gone from under 1,000 in 1980 to almost 7,000 today.
Princeton’s changing population: neighborhood to neighborhood
The ‘Prince’ organized Princeton into nine unique neighborhoods to examine how racial demographics have changed from 2010 to 2020. By looking at Census data, it is clear that Princeton is becoming more racially diverse — though the effect varies across neighborhoods.
Only two neighborhoods in Princeton are primarily made up of minority groups. One of these is the Witherspoon-Jackson area, which is about 40 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Black, and 11 percent Asian, according to the 2020 census. The neighborhood has become more racially diverse since 2010 mostly due to increases in the Hispanic and Asian populations in the neighborhood. Both the white and Black proportions of the population declined from 2010 to 2020.
The other neighborhood is North Princeton (the area along Route 206 heading North), which experienced a dramatic demographic change from 2010 to 2020. The neighborhood went from being 58 percent white in 2010 to 43 percent in 2020, while the Asian proportion of the population doubled from 17 to 34 percent.
Other notable shifts occurred in suburban West Princeton (the area West of Elm and Springdale Roads), which went from being 78 percent white to 61 percent, and the neighborhood surrounding Littlebrook School, which went from being over 80 percent white to just 68 percent.
Most demographic shifts across neighborhoods saw decreases in the white population and increases in the Asian population. The only neighborhood to experience a significant decrease in its combined Black and Hispanic population from 2010 to 2020 was Downtown Princeton (the area between Nassau and Paul Robeson Place). There, the Hispanic population fell from over 21 to just below 12 percent of the population, while the Black population remained constant at about 10 percent.
A long history of diversity in education continues
Enrollment data from Princeton High School (PHS) show changing demographics as well.
In 1988, when records became available to the ‘Prince,’ PHS had a student body that was almost 80 percent white. But that's changed — in the 2022 school year, the racial breakdown of PHS was 49 percent white, 26 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic, and five percent Black. About seven percent of students identified themselves as mixed-race.
However, the percentage of students at PHS who identify as Black has decreased over time. In 1988, PHS was nearly 15 percent Black. This figure fell to less than 10 percent by 2000 and dropped to below five percent in 2020. 122 students at PHS identified themselves as Black in 1988 compared to just 75 today.
This decline may be the result of a “Two or More Races” option, which was not tracked until 2009. However, even if every student who identified themselves as belonging to two or more races was counted as Black, the PHS student body would still be about three percentage points less Black than it was in 1988.
Princeton’s schools have a long tradition of integration and diversity, having been desegregated at all grade levels for over 70 years. Prior to 1948, Princeton maintained two segregated elementary schools: the Witherspoon Street School for Black students and the Nassau Street School for white students. Princeton High School has been integrated since 1916.
Princeton integrated its elementary schools in 1948 by grouping students across the two schools by grade level, not by neighborhood or race. This integration method came to be known as the “Princeton Plan” and was considered a success.
“It’s a darn good answer for small communities’ integration problems,” said then-Superintendent Chester A. Stroup in 1954.
The “Princeton Plan” was viewed as a successful model for integration, so much so that it was featured in a documentary on WNYW (then WNEW), an independent television station in New York City, in 1964.
Albert Hines, a lifelong Princeton resident and activist, said in a documentary in 1998, “We felt proud to be a part of that plan that everybody is picking up on … It must’ve been something good because it spread to other cities.”
Community members work to preserve history
In the face of high housing prices and gentrification pushing the Black community out of Princeton, many community groups and organizations are working to keep younger generations and newcomers engaged with Princeton’s Black history.
“Princeton is a globally significant town and a marquis community for social change and impact in critically important areas,” wrote Dr. Joy Barnes-Johnson, the Science and Racial Literacy Administrator for Princeton Public Schools, in a statement to the ‘Prince’. “Black people and other people of color have always been part of that legacy.”
Engaging the majority-white Princeton community with the town’s Black history has been a difficult endeavor in the past.
“Our history has been told since our ancestors were enslaved, it hasn’t been known because many Princeton residents chose not to listen or read our rich and contributing journeys,” Satterfield wrote to the ‘Prince.’
Many local organizations are actively working to overcome these challenges. The Paul Robeson House of Princeton is using the 125th birthday of athlete, activist, and scholar Paul Robeson as a push to increase its engagement with the community and raise awareness of Black history.
In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Leslie recalled how the House has partnered with local artists to create poems, quilts, and murals celebrating Robeson and Black history and has partnered with State Senator Shirley Turner (D-NJ-15), who represents Trenton, to make Robeson’s birthday a state holiday.
Dr. Barnes-Johnson wrote how she believed Princeton’s changing demographics make the work of the House and other community-based historical organizations more important than ever.
“In the 21st century, the message of humanizing treatment of all remains a critical message for Princetonians, especially as our demographics change,” she said.
Satterfield herself has been active in promoting Princeton’s Black history. As President of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, Satterfield led the effort to create a walking tour composed of 29 historical markers where buildings of importance to Princeton's Black community stand or once stood.
Satterfield drew a direct link from the demographic decline of Princeton’s Black community to efforts to preserve Princeton’s Black heritage.
“You can find very few African Americans in this community anymore. That’s why I did 29 heritage plaques. So people will always remember that the houses they are living in were sustained by African Americans who lived here for centuries,” Satterfield said.
Housing prices and gentrification pose challenges
Community leaders consistently pointed to high housing costs as the primary reason for the decline of Princeton’s Black community.
“If we had money, we could stay here. We don’t have the money. We’re the people who work for the people with the money,” said Satterfield.
The US Census Bureau states that almost 90 percent of homes in Princeton are valued at over half a million dollars, with 39 percent having values of $1 million or more. In 2014, these percentages stood at 78 and 29 percent, respectively, illustrating how housing prices continue to climb in the town.
With rising housing costs and displacement on the rise, gentrification is often invoked as a reason to halt continued housing development in Princeton.
“The wealthy, that can demolish a home and build new, find the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood — and other areas where Black and Brown people have historically lived — very attractive,” said Leslie.
In regards to what can be done to preserve Princeton’s diversity, Councilman Newlin stated that he is “looking for the Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corporation to create a structure to maintain long-standing African American homes for purchase or rental by low-income families and individuals.”
Princeton’s efforts to make housing more affordable have been stifled by community opposition and zoning barriers. In 2020, the Affordable Housing Overlay Ordinance was passed by Princeton’s Town Council to combat the 2,000-person waitlist for affordable housing in 2019. Most of the lots proposed to be designated as Affordable Housing were in Princeton’s Jugtown historic district and were matched with over 1,000 signatures on a petition to limit the new construction, as it did not fit within the Princeton Historic Preservation Ordinance.
Satterfield emphasized how Black history will remain an integral part of Witherspoon-Jackson and Princeton more broadly no matter how the community changes.
“It is the hope and the determination that this cherished 20th-century historic district will be preserved to welcome change, but to remember that residents and the labor that made it possible for the present and future residents to learn and respect the historic Witherspoon-Jackson community,” she wrote.
“African American history is American history; it is world history; it is a history that will endure through the blood, sweat, and faith of our ancestors and descendants.”
Ryan Konarska is an associate Data editor and staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’
Meghana Veldhuis is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.