I Hear My People Deeply and Clearly

By Wendy Plump

Photographs Courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton

Unusually, there is a great deal to envy in this community that has seen so much struggle through the centuries. Who would not want to grow up in a world embraced by a few boundary streets where everyone knows you and will make sure you are well looked after? Buying penny candy on Leigh Avenue. Fishing in Stony Brook. Being shushed into your home at 9 p.m. by elders who don’t want you to come to trouble. It seems a kind of sanctuary.

On the other hand, it is a place that embraced slavery, a northern Jim Crow town—“spiritually located in Dixie,” as Paul Robeson has said—where some of the earliest residents were bought and traded and some of the latest were barred from restaurants and stores because they were black.

This is a story of Princeton from two right angles as drawn by Kathryn Watterson in her newest book, I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, published by Princeton University Press. That Watterson gives equal weight to both portraits without reducing or caricaturing either is testimony to her storytelling skills, and to the citizens whose lives flower in these pages.

Singing is based on the first—and only—oral history project involving Princeton’s African American citizens and the neighborhood they have enlivened for more than 300 years. It is a history known but not widely told, with perspectives gathered through 18 years of interviews and finally given life here in this splendid, resplendent biography of a singular community.

There is Mr. Albert Hinds, who was 98 when Watterson interviewed him. He talked for three hours straight “in the glare of a video camera,” remembering how he worked as a boy in the old livery stables and how his first wife died in childbirth, not being admitted to Princeton’s hospital because she was black. There is Sophie Hall Hinds, whose father was born a slave. There is Jacqui Swan, Bruce Wright, Alice Satterfield, Henry F. “Hank” Pannell, and Kathleen Montgomery Edwards, who remembered every black business in town and who, as she recounts the list, tugs readers along on a virtual tour of old Princeton. In total, more than 55 residents of the neighborhood roughly bounded by Paul Robeson Place, Leigh Avenue, and Witherspoon Street gave their testimony for these pages. Many are now deceased. It became part of Watterson’s incipient project, first begun as a university writing course two decades ago, to gather oral histories and set them down before they would be lost.

“The residents of this neighborhood and their predecessors have been witness to American history from inside of slavery, inside of segregation. They lived that,” said Watterson during a phone interview from her home in Philadelphia, where she is now a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “At the same time, they are people who had families and built homes despite not being able to get banks loans. They had so many humiliations and diminishments, and yet they built institutions. They built support for their families here. There’s an energy and a beauty that is so deep in them. They were just so ingenious in dealing with it.” “I love listening to people’s stories,” Watterson added. “These are stories that I think we can’t hear enough of. I think they are a microcosm of our country, and I think that’s one of the things about the timing of the book that’s positive. It seems like good timing. Because you really see the richness of the human spirit, the humanity, in their stories.”

‘NOT GOING TO BE TRACKED’

Early in the book — whose title comes from Robeson’s writings — Watterson dispels the perceived myth that university students from the south brought their slaves north to Princeton when they came here to study. Instead, she writes, slaves came here with Princeton’s very founders. Among the first were seven Africans who arrived in 1696 with white colonialist Richard Stockton to work his 400 acres of property, which would eventually become university land and Princeton Theological Seminary land, as well as an additional 6,000 acres he later purchased. Stockton’s enslaved people built his home at Morven, and the slave quarters behind it. In fact many, if not most, early Princeton families and leaders, Watterson writes, were slave owners.

The achievement of Singing is that it conveys the fullness of African American Princeton not only as a story of fighting discrimination, but also as a story of a community nurturing the lives of its residents. The churches, the early dances, the businesses, the community-imposed curfews for young people all lead the reader to recognize and honor these people who lived as much as possible on their own resourceful terms.

Singing is based almost entirely on a recounting of the many interviews. Watterson has weaved them into chapters on community, schools, the university, work, owning homes and living, and residents’ lives as citizens. She dices and chops the interviews into paragraph-sized snippets, as perfectly formed as poems, based on themes rather than as one long interview. That way, she said, she could better shape the narrative and really bring the “gems” forward. Reading the book, it is easy to imagine yourself sitting on a porch on Green Street, and listening to Albert Hinds (1902-2006) give witness: “The only one thing that they did to the blacks when we went to high school, they tried to track us into a certain category: nonacademic. But four of us—black boys—we used to say, we’re not going to be tracked! We’re going to take an academic course. And we did…We coped with the French, and Latin, and everything else.

Or Kathleen Montgomery Edwards (1924-2000): “Mr. Griggs had a restaurant. That was a very, very profitable business, black-owned business. You passed the corner of Witherspoon and Hulfish Street —well, that corner belongs to Mr. Griggs. Mrs. Mills, she had a beauty shop. And Mr. Gale had a cleaning business. Right upstairs was Dr. Thomas. He was our dentist, and he was the school dentist. At 70 Witherspoon Street there was a black beauty shop.”

Or James A. Carter (1926-2000): “I had seven aunts and six uncles. You know, when you have 13 people at one supper table, it’s going to be crowded. No food that you dropped off your fork would ever hit the ground.”

Or Bruce Wright (1917-2005): “My father worked at a restaurant on Nassau Street called the Balt. They let you work there but not eat there. He was a cook. And then he got rescued and he worked for one of the deans at the university. He was the cook, chief bottle washer, and servant for Dean Robert Russell Wickes—a sort of divinity guy, if I’m not mistaken. And he was full of sh*t.”

Or Emma Epps (1902-1989) recalling what she once said to her mother’s employer: “Miss Wright, the fact that my mother was a laundress in your house was not the fact that she didn’t have a brain but that she didn’t have a chance.”

Residents describe Paul Robeson coming back to the neighborhood, and Albert Einstein walking along Witherspoon or sitting on someone’s porch for an evening chat. Other luminaries passing through town, unable to stay in white-owned hotels, spent nights in resident’s homes: Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and opera contralto Marian Anderson, who was refused a room at The Nassau Inn in 1937 and ended up staying as a houseguest in Einstein’s home.

WRITING ABOUT INJUSTICE

The author of nine books, three of which were named New York Times Notable Books of the year, Watterson has always explored themes of injustice and retribution, suffering and redemption. Her books Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb, Not by the Sword, and You Must Be Dreaming are essentially tales of exploitation and how that exploitation played out to various ends. Watterson is also currently at work on a novel and a short story collection.

“I’ve been moved to action by an understanding of oppression and injustice and fear, and as great as the Witherspoon neighborhood is, they have had to face all of that because they’re considered less powerful than the people in charge,” said Watterson. “I guess my driving force is for freedom and justice.”

Watterson credits three community activists— Penney Edwards-Carter, Hank Pannell, and Clyde “Buster” Thomas—with working tirelessly to recruit older residents to participate in the oral history project. Beginning in the late 1990s, over 100 letters went out to anyone over the age of 60 asking for stories. Together with Watterson, Edwards-Carter, Pannell, and Thomas arranged the interviews, many of them conducted by Watterson’s former Princeton students; in fact, nearly 40 of them. Either Edwards-Carter, Pannell, or Thomas accompanied a student to every initial interview. “Penny is so sharp,” said Watterson. “She joined Hank and Buster and me. The four of us were together on this. They’ve been just amazing sharing their perspectives on important issues and helping me with me with names, details, and fact-checking.”

Although Watterson did not personally interview them, some of her favorite “characters” from the book are Johnnie Dennis, Thomas Phox, and Paul Robeson’s father, the Rev. William Robeson, who was born a slave in North Carolina and came north, graduating from Lincoln University and then serving as minister at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. “What a wise, humane, beautiful human being he was,” said Watterson.

“The book makes me happy, even though there are so many hard things in it and people have had to suffer,” Watterson said. “They have served and shared with one another in the greater common good, and I feel like their voices just add to making this world more human. And giving us evidence of what we can get through if we work together.”

“I wanted to do something different with this book,” she added. “So many recorded histories are skewed to feature only the so-called ‘successful people.’ ” With thanks to Watterson, the book itself, and the lives of those honored in it, are proof of how many definitions of success there are, and how inclusive they could be.