For anyone interested in the history of Princeton, John F. Hageman’s two-volume History of Princeton and its Institutions, published in 1879, is the indispensible reference. There you will find the story of Princeton from Colonial times. What you will not find—beyond mention of slaves, the behavior of freed slaves, lists of “colored” Civil War volunteers, and anecdotes such as the effort to save escaped slave Jimmy C. Johnson from being returned to his “owner”—is the complex narrative of Princeton’s African American community.
Not until this century has the story of this “other Princeton” begun to be told more fully to a wide audience (see Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor in The Book Scene).
Between the Lines of History
Much of that history is being painstakingly documented by Special Collections Librarian Terri Nelson at the Princeton Public Library. Ms. Nelson’s dedication is as profound as her knowledge of her subject: the history of the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood and the genealogy and rich legacy of Princeton’s black residents.
As she sits at the rosewood desk in the Library’s Princeton Room, Nelson’s fingers whizz over the keyboard, zipping between databases, tracking down early references to men who fought in the Civil War, who staffed the eating clubs at Princeton University, who became property owners, businessmen and churchmen, who raised their families in Princeton and whose lives are found between the lines. She gleans single sentences from Google books, calls up census records, corroborates anecdotes, all the while correcting mistakes, clearing up confusions, and teasing the facts from a network of sources. Her findings are accessible via the Princeton Public Library website (http://www.princetonlibrary.org/robeson/).
Through footnotes in history, stories in other men’s biographies, in the memoirs of the great and famous who have put Princeton on the map, the predecessors of today’s community speak. Men such as the un-named worker who put Alexander Archibald, Princeton Theological Seminary’s first professor, in his place in response to a patronizing homily from the good doctor. Men such as Ira S. Bergen who was born in the 1840s, took part in the Civil War and died in 1930. “Just three generations take us more than 150 years, from Bergen to his granddaughter Harriet Calloway who died in 2005,” says Nelson, noting that Harriet’s father was the noted local bandleader Isaac Stryker.
Nelson has become acquainted with individuals dating back to the late seventeenth century when slavery was such an integral part of the country’s economy that both John Witherspoon and Richard Stockton, signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. Slaves worked for white colonists and for educators at the growing College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) and at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Following abolition in 1804, free men established businesses, clubs, schools and churches in the town, creating a community that was well-connected to the world. “Even before 1900, the black community drew educated ministers to Princeton and sent students to Lincoln University,” says Nelson.
The oldest black church in Princeton (Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church on Witherspoon Street) was founded in 1832. In 1837, the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church was built by the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church on Nassau Street so that their African Americans neighbors could worship separately. The First Baptist Church on Paul Robeson Place began as a prayer group in 1880. In the 19th century, Church members and leaders spoke out against slavery. Last century, they became active in the Civil Rights Movement, led efforts to build Princeton’s first integrated housing development in the 1950s, and successfully resisted a plan (in 1958) to relocate the First Baptist Church, a plan that was understood by the community as an attempt to push blacks further from the center of town.
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