Preserving History

Shirley Satterfield (at podium), president of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, unveiled the first four Heritage Tour plaques and recognized the Society’s board of trustees (surrounding her) at a reception last March at Studio Hillier on Witherspoon Street. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)

The Witherspoon-Jackson District Heritage Tour

By Donald Gilpin | Plaque designs courtesy of Studio Hillier

It was nothing less than the transformation of a vision into reality on Saturday morning, August 10, as a large contingent of church members, town leaders, and other participants proceeded from Morning Star Church of God in Christ on Birch Avenue, up Witherspoon Street to Mt. Pisgah AME Methodist Church and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, then to the First Baptist Church of Princeton at John Street and Paul Robeson Place to witness  the unveiling of the first four of 29 Heritage Tour historic plaques.

“These black church plaques and the other plaques to follow are part of a reminder of the history of the Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) community and the people, personalities, and families that once lived in this community,” said W-J Historical and Cultural Society President Shirley Satterfield, who led the tour and whose vision has inspired and driven the project to preserve the memory of Princeton’s 20th Historic District. 

At each church along the way there was a short presentation including a condensed history of the church, remarks by the minister or church official, and recognition of the donors of the plaque.

Understanding the Past

“It’s always great when you can preserve and share your culture,” said former Princeton Councilman Lance Liverman, a trustee of the First Baptist Church of Princeton. “And by having these plaques, my children and your children and others will understand the significance of these churches.”

Describing the First Baptist, established in 1885 as Bright Hope Baptist Church, as “the light on the hill,” Liverman added, “It seems like it protects the rest of the community.” The plaque unveiled by Liverman and Deacon Lamont Fletcher notes, “The church is a beacon of faith and stewardship, community involvement, social justice, and world peace.”

Recognizing “this important day when we claim and reclaim, mark and document our history,” Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Pastor the Rev. Lukata A. Mjumbe said, “This is a moment that allows us to understand more about ourselves, our present situation, and where we go from here. If we do not know where we have been we can never truly understand where we need to go.”

Before unveiling the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church plaque, Mjumbe recounted some of the history of the church from its founding in 1836 as the First Presbyterian Church of Colour in Princeton after many African American members of the segregated Nassau Presbyterian Church were dismissed to form a church of their own. Mjumbe urged, “We need to know the complicated and the beautiful and the diverse history of this church.  As we reveal this marker we remember to remember all of that — the good times and the struggles, the legacy, the striving, the difficulty, the failures, but most importantly the people that God has blessed us to be connected to, those in this neighborhood, in this community. It’s you.”

At the Morning Star Church of God in Christ, established in 1923 and currently undergoing renovation, Pastor Elder Kevin E. Bynes Sr. echoed a slogan that is displayed in the church sanctuary. As he and Mamie Lee Oldham, whose family was among the original members of the congregation, unveiled the plaque, he told his listeners, “We must remember the past, maintain the present, and prepare for the future.  We want to beautify the community, with humility.”

The Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, at the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean streets, is the oldest African American church in Princeton, established in 1832 by the Rev. Samson Peters of the Trenton AME Church and led today by the Rev. Dr. Deborah Blanks, who spoke to the walking tour participants. The present church was constructed in 1860.

25 More Sites, a Rich 300-Year History

In addition to the four church plaques dedicated in August, the 25 additional Heritage Tour plaques will recognize historic sites that include stores, restaurants, a tavern, the Charcoal Inn (which was listed in the 1939 Negro Motorist Green Book), and other places of business. Also recognized will be Dorothea’s House (originally established to serve Italian immigrants, now an Italian American cultural institution), the Mary Moss Playground, Paul Robeson’s birthplace, Paul Robeson Place (the former Jackson Street), the former Witherspoon School for Colored Children, the Princeton Nursery School, and the “colored” YMCA-YWCA (where the Arts Council of Princeton is located today). 

Outside of the W-J District, which is bounded by Witherspoon and John streets, Paul Robeson Place, and Birch Avenue, plaque sites will include Albert E. Hinds Plaza adjacent to the Princeton Public Library, and, across the street, what used to be Mr. Griggs Imperial Restaurant. They will also be at stores on Spring Street and on upper Witherspoon Street at the former office (now occupied by Agricola) of The Citizen, “a newspaper dedicated to the moral, intellectual, and industrial improvement of the Negro race,” according to the plaque design. 

Community organizer John Bailey, who with Satterfield co-founded the W-J Historical and Cultural Society in 2016 when W-J was designated as the 20th Historic District, helped with the planning and fundraising for the Heritage Tour.  The demographics of the W-J District have changed significantly over the past decades, as it has become the most diverse neighborhood in Princeton, with the African American population declining and an influx of Latinx and many other residents of different ethnicities and backgrounds.  Much of the history of the district, however, has, until recent decades, been a history of African Americans, and most of the plaques reflect that fact. 

The African American community has been an important part of Princeton since the early 18th century, when many of the residents were slaves who worked on large farms or in homes.  As the Princeton community and the University grew, along with demand for domestic workers and laborers, many African American families moved to Princeton from Southern states. They eventually settled, or were relocated to, what is now the W-J District. 

“The community is still vibrant,” Bailey said, “but the ethnic groups that used to be here aren’t here en masse anymore as they were historically. There’s still a lot of activity, and the plaques represent that community. They represent Robeson. They represent Doris Burrel. They represent Chip Fisher. They represent any person who has come through that community.  And they are still watching over us. There’s a lot of inspiration and history, spirituality, and reminiscing.”

J. Robert Hillier, architect and Princeton Magazine shareholder, who has collaborated with Satterfield on the Heritage Tour project and whose Studio Hillier designed and arranged for the production of the plaques for no charge, pointed out, “This tour is in essence the one that Shirley Satterfield has given for years. By being a self-tour and with the plaques, Shirley’s dedication to the community and its history will be continued well into the future.”

Hillier, treasurer of the W-J Historical and Cultural Society, continued, “What is truly awesome for me is the fact that, due to segregation, this African American community was established as its own self-contained, self-sufficient, and self-sustainable community within the town of Princeton. The residents of this community were its own business people, school teachers, and University employees. The community was so close that the teachers knew every student because they were the neighbors of their parents. Ultimately, this led to an amazing group of students coming out of this closed community and going on to succeed at important colleges and in many different professional fields.”

Hillier is playing a leading role in helping to fulfill Satterfield’s vision  as Studio Hillier redevelops two buildings on the Heritage Tour, both the original Witherspoon School for Colored Children at 184 Witherspoon Street, which served the African American children of Princeton until 1908, and The Waxwood on Quarry Street, the subsequent location of the School for Colored Children, which, in 1948, when schools in Princeton Borough were integrated under the Princeton Plan, became  the junior high school for all students in the Borough. 

Hillier named the Quarry Street building, redeveloped into an apartment building with permanent placards noting its historical significance, in honor of Howard B. Waxwood, the African American principal of the school. The original School for Colored Children site on Witherspoon Street will bear a plaque donated by Bob and Barbara Hillier in honor of Shirley Satterfield.

“A Dream Come True”   

Satterfield, whose family has lived in Princeton for six generations, described the origins of her vision of the Heritage Tour. “This is a dream come true,” she said. “It all started in 1990 when I joined the Historical Society of Princeton and all they were talking about was white Princeton.” Satterfield decided then that she needed to help win recognition for the African American history of Princeton.

“I said if you go from Wiggins to Birch Avenue, you’ll see how Princeton became Princeton,” she said, and in 1997 Satterfield started her Albert E. Hinds Memorial Walking Tour, named after “an ordinary man who led an extraordinary life during his 104 years,” according to plaque No. 1 in the plaza that bears his name.

Raising money for the 29 plaques, most of which have now been fully funded at $1,500 apiece, primarily by members of the community, seems to have been one of the least challenging aspects of the project. Emphasizing the importance of supporting Satterfield’s vision and “uplifting the community,” Bailey described securing committed pledges for the four church plaques in less than two hours.

“I could do that because the people knew who was calling, and I was asking them to do something that was about their history, their church, their families,” he said. “I was asking them to get involved and come up with the money to make sure the plaques were there. And not one person hesitated. Not one person paused. Everybody was enthusiastic.”

Bailey added, “I’m honored to be a part of the initiation, a part of the dedication, but more importantly I’m honored to be a part of the community that sees the value of its history, its families, its churches, and its town.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, who attended last month’s commemoration of the plaques at the African American churches, reflected on the event and its significance. “The Princeton community owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Shirley Satterfield for sharing her deep knowledge, to Bob Hillier for designing the plaques, and to all the people who have come forward so far to help fund this project,” she said. “It was Shirley’s vision to memorialize her famed historic walking tour of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and capture the stories, photos, and history in a series of plaques.”

She continued, “It’s wonderful to see her vision start to become a reality with the unveiling of the first four plaques. The Heritage Tour plaques will help residents and passersby gain a deeper understanding of the neighborhood and the people who lived and worked here, and the vital role it played in the shaping of Princeton and our country.”