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“Princeton’s Public Schools: A History”

Top left, Students in front of the Cedar Grove schoolhouse, 1904. (Historical Society of Princeton)

New Digital Tour Goes Back to the Mid-19th Century

By Laurie Pellichero

Going all the way back to Betsey Stockton and her No. 6 School in the 1830s and continuing to present day, “Princeton’s Public Schools: A History,” a new digital tour presented by the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP), in partnership with Princeton Public Schools (PPS), traces the history of public education as it developed in Princeton through the stories of 21 schools.

The 19-part tour, which is illustrated with photographs, documents, and oral histories, draws on materials and research collected for “150+ Years of Princeton Public Schools,” a 2009 exhibition at Princeton High School. Curated by Lisa Paine, Charlotte Bialek, and a team of volunteers, the show was the result of resources gathered from PPS, the HSP, Princeton Public Library, and Princeton University Libraries.

“When I started volunteering for Princeton Public Schools, I did research at the Historical Society of Princeton archives and learned that Princeton’s school system was over 150 years old,” says Paine. “The materials in the historical society’s collection and in Princeton Public Schools’ archives documenting that long history inspired me to develop the 2009 exhibition.”

At the suggestion of then PPS Assistant Supervisor Robert Ginsberg, a revised wall display of the exhibition was mounted at the Valley Road administrative building in the summer of 2021. Since building restrictions due to COVID-19 limited viewership, the PPS began working with the HSP to convert it into a digital tour that more could enjoy. The completed digital tour was released in May.

Stephanie Schwartz, HSP curator of collections and research, said, “HSP is thrilled to present ‘Princeton’s Public Schools’ alongside our existing digital tours. As many of the families who saw the original 2009 exhibition have graduated from the school system, it’s the perfect time to being these stories to a new and larger audience.”

Witherspoon Street School students on the schoolhouse steps, 1903. (Photo courtesy of Shirley Satterfield) 

And what stories they are. As noted in the tour, “common schools,” the precursor to today’s public schools, began appearing in Princeton in the late 1830s, not long after education reformer Horace Mann began nationally promoting community-funded education. Princeton Borough incorporated its schools in 1858 and the town’s first official public school opened that same year.

Until 2013, Princeton was two independent municipalities – Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, and Borough and Township schools were separate entities for much of this time. Princeton Township officially incorporated its schools in 1875, but many of the Township’s rural schoolhouses existed long before incorporation. Unlike the first Borough schools, early Township schools were integrated, with both white and Black students attending. The Borough and Township school districts ultimately merged in 1966, becoming the public school system that exists today.
The issue of race figures prominently in the tour, as it did in the original exhibition.

“Racial segregation, integration, and equality play a vital role in Princeton’s educational history, says Schwartz. “Partly because Princeton is nationally known for the Princeton Plan model of school integration [in 1948]. But the intertwining of race and education in Princeton goes far beyond the Princeton Plan and additional stories consistently appear throughout the tour.”

“Princeton’s Public Schools: A History” notes that public education in Princeton originates with Betsey Stockton, a formerly enslaved woman, who opened the first “common school” for Black students around 1837. It was located in a schoolhouse between MacLean and Quarry streets.

At District No. 6 School, Stockton taught an average of 30 students in a variety of subjects including spelling, reading, arithmetic, and geography. The town superintendent’s common school register from 1847, featured on the tour, calls Stockton “an excellent teacher” and describes the institution as “an excellent school.”

Stockton also established the Sunday school at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and opened additional schools for Princeton’s Black community, with one offering night classes for working teenagers and adults. In 1858, the common school was officially incorporated as the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children.

The tour also features the Princeton Model School at 185 Nassau Street, which opened in 1858 and closed in 1929. It was Princeton Borough’s first public school for white students, and the school’s curriculum was intended to serve as an instructional “model” for teachers-in-training. The tour includes a photo of the 1882 graduating class, whose motto was “Labor Omina Vincit,” meaning “Work Conquers All.”

The Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children was at first housed in the same schoolhouse as the common school, before a new wooden schoolhouse was built in 1873 at the corner of MacLean and Witherspoon streets. As the Borough’s only school for Black students, it educated children from kindergarten to eighth grade, split into Primary, Intermediate, and Grammar/Higher departments. The Witherspoon Street School was considered a “separate department” of the Princeton Model School, but Princeton High School remained off-limits to Black students.

An integrated Princeton High School class, 1917. (Historical Society of Princeton. Princeton History Project Collection)

According to the tour, following the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which permitted racial segregation so long as the separate facilities were “equal,” the Witherspoon Street School underwent a major renovation which doubled the size of the school, making it two stories and adding a larger porch. In 1908 the school moved to a new building on Quarry Street. It was integrated in 1948 and became a middle school for all sixth-eighth graders. It was often referred to as the Quarry Street School, and is now an apartment complex known as The Waxwood in honor of Howard Waxwood, who became principal of the school in 1935. The tour shows his 1918 certificate of promotion.

This section on the tour also features a 1903 photo of the school’s students that may include a 5-year-old Paul Robeson, whose father was involved in the school as a parent, teacher, and affiliated minister.

Other stops on the tour include Cedar Grove School, a Township school located on the Great Road that was incorporated in 1875 and closed in 1917; and the one-room Mount Lucas School on Mount Lucas Road, which drew most of its students from nearby small, family-run “Herrontown” farms. It was incorporated in 1875, closed in 1917, and still stands today as a private residence.

The Stony Brook School on Mercer Road was incorporated in 1875, closed in 1936, and reopened from 1945-1959. This wooden schoolhouse educated up to 45 children each year from the surrounding farms and neighboring settlements. The tour notes that as wealthy industrialists came to Princeton in the late 1800s, the children of staff employed at these grand estates, including those of Drumthwacket butler Henry Egglefield, began attending the Stony Brook School as well.

The Stony Brook School’s most renowned teacher was Mary Louise Snook, shown in a 1904 photo, who taught for 40 of the school’s 80-plus year history. When the Princeton Township schools consolidated in 1917, Stony Brook School opted not to participate, and to remain a neighborhood school.

Princeton High School’s history began in 1898 as a branch of the Princeton Model School. It was located at 185 Nassau Street, and Black students were not allowed to enroll until around 1916. Prior to that Black students in Princeton either attended high school in Trenton (as did Paul Robeson’s brother, William Robeson Jr.) or went to trade schools if they wanted to continue their education. Photos in the tour include an integrated Princeton High School class in 1917 and the girls’ basketball team in 1918, as well as a postcard of the Princeton Grammar School building, which opened next to the original Model School building (which became the home of Princeton High School), in 1912. As enrollment grew, a new building for the high school opened in 1929 at 151 Moore Street. It welcomed 578 students from both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township.

A fun physical education class at Littlebrook. (PPS Archives. Photo by Harriet Arnold)

Beatlemania hits Community Park. (Town Topics, February 20, 1964)

The tour also includes sections on Valley Road School, which was known as Princeton Township School from 1918 through 1947, when it was expanded and rechristened Valley Road (it closed in 1973); and Littlebrook School, which opened in 1957, closed in 1981 when it consolidated with Riverside School (opened in 1960), and reopened in 1988. Photos from Johnson Park School include students playing four square and the amphitheater built in 2018 and named for Robert Ginsberg, the school’s longtime principal.

Community Park was the last elementary school to be built, at 371 Witherspoon Street in 1962. Children are shown enjoying a “Space Capsule” jungle gym and performing as The Beatles.

The tour ends with Princeton Middle School, which opened at 217 Walnut Lane in 1966 as John Witherspoon Middle School. As noted, it was renamed Princeton Middle School in 2021 due to the complicated legacy of its namesake, a president of Princeton University, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the owner of enslaved people. A student-driven petition calling to change the school’s name was submitted in the summer of 2020 and signed by 1,500 people. After considering several suggestions, the School Board voted on the final choice in 2021.

“The response to the tour has been great so far,” says Schwartz. “People have been reaching out to HSP with their own memories of attending public school in Princeton, and we love hearing them all. We are currently expanding the tour to include the Princeton Charter School, and we can’t wait to document the next chapters of Princeton’s educational history.”

The digital tour can be viewed at princetonhistory.org.

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