A vivid history of life in Princeton, New Jersey, told through the voices of its African American residents
I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.
Drawn from an oral history collaboration with residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton undergraduates, and their professor, Kathryn Watterson, neighbors speak candidly about Jim Crow segregation, the consequences of school integration, World Wars I and II, and the struggles for equal opportunities and civil rights. Despite three centuries of legal and economic obstacles, African American residents have created a flourishing, ethical, and humane neighborhood in which to raise their children, care for the sick and elderly, worship, stand their ground, and celebrate life. Abundantly filled with photographs, I Hear My People Singing personalizes the injustices faced by generations of black Princetonians—including the famed Paul Robeson—and highlights the community’s remarkable achievements. The introductions to each chapter provide historical context, as does the book’s foreword by noted scholar, theologian, and activist Cornel West.
An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.
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I Hear My People Singing
Voices of African American Princeton
By Kathryn Watterson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2017 Kathryn Watterson
All rights reserved.
Our Grandmother Came from Africa as a Little Girl
IN PRINCETON, PEOPLE OFTEN repeat the myth that claims Princeton's black population began when Southern students brought their slaves with them to the college. This simply is not so. As stated previously, free and enslaved Africans lived in this area long before the town was founded or the university was established.
When the College of New Jersey moved from Elizabeth to Princeton in 1756, its first buildings were Nassau Hall, a house for the college president, and a separate kitchen building that had slave quarters above. The charter president, Jonathan Dickenson, a slave owner and minister, had died in 1647, four and a half months after being appointed to lead the infant college in Elizabeth. His successor, Aaron Burr, Sr., the first to move into the president's house, came to campus with his wife, daughter, and baby son. He also brought with him a man named Caesar, whom he had purchased in 1755. The bill of sale, still in Princeton University's archives, specifies that for eighty pounds, the former owner sold Mr. Aaron Burr "a certain Negro Man named Caesar" — "To HAVE and to HOLD the said Negro Man Caesar unto the said Mr. Aaron Burr his Executors, Administrators and Assigns for ever."
Certainly, many college students came from slave-owning Southern gentry, but Southern students did not "bring their slaves" to the tiny but growing campus. The white male students lived and studied in one large stone building — Nassau Hall — which, at the time, was the largest building in all of the American colonies. This building would house the entire college — library, chapel, classrooms, and residential space — for the next fifty years.
The enslaved people living on campus belonged to the college's presidents. Following Aaron Burr, six more slave owners presided over the college and lived in the same presidential home (Maclean House) that sits on Princeton University's campus today. They legally owned people who, because of the bodies into which they'd been born, were sentenced to a lifetime of bondage. In 1766, the six people held by the fifth president, Samuel Finley, most likely lived above the kitchen, as had Cesar. That may have been home to them for five years before both Finley and his wife died during a stay in Philadelphia, and they were put up for sale. On August 19, 1766, it was those two women, one man, and three children who stood on the lawn in front of Maclean House, where buyers looked them over and bid on them, as they did on horses, cattle, and other household possessions.
Enslaved blacks were not the only new arrivals to Princeton in those days. Freed Negro men and women also settled here as paid servants, domestics, carpenters, laborers, and entrepreneurs. At the end of the Revolutionary War, men who had earned manumission from slavery by fighting for the Continental army also found employment at the college.
Quite a number of formerly enslaved people arrived in Princeton in the 1700s and 1800s by terrifying means of escape. Some traveled north on the Underground Railroad — the secret interstate network that took shape by the 1830s to help Southern slaves flee to freedom in Northern states and Canada — decided they liked Princeton. One legendary resident, who changed his name to James C. Johnson after he escaped from his owner in Baltimore in 1839, was penniless by the time he got to Princeton, which was why he chose to stay. Within a few days, he was earning wages as a servant at the college. Like others, he kept students' rooms swept and clean, started fires on cold mornings, and blackened the students' boots. Because of emptying their chamber pots, he got the nickname "Stinky" from some of the students.
Another brave soul who escaped slavery was Albert Hinds's maternal grandfather, Robert Hall, who traveled north with the aid of the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. He stopped in New York and got work helping to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Then he chose to settle down as a farmer in New Jersey, right outside Princeton, where he and his wife had nine children.
Another former slave, Rev. William Robeson, escaped from North Carolina and worked for the Union army during the Civil War. He made his way north to Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia, where he worked as a farmhand while he learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and earned a bachelor's degree and two additional degrees in theology. He married and came with his bride from Philadelphia, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, to Princeton, where they moved into the parsonage of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church (founded in 1837 as the First Presbyterian Church of Color) and had seven children. Rev. Robeson served as the Presbyterian Church's beloved pastor for twenty-one years.
For each person who settled in the Princeton neighborhood, siblings, cousins, or friends often followed. Two of Rev. Robeson's brothers, for instance, trailed him to Princeton from North Carolina, and each married, had children, and built families that became part of the Witherspoon community. By the mid-1800s, historical records mention the presence of paid servants — both Irish and African American — who'd found low-income housing in the Witherspoon neighborhood.
The College of New Jersey was a major draw for African Americans looking for work, as was the Princeton Theological Seminary, which had been founded in 1812. Unlike the college, the seminary welcomed black students and played a strong role in educating black clergy and supporting black churches. It, too, became a source not only of employment, but also its welcome drew many free blacks to the area and substantially increased the African American population in Princeton.
Following the Civil War, during a short period known as Reconstruction, when the federal government attempted to rebuild the South, African American men exercised their first-time voting rights to overwhelmingly elect black representatives to state and national offices. During this time,
newly freed men were able to exercise rights previously denied them. They could vote, marry, or go to school if there were one nearby, and the more ambitious among them could enroll in black colleges set up by northern philanthropists, open businesses, and run for office. ... In short order, some managed to become physicians, legislators, undertakers, insurance men. ... But by the mid-1870s, when the North withdrew its oversight in the face of southern hostility, whites in the South began to resurrect the caste system founded under slavery. Nursing the wounds of defeat and seeking a scapegoat, much like Germany in the years leading up to Nazism, they began to undo the opportunities accorded free slaves during Reconstruction and to refine the language of white supremacy. They would create a caste system based not on pedigree and title ... but solely on race, and which, by law, disallowed any movement of the lowest caste into the mainstream.
The South denied African Americans any right to due process and unleashed ruthless violence against them. "The status of former slaves in the first two generations following emancipation is a dramatic example of the attempt to make the color line a distinctive and permanent feature of American life," the imminent historian John Hope Franklin writes. "After participating in the political process for less than a decade in the 1860s and 1870s, they were stripped of every vestige of citizenship by one of the most merciless, terror-driven assaults in the annals of modern history. Black men who dared to vote were lynched, and schools that black children dared to attend were burned to the ground." Politicians justified this behavior on high moral grounds: "In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view."
Many families who decided to flee the terrorism of the South were drawn to Princeton by relatives and friends who lived there, work opportunities, and the town's relative peacefulness. The small black community of Princeton was enticing for its manageable size and social fabric. In 1900, one in every five residents in the town of 4,000 was African American. Census figures show a spike in the black population from 585 in 1890 to 1,148 in 1910, which was 22 percent of the borough population. Many of these newcomers to Princeton had migrated from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Princeton's churches, schools, wealthy businessmen, building projects, and entrepreneurial opportunities within the Witherspoon community continued to attract African Americans eager to put down new roots.
At the turn of the century, when the College of New Jersey was turning into Princeton University, when new job opportunities opened up for African Americans, they also opened up for others. Specifically, the college brought in Italian stone masons, artisans, and carpenters to construct new, ornate, Gothic-style buildings on campus. The college helped the Italian workers find affordable rental housing for their families in and around the Witherspoon neighborhood. By then, most of the Irish had moved on, into white neighborhoods, so the Italians, despite the language differences, settled in. "Our connection with Italians was that we were all poor," said one black resident. "We got along fine."
Travelers who came north after World Wars I and II as part of the Great Migration were motivated not only by the Southern violence against blacks but also by the deteriorating economic realities of the South. They were searching for stable jobs and the chance to create and maintain a safe environment for their children. Most of the migrants traveling north moved into cities, such as Atlantic City, Newark, and New York. But those who stopped in Princeton found a lively community with strong ethical values and an active resistance to the Jim Crow laws that limited their freedoms.
Yesterday and today's Witherspoon residents speak about their own roots in the following pages — starting with Sophie Hinds, born in 1875, whose voice we found in the Historical Society's records. She and others descend in large part from those early neighborhood settlers, and they've continued to build on the courage and tenacity of those who came before them.
Hey, wait a minute here. That slavery business wasn't that long ago.
— LAMONT FLETCHER
Sophie Hall Hinds (1875–1974)
They were Northern people, my mother's folks. My father's were Southern people. My father was born a slave. The master that kept him had plenty of people. So none of my father's people were ever sold. They were given away, but never sold. This man that came down from Africa who was related to my father was head of the tribe or something like that. I don't know much about him, but he came down and he asked that none of his people be auctioned. He said, "Don't ever sell any of my people." And none of them were ever sold. I guess my father was a runaway slave. He got up here in the North and helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. When I was a grown-up girl, I used to hear from [my father's] one sister who was still living and was given away to Mississippi. ... [My father] never heard much from [his family] until after a number of years ... he somehow got in touch with one or two of his sisters who lived in Mississippi. And that's how I knew both of them, so I used to be the one to do the writing backward and forward to them. But the only one I ever saw was one of his sisters.
Jacqui Swain (1944–)
My great-grandmother and grandfather came from Lawrence, South Carolina. They were Maddens. Our family tree goes as far as a white slave owner by the name of Alex Madden. The Ku Klux Klan was tearing up South Carolina about that time, 1920ish. My grandmother on my mother's side used to always tell a story about how my great-grandfather sent his boys to find a place where they could live in relative comfort. She remembers being awakened in the middle of the night, at two a.m., by her parents because they had to get out of Lawrence, South Carolina, under the cover of the dark.
So they all came to Princeton and found a house on old Clay Street and had various jobs here. I don't know a lot about my father's family. His people were the Princeton Prior family, and I think a lot of them are still in New York.
My grandmother is Mary Madden Sullivan. She worked in a private family for a while. She worked at Princeton Hospital doing laundry. She must have had seven or eight brothers and sisters that I knew. Some of her sisters were professionals and her brother Gally worked for the Borough Garage. My Uncle Clarence was an entrepreneur, he did his own thing. Many of [my grandmother's] brothers and sisters could pass for white and did. When one of her sisters died, there was some question as to whether a child that that sister had could actually be her child because the child was obviously black. My grandmother had to go to court to prove that she was the sister and aunt.
Nana, my father's mother, was Elnora Prior Johnston. She was widowed and raised her two boys alone. Both my mother and father went to segregated schools here in Princeton. They didn't always give black students diplomas; they got these certificates of proficiency indicating that they knew how to mop floors and scrub dishes. But my father graduated from the high school and he received a diploma. He and his brother went into the navy right out of high school during World War II.
Johnnie Dennis (1903–2007)
I'll be ninety-eight years old in September. I was born in South Carolina. I went to school in South Carolina, and they started a school made from a church. I had brothers and sisters. They lived to a certain age and then they died. Our grandmother came from Africa as a little girl. Our father is American Indian. My parents did what they could do. Born way back there in slave time. My father was a barber and he worked cutting hair. So they had jobs then, but nobody went out and created jobs like now. I told you, you got to read your history. They had to make the jobs. We had to work — any kind of work you could find. We built this country! We built it! Black folks from Africa. It just wasn't built by white men. It was built up by everybody.
Bruce Wright (1917–2005)
My father came to Princeton from Montserrat. He came to Princeton because of an older brother who ended up there, running one of those eating clubs that they had for students. His brother was a bit on the snobbish side, and, to me, a very strange guy. In fact, we had invented all kinds of nicknames for him. His name was Oscar, and he had a big nose, so we called him Oscola Schnozola, behind his back, of course. But he was a decent guy. And my track coach told me that if you don't have a nickname, you're not a regular guy, so I thought my uncle was a regular guy, Schnozola. He may not have thought so.
So 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 a divinity guy, if I'm not mistaken. And he was full of shit.
I worked in the kitchen with my father, especially when the Wickes family had guests for dinner. My father suffered from rheumatism all his life. He was only five foot four. And I used to weep sometimes, knowing the hard work that he did. He suffered from asthma, which made breathing even worse. So I used to help him when I got big enough. The dean entertained all the time, especially students. So there was a lot of work to be done. And in those days, I don't know what they do about people with asthma today, but my father had to pause now and then. There was some terrible-looking powder that he would put on a little piece of tin, and he would light it and inhale the fumes. He worked there until he died in his sixties.
My mother worked for a professor also, but she didn't cook, she took care of the house. My mother was a lousy cook. I mean, she would have told you that, too. She was not a good cook. My dad did a lot of cooking. But then, when I got drafted and my brother was drafted and my sister was married, she worked in a defense factory, I guess in New Brunswick. She liked motors and things. She was a good driver.
Fortunately for me, I had Aunt Katherine, my mother's sister, who lived mostly in New York, and she liberated me from Princeton when I was thirteen. Aunt Katherine became friendly with me and wanted me to have something better than Princeton. So I went to high school in New York City at Townsend Harris, an elite public high school for boys. There were probably three black kids in it, but it was integrated. The New York City public school system was, to my knowledge, never segregated.
Excerpted from I Hear My People Singing by Kathryn Watterson. Copyright © 2017 Kathryn Watterson. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Cornel West xi
Introduction: “The North’s Most Southern Town” 1
1 Our Grandmother Came from Africa as a Little Girl 31
2 I Grew Up Hugged to the Hearts of My People 52
3 School Integration: A Big Loss for Black Children 76
4 The University: A Place to Labor, Not to Study 106
5 Every Day, You Work to Survive 138
6 A Neighborhood under Siege 171
7 Fighting for Our Country in Every War 194
8 Racism Poisons Our Whole Nation 221
9 Standing Strong and Moving Through 252
10 Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow 285
Meet the Residents: Speakers’ Biographies 307
Permissions and notes on the photographs 349
Author’s Note 359
What People are Saying About This
"An extraordinary and most necessary book, I Hear My People Singing recasts American history as a whole by presenting in their own words the full lives of Black Princetonians, lives forged within the utterly everyday Americanness of enslavement, segregation, and insult. This book is so very welcome, now that we are facing up to the realities of white supremacy in even so admirable a place as Princeton. Thank you, Kathryn Watterson, for letting us hear from these Princetonians so long behind the veil."Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People"I Hear My People Singing is an excellent model for teaching students how to engage with the members of their surrounding African American community and learn the history from those who lived it.”John W. Franklin, Cultural Historian Emeritus, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution"Kathryn Watterson has devoted her entire life as a writer to issues of justice. From the American prison system to women's rights and the stories of people of color, few writers in this country have captured the humanity and heroism of the disenfranchised like Watterson. I Hear My People Singing stands alone in its telling of stories untold, stories essential to understanding the unwritten history of America. At this moment in time, this beautiful book is essential reading."Emily Mann, Artistic Director, McCarter Theatre"This is a beautifully conceived and executed book, one of real significance. The continuity of challenges that Black Princetonians face, including the mixed blessings of desegregation, despite significant assaults of racism, resonates so well with our current struggles throughout the United States."Wilbert H. Ahern, University of Minnesota, Morris"I Hear My People Singing adds to the growing collection of studies and memoirs of African Americans around elite white colleges and universities. Because many of these volumes have focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not the twentieth, this book will extend their scope and value. This is all the more the case because the book at once reflects and reflects on the progressive racial integration of Princeton over the past half century."David Moltke-Hansen, former President, Historical Society of Pennsylvania