FitzRandolph Gate, the official entrance to the University campus, stands at the top of Witherspoon Street, the main artery of Princeton’s historically African American Witherspoon neighborhood. And for much of the 20th century, that imposing wrought-iron portal wordlessly conveyed an unmistakable message about the University’s relationship with the black community.

“That gate was always locked shut. It was never open — never,” Leonard Rivers, who grew up in Princeton and later coached football and baseball at the University, recalls in a new book about the neighborhood. “We knew that when you crossed Nassau Street and you went to the University, that was not us.”

Rivers is one of dozens of Witherspoon residents who tell their stories in I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton, an oral history of Princeton’s three-centuries-old black community that Princeton University Press will publish in May. The book brings to vivid life the working-class neighborhood’s experiences of racism and segregation, as well as the strong bonds of community that helped residents survive in what was often called “the North’s most Southern town” or “the South’s most Northern town.”

The book is based largely on interviews that three dozen University students conducted between 1999 and 2002, initially as an assignment for two writing courses taught by journalist and author Kathryn Watterson. Watterson, who now teaches in the University of Pennsylvania’s creative writing program, excerpted her Princeton students’ interviews, organized them into thematic chapters, and wrote introductions placing the residents’ stories in historical context.

“The life stories are so powerful because of what they’ve lived through, because of the experience of having to deal with all the prejudice,” says Watterson, who spent years searching for a publisher for the book. “The positivity and the bigness of it is contagious. The kids fell in love with these people.”

Watterson’s own interest in race and civil rights is lifelong: Driving from Arizona to Florida in 1964, as a 22-year-old bride, she encountered Jim Crow segregation for the first time. “The first day I saw the colored and white water fountains and the signs on the doors, it just threw my world upside down,” says Watterson. “The whole trip across the South was radicalizing. The injustice was so great.” 

Nancy Greene, left, founded a YWCA for Witherspoon residents; young Emma would become a civil-rights activist. They are pictured in 1904.
Historical Society of Princeton

Watterson went on to tutor African American children; volunteer in the Peace Corps; cover race, policing, and anti-war activism in Philadelphia; and publish a nonfiction book about women in prison, before moving to Princeton in 1987. The oral-history project was suggested to her by longtime Witherspoon resident and educator Henry F. Pannell, 77, who feared that the stories of the neighborhood’s aging residents were going to die with them. 

Initially, not every resident wanted to participate in a University-linked project. Some remembered how town and gown had collaborated in the middle decades of the 20th century to demolish black-owned homes and businesses in order to redevelop Nassau Street. Some resented what they saw as past misrepresentations of their poor but striving neighborhood as a ghetto. 

But others welcomed the chance to set the record straight about their community’s courage, resilience, and vibrancy.

In the 1940s and ’50s, “on my street alone, nobody was making over $100 a week, but 38 people from Birch Avenue, African American children, became teachers,” says Romus Broadway, 78, who has immortalized his neighborhood in dozens of photographic collages. “The parents got so little recognition for what they were doing. They kept the faith. Everything that is written about what makes a parent successful was here, but it was never illuminated.”

Princeton’s African American community is older than the University: The first free blacks arrived in town in the 1680s, some 70 years before the College of New Jersey relocated there. The oft-told tale that Princeton’s original black residents were the slaves of University students from the South is a myth, Watterson writes.

But the University’s first eight presidents were all slaveholders — including the sixth, neighborhood namesake John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister who eventually preached in favor of abolition but at his death still owned two slaves. By 1850, decades after New Jersey abolished slavery, as many as 20 percent of Princeton’s 3,000 residents were free African Americans. 

They settled in a neighborhood north of Nassau Street, formerly 18 blocks but now an 11-block, L-shaped enclave bounded by Witherspoon and John streets; Paul Robeson Place, formerly called Jackson Street; Leigh and Birch avenues; and Bayard Lane. The neighborhood is sometimes called John-Witherspoon or Witherspoon-Jackson, after its main streets.

As the town’s black population grew, so did the University’s Southern enrollment. Princeton courted Southern students unwilling to venture into the abolitionist New England of Harvard and Yale. At its peak in 1848, the proportion of Southerners in Princeton’s student body was 51.5 percent, Watterson reports, and it remained at or above 40 percent well into the 20th century. 

Perhaps as a result, racial attitudes in Princeton had a distinctly Southern flavor. “Rich Princeton was white; the Negroes were there to do the work. An aristocracy must have its retainers, and so the people of our small Negro community were, for the most part, a servant class,” wrote one of the most famous products of the Witherspoon neighborhood — singer, actor, and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson. “Less than 50 miles from New York, and even closer to Philadelphia, Princeton was spiritually located in Dixie.”

I Hear My People Singing — the title is based on a Robeson quote — documents the myriad ways Princeton enforced racial separation, in some cases even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made the segregation of public accommodations illegal. 

Nassau Street stores and restaurants limited or denied service to African Americans, and black men couldn’t get haircuts in the barbershop. The hospital refused to give black doctors admitting privileges, and Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Garden Theatre relegated African Americans to balcony seating. In 1937, the Nassau Inn declined to rent a room to African American opera singer Marian Anderson; she accepted Albert Einstein’s invitation to stay at his house instead.

But the discrimination was not always as overt as in states farther south. Stores that were off-limits to African Americans did not display a “Whites Only” sign, “but if you went in, you were kind of ushered out,” says Jacqueline Swain, 72, who works in administrative support at the University’s Program in Teacher Preparation. “They didn’t do it with axe handles or police dogs.”

That relative subtlety could make navigating life in Princeton tricky for African Americans, Witherspoon residents note in Watterson’s book. “One thing about the South, you don’t have to wonder,” neighborhood resident Albert Hinds, who died in 2006 at the age of 104, says in the book. “Down South you know: I can’t go here, I can’t go there, I can’t do that, I can’t do this. Here it’s more difficult; you don’t know whether you can or not.”

Witherspoon parents sought to shield their children from the ugliness that might greet them if they ventured onto Nassau Street — the area that whites called “downtown” but blacks knew as “uptown.” “As a child, I never gave it much thought. Our parents didn’t allow us to go uptown, and so we didn’t go,” says Penelope S. Edwards-Carter, 69, who later served as Princeton’s first African American borough clerk. “It wasn’t a matter of consciously thinking it was because it was segregated as much as your parents just didn’t let you go.” 

Because African Americans were unwelcome in so many places in white Princeton, they built thriving businesses of their own: stores, clubs, bars, beauty shops. “There was a viable, vibrant microeconomy that happened in spite of segregation,” says Swain.

The most important of these separate institutions was the public school system. Princeton High School was integrated in 1916 — although African American students received certificates of completion, rather than diplomas — but schools serving younger students remained segregated by race until New Jersey’s 1947 constitution outlawed the practice.

Princeton’s African American schools were shortchanged of money and materials, but in Watterson’s book, Witherspoon residents share fond memories of their black teachers, who knew their students from the neighborhood, treated them with love and respect, and had high expectations for their success.

“That was one of the best educations you could get, even though it was segregated, even though we had second-class books,” says Pannell, who attended the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children through fourth grade, when the schools were integrated. “They were dedicated to seeing that we got the best education.”

Although some Witherspoon residents report positive experiences with white teachers and classmates after Princeton integrated its schools in 1948, many do not. “The way those teachers treated us, I’ll never forget,” Pannell says. “They wouldn’t call on you, they ignored you, and you knew that they didn’t want you there.” Within three years of integration, Watterson writes, the graduation and college-attendance rates of African American students fell precipitously. 

“The life stories are so powerful because of what they’ve lived through, because of the experience of having to deal with all the prejudice.” — Kathryn Watterson, author
Courtesy Kathryn Watterson

Even those Witherspoon residents who finished high school knew that their college plans could not include attendance at the hometown university: Princeton did not enroll African American students until World War II, and then only a handful. Most members of the black community knew the University less as an academic institution than as an employer. “When you finished high school, there were jobs waiting for you as a waiter or a dishwasher or a cook, but not as a student,” Broadway notes in Watterson’s book. 

In 1939, a one-time neighborhood resident named Bruce Wright was offered a scholarship to the University, but when he arrived for the start of classes and officials realized he was African American, they revoked his acceptance. When Wright demanded an explanation, then-Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance wrote him a letter saying that while “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color or creed,” the presence of so many Southerners on campus and the absence of other black students “would enforce my advice to any colored student, that he would be happier in an environment of others of his race.”

Wright, who died in 2005, graduated from Lincoln University, a historically black school in Pennsylvania, earned a law degree from New York University, and eventually became a New York state court judge. “But I’ve never forgiven Princeton for what they did,” he says in Watterson’s book. 

The University’s troubled relationship with the African American community began to improve in the 1960s, Watterson says, when President Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48 first heard stories like Wright’s. “He was so shocked by the racism,” Watterson says. “We’re such a segregated society — it’s not unusual not to know what’s going on.”

In 1968, as Goheen sought to diversify the University, he offered the job of assistant dean of students to a Witherspoon resident, Joseph P. Moore. As Moore recounts in Watterson’s book, his father, a longtime University groundskeeper, was unimpressed by the prestigious appointment. “That’s a plantation, son,” he said. “Why would you want to work there?”

A year after Moore took the job, becoming one of Princeton’s first black administrators, the Princeton Class of 1970 marked its graduation by persuading the University to permanently unlock FitzRandolph Gate. Decades later, the University gave Watterson financial support for her oral-history project, which she likens to a local version of the truth commissions designed to heal the wounds of divided societies. “We need to look at racism in the face,” she says. “We need to look at how we’ve hidden from it and how it’s been hidden.”

Princeton students who participated in Watterson’s project — now alumni — say the interviews they conducted enriched their sense of the sometimes-invisible world beyond the University’s gates. “It makes you understand that there’s parts of that history that don’t get told very often,” says Saloni Doshi ’03, now a Denver business consultant with a social-justice specialty. “It makes you realize how sheltered you are as a student.”

For A-dae Romero-Briones ’03, who grew up on the Cochiti Indian reservation near Santa Fe, N.M., the oral-history project allowed her to connect with others who had experienced the racial slights she sometimes encountered as a dark-skinned person at a largely white University.

“I had a really hard time at Princeton. It was such a culture shock for me,” says Romero-Briones, now a food and agriculture attorney in Hawaii. “But knowing that there was a community outside of those gray walls helped me feel more at home.”

Watterson taught her students to listen empathetically to the stories of others’ lives, and “in this political time, it feels more important than ever to have these stories,” Doshi says. “You build solutions by understanding people’s stories, and not through charged political dialogue.”

Indeed, Pannell says he always hoped the project might forge such empathetic connections. “I just thought that one day, maybe one of those kids might become president, or in a position where they would remember that they had met a group of black folk, which they had never been around before, and that would have some kind of positive influence,” he says. “Maybe this whole world could change just by getting to know people.”

Students and residents celebrate their oral-history project in May 2001: Front row (from left), Jessica Hafkin ’03, Celia Riechel ’04, Lauren Miller ’03, Mia Powell ’03, Katherine Jackson ’03, Jenny Hildebrand ’03, Jessica Lautin ’03, and Saloni Doshi ’03; second row (from left): Hank Pannell, Fannie Floyd, Harriett Calloway, Joan Hill, lecturer Kathryn Watterson, Paul Mitnaul, Trisha Thorme, and Romus Broadway; back row (from left), the Rev. Judson Carter, Tom Hartman, Marsha Hartman, Wilma Pannell, Shirley Satterfield, Clyde “Buster” Thomas, Marilyn Yates, Jim Floyd Sr., Karim Thomas ’04, Marlo McGriff ’04, Janet Dickerson (then vice president for campus life), and Jim Floyd Jr. ’69.
Iming Lin

Today, longtime residents’ memories of the Witherspoon neighborhood are tinged with melancholy. The place they remember is rapidly disappearing, they say, a victim of larger socioeconomic pressures. In the 2010 U.S. Census, the African American population of what was then Princeton Borough (it has since merged with Princeton Township) totaled only 7.5 percent; by contrast, the Latino population was 10.3 percent. 

In part, the demographic changes are a relic of Princeton’s racist past, an era when neighborhood children often left town once they grew up. “When African Americans went to college, they became unemployable in Princeton,” says Broadway, the photographer. “So they went to other places that would take them in and recognize their ability.”

But gentrification is also at work. High property taxes are pushing out lower-income homeowners, and Witherspoon’s convenient location, within walking distance of Princeton’s amenities, tempts higher-income buyers. “The neighborhood has disappeared to a great degree,” says Edwards-Carter, the former borough clerk. “People are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.” 

Settling a legal challenge by residents to its tax-exempt status in October, the University agreed to contribute $10 million over six years to a fund for low-income homeowners. It also allocated $1.25 million over three years to the nonprofit Witherspoon-Jackson Development Corp., which helps economically disadvantaged residents repair and keep their homes. Earlier, in April 2016, the municipality designated the neighborhood a historic district, to prevent purchasers from tearing down older residences and replacing them with out-of-scale mansions. Residents say it remains to be seen whether the new designation will make it easier for old-timers to stay.

The overt segregation that once shaped life in Princeton has disappeared, but Witherspoon residents say a subtler racism remains a fact of life for African Americans: the store clerks who treat black customers with suspicion, the partygoers who mistake black guests for service staff, the schools where African American students are too often tracked into less rigorous classes. 

And many lament the demise of an older way of life, a small-town ethos that a bigger, busier Princeton has lost. “You don’t have that same close-knit cohesiveness that existed when we were children,” says Edwards-Carter. “You don’t have that same sense of neighborliness. People live next door to each other now and they don’t even know each other.”

The publication of Watterson’s oral history, residents say, will help preserve the memory of a place that nurtured generations of African American children and provided a sustaining bulwark against racism: “Just to know that we were here, that Princeton did have an African American community,” says Swain, of the teacher-preparation program. “A vibrant, healthy, well-informed African American community.” 

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, N.J. Her most recent book is Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.

The Borough of Princeton in 1917, based on a map created by William L. Ulyat

1. Griggs’ Imperial Restaurant
2. The Colored YW/YMCA
3. Dorothea House
4. Charles Robinson American Legion Post 218  (below)

Historical Society of Princeton

5. Masonic Temple, Aaron Lodge #9 Inc.
6. Paul Robeson’s birthplace
7. “Sport” Moore’s family property (below)

Paul Robeson, left, and Christine Moore in front of Moore’s furniture and clothing store (about 1930)
Historical Society of Princeton

8. Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church
9. Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church
10. First Baptist Church of Princeton
11. Morning Star Church of God in Christ
12. Barclay’s Ice, Coal, and Wood Plant
13. Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children (below)

ca. 1922-29
Historical Society of Princeton

14. Witherspoon (“Quarry Street”) School
15. Negro Cemetery
16. Baker’s Alley (site of Palmer Square after 1937)  (below)

Historical Society of Princeton

17. Ball’s Confectionery
18. Thomas Sullivan’s grocery store  (below)

Historical Society of Princeton

19. Princeton Rug Washing and Carpet Cleaning Works
20. Public Library (later the Historical Society)
21. Nassau Hall and FitzRandolph Gate
22. Cesar Trent’s property (1795)
23. Office of the Citizen

In April 2016, the area inside the dashed line on the map was designated a historic district on the recommendation of the Historic Preservation Committee of Princeton.