Princeton Portrait: Robert Francis Engs ’65 (1943–2013)

Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg
In 1964, a Princeton undergraduate founded a student group (misleadingly called “the Committee for Racial Reconciliation”) to promote segregation. Robert Engs ’65, then one of just a few African American students at Princeton, went to the committee’s first meeting in April, and he took friends with him — so many that he won election to the position of vice chairman. After that humiliating show of resistance, the committee dwindled into obscurity. Engs tore up the membership cards himself. “I don’t like to be considered inferior,” he told PAW. 

That spring, Engs wrote an essay that PAW republished with the title “On Being Negro in the Ivy League” (read it at, in which he condemned both bigots and white liberals for setting him apart without his say in the matter. 

“I find at Princeton the identification in the minds of others that I am not just an individual of another color, but a Negro,” he wrote. “This is what I object to. In that assumption, my right to be a man, achieve a man’s goals, and fail as men will fail is denied me. It is the sudden realization — more difficult in my case because it was sudden — that I can never be a famous American, or even a famous American who is a Negro, but only a great ‘Negro American.’ ... Once, just once, I’d like to be invited to dinner here at Princeton without the topic of conversation of my ‘liberal’ hosts being the race problem. I’d like to ask two questions of white Americans, especially those at Princeton. Do you really want a Negro to share your society? And if you do, why can’t you let me share it instead of treating me as some honored representative of an alien group?”

“Once, just once, I’d like to be invited to dinner here at Princeton without the topic of conversation of my ‘liberal’ hosts being the race problem.”

Engs went on to become one of the deans of American historians. After writing his senior thesis about segregation in the era of Woodrow Wilson 1879 — he requested access to a collection of Wilson’s papers at Princeton, but was turned down because of his thesis topic — he earned a Ph.D. at Yale and taught as a professor at the College of William & Mary and the University of Pennsylvania. His work often dealt with the aftermath of emancipation. 

“Both of us were active in trying to use history to change race relations,” says Morgan Kousser ’65, a friend of Engs in college and graduate school, and who likewise became a history professor. Engs “worked hard to get Black undergrads at Penn to be treated fairly and to make sure that people recruited Black grad students and professors,” Kousser says. At both Penn and William & Mary, Engs led efforts to ensure their histories of intellectual achievement addressed the extent to which they relied on the unacknowledged labor of African Americans, from the era of slavery onward.

“He was sociable, gracious, funny,” Kousser recalls of Eng. “I don’t think he ever did a good job with a stone face. When he told a joke, you could always tell there was a joke coming.” 

“He was humane and understanding in treating everybody as individuals, but at the same time he was conscious of racial history,” Kousser adds. “He was not colorblind with an emphasis on blind.” 

As for the Committee for Racial Reconciliation, Engs responded to criticism that he had staged an unfair coup with chilly contempt for the way the committee had demanded that others accept their bad-faith language and let them define racial reconciliation. “The meeting demonstrated that there is more than one point of view at Princeton on how best to reconcile the races,” he said. “It is to be hoped, however, that no one group will again attempt to pre-empt the field of racial reconciliation.”