The following address by Robert J. Rivers Jr. '53, a former Princeton trustee and a vascular surgeon, was given at the third annual Pan-African Graduation June 1, 2008, in Richardson Auditorium.
In 2016, the University presented Rivers with an honorary degree at Commencement, noting that he “paved the way toward a University increasingly committed to diversity and inclusion, and he did it with dignity, grace, integrity and a lifelong devotion to this University’s highest values.”
It has been almost 60 years since my last opportunity to speak at a graduation in Princeton. When I graduated from Princeton High School, I spoke at the ceremony held in McCarter Theater. The personal feelings of honor and privilege have never gone away.
Now, once again I am humbled and honored by an invitation to speak at this very special ceremony. Graduation is an important rite of passage that will take you into the future, and we pause this evening to honor you and your successful pursuit of dreams at Princeton University. Personal thoughts from the past magnify my congratulations.
My respect, admiration, and congratulations also go to your family, friends, mentors, and the distinguished Princeton faculty – the believers who supported your successful journey. This evening I will go back to a very different time to talk about people, events, and my dreams.
Princeton is the place where I was born; the place I grew up. Princeton University was a Southern school with strong Southern social preferences. It just happened to be above the Mason-Dixon Line. Important defining events took place at this University in the 1940s during and after World War II, and the resulting changes significantly and profoundly altered the course of history for African-American students at Princeton University. This evening I would like to frame those early changing times with a personal perspective. James Baldwin said that "the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us," and this evening's presentation is a small, but important, part of what I carry within me. It is what I see when I look back to those years shortly before I became a Princeton undergraduate.
These events are framed by a deep and strong family history. Ancestral generations, and a probable slave master, are buried a few miles from here. My grandfather planted the original elm trees you see lining Washington Road as you drive into Princeton. Aunts and an uncle moving with the great migration began arriving at Princeton's McCosh Infirmary in 1918, and they gave many, many years of loyal respected service. My father worked for 43 years serving Princeton as a Tiger Inn servant and University dormitory janitor. A loving mother became a live-in maid for a Princeton professor's family. She died last year at the age of 97 – after seeing four grandchildren graduate from this University. My brother served Princeton as a varsity football coach and head varsity baseball coach. Yes, my family has many very personal stories to tell about the highs and lows at Princeton University, but this evening my focus will be on those important defining events in the 1940s.
In 1940, when I lived with my mother in the professor's house, this University would not have been able to identify a single African-American who ever received a baccalaureate degree from Princeton University. John Chavis became the first enrolled African American in 1792, and reliable sources have concluded that Robert Lincoln Poston was a student at this University in the early 1900s before he became Marcus Garvey's secretary general. Princeton's total for 200 years? Two undergraduates, and neither graduated.
The following is a quotation from The Daily Princetonian in 1942:
"While 13,000,000 Negro Americans look for signs of their admission to a rightful place in American democracy, Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies." Frank Broderick '43
Princeton's comfortable Southern social traditions were interrupted by World War II. Our nation and the University were forced to re-examine fundamental human values. Frank Broderick, from New York City, Princeton Class of 1943, challenged the humanity of Princeton University by calling attention to Princeton, white supremacy, and Nazi racism in the context of a war to protect democratic values. War disrupted business as usual, and the voices for social justice were growing louder. The voice of the campus was the Princetonian, and Frank Broderick was the editor.
In 1942 Broderick and his co-editors published three very courageous editorials entitled "White Supremacy at Princeton." Prior to printing the editorials, Broderick interviewed Walter White, the NAACP executive director, and Paul Robeson. The editorials attacked the University's social and intellectual hypocrisy, and the campus erupted with very emotional conflicting opinions.
A huge crowd attended a forum, and a panel debated "Should Negroes be admitted to Princeton ?" The African-American press ran front-page headlines. The Undergraduate Council voted against admitting Negro students, and a minority but significant number of the faculty agreed with the Council. Letters to the Prince opposed African-American students on campus, three to one.
Princeton's president informed the board of trustees about the matter at their next meeting, but no action was taken and no clear sense of direction emerged. In 1942 the University's priorities did not include admitting African-Americans.
During the controversy a 19-year-old young man from Princeton's black community also submitted a letter to the Prince that was printed on the front page. Andrew Hatcher introduced himself as "a son of Old Nassau … a Negro youth whose choice of a college was decidedly affected by racial barriers." His heartfelt moral appeal asked Princeton to make the right decision by deciding to admit Negro students. Andrew Hatcher did not benefit from Princeton's academic excellence, but his talent was appreciated by others. He became a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy during his campaign to become president, and Andrew Hatcher was President Kennedy's first official African-American appointment when he became associate White House press secretary.
Frank Broderick's undergraduate years were interrupted by the war. When he came back to Princeton after the war he was still deeply committed to social justice, and he became the student director of Princeton Summer Camp in 1946. The camp, in Blairstown, N.J., was run by Princeton University students with advisory support from faculty and administration.
Although the camp for boys had been in operation for many years, African-American youngsters always had been excluded. Frank Broderick appealed to his University advisers to allow a small group of black youngsters from town to attend the camp as a "social experiment," and the advisers agreed. I happened to be one of the eight youngsters who arrived at the camp that sunny day in August. The camp's African-American chef kept an eye on the situation, and anyone who seriously anticipated trouble must have been relieved and surprised.
The "experiment" benefited all campers, and it resulted in a very positive learning experience for Princeton students and Princeton's administration. The experience also became a defining moment for a 14-year-old African-American. I began to think seriously about personal possibilities at Princeton University.
During his life after Princeton, Frank Broderick served as director of the Peace Corps in Ghana, and later he became the first chancellor of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The camp's chef, George Reeves, also was a highly respected community leader. His son-in-law in later years became the mayor of Princeton Township, and Mr. Reeves' grandson, James Floyd, graduated from Princeton in 1969. Jim also received an ABPA Alumni Service Award in 2003.
A series of organizational changes took place over the years that eventually led to the present Princeton Blairstown Center. Many of you, who are now about to graduate, probably received your introduction to undergraduate life at an Outdoor Action program held at Princeton Blairstown Center.
Princeton's rigid position against African-American admissions was forced to change in 1945, and the force for change came not from within but from the U.S. Navy. During the war, in order to increase the number of commissioned officers, federally funded V-12 college training programs were placed in colleges and universities across the country.
Four highly qualified African-American students were assigned to the program at Princeton. Princeton's admission officer was not a significant factor in the selection of individual participants.
I was about to enter Princeton High School when they arrived, and the entire African-American community was very excited. Three of the students, Arthur Wilson, James Ward, and Melvin Murchison, are remembered with pride by older members of today's African-American community. Melvin Murchison did not graduate from Princeton, but he remained long enough to become Princeton's first African-American varsityfootball player. Arthur "Pete" Wilson was captain of the varsity basketball team for two seasons, and our community was very impressed when he appeared in an exhibition game against a local African-American team in the gym of "our school" – Witherspoon School for the Colored. Jim Ward eventually married the daughter of a local family, and he has repeatedly described how important the African-American community was in helping him deal with the University's very different social climate.
Twenty years later, Carl Fields also recognized the value of community support, and he developed a program to introduce Princeton's students to families in the African-American community. The program served as a "home away from home," and it improved the social experience of Princeton's African-American students.
The years immediately following World War II became a very important chapter in the history of African-American education at Princeton University. The three students remaining in the V- 12 Navy Program graduated, and 1947 marked the first time ever that African-American undergraduates received baccalaureate degrees from Princeton University. John Howard received his degree first, on Feb. 5, 1947, and Howard went on to enjoy a rewarding career as an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles. Pete Wilson, the Princeton varsity basketball captain, received his degree a few months later on June 9. He eventually became a U.S. marshal in Illinois. James Ward received his degree Oct. 1, and Ward went on to become legal counsel and investigator for the Texas Commission on Human Rights.
I contacted Mel Murchison's wife a few years ago to learn more about his life after Princeton. He majored in chemistry at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Later, he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in metallurgical engineering, and his career as an engineer eventually took him to the U.S. space program in California.
Melvin Murchison participated in the development of the booster for Apollo XI, which successfully orbited the moon. He died in 1993, and his obituary remembered Princeton University. Princeton should remember Mel Murchison.
The University's firm position against racial integration began to soften after the war. Some of those returning white GIs who had fought beside black comrades saw an even greater need for social justice, and they established the Liberal Union in 1946. This student organization invited Walter White, the NAACP's executive director; Eleanor Roosevelt; and other speakers to the campus. I have never forgotten the scene where Princeton students taunted and threw snowballs at the NAACP executive director.
The first indication from Princeton expressing any interest in admitting African-American students came in the spring of 1947. Princeton's dean of students indicated that Princeton was evaluating black students for possible admission, and the following fall Joseph Ralph Moss, or Pete as I knew him, became the first African-American undergraduate to be admitted by Princeton's admission process since John Chavis and Robert Poston. Joseph Moss received his baccalaureate degree in 1951. Moss also came from Princeton's African-American community, and his graduation was a very significant milestone for the University and the African-American community.
Two years later three more African-American students appeared on Princeton's campus. In 1949 I filled out an application for one college: Princeton University. Fortunately, and with divine help, I was accepted. Two other African-American students also accepted Princeton's offer. Grady Smith was an extraordinary young man. He was born on a sharecropper farm in Alabama, and he migrated to New Jersey with his family in 1939 to live in the tenement district of Jersey City. Ten years later he entered Princeton University with a four-year scholarship that paid all expenses. Royce Vaughn, from Cleveland, Ohio, had been accepted by many schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. He chose Princeton.
I have been asked many times "why Princeton," particularly when there appeared to be so little University commitment. My Princeton education actually began in the community long before I became a Princeton undergraduate. Unpleasant social encounters resulting from white privileges and preferences became a boot camp for survival. The enriching part of my education came at Witherspoon School for Colored Children – an excellent school made excellent by excellent teachers and a nurturing environment. And the motivating experience I enjoyed at Princeton Summer Camp was also very important.
But the times I spent cutting beans and dusting furniture in the professor's house were also valuable experiences (the discipline to do it right, and on time). The experiences I had as a youngster working at the Prospect Avenue clubs also added to my Princeton training: taking care of the coal furnace at Dial Lodge on Prospect Avenue before I went to school in the morning; or working with my brother at Tiger Inn, serving the turkey a la king before the football games; or working as a bartender when I was still in high school. I was not attracted to Princeton because of life in the eating clubs, but the experience was part of my Princeton education. After I became a Princeton student I was insulted without apology by the bicker process, and I rarely returned to Prospect Avenue even after I graduated. In fact, the traditional Princeton eating clubs offered very little social comfort for most of Princeton's early African-American undergraduates.
In 1949 I added these experiences to my dreams, and I chose Princeton. The challenge was certainly exciting, but it was more about changing times, and increasing optimism about access to opportunities for African-Americans. And it was about pride. Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and Dr. Charles Drew were some of my heroes, and their individual excellence stood tall against the racist rhetoric about black inferiority. And the standards for acceptable legal and social behavior finally were beginning to change. The social reality of two separate worlds still existed, and I wanted to be well prepared for opportunities in both worlds. Princeton barely had opened the door, but I saw a chance to benefit from Princeton's academic excellence. That, for me, was the primary attraction. The social experience, although sometimes unpleasant, also would prove to be a valuable learning experience.
When the three of us arrived on the Princeton campus in 1949, things were very different. The different time is defined by tuition, which amounted to a few hundred dollars each semester. We joined a freshman class of approximately 700 young men, and the class, without us, was essentially all white. Most came from prep schools, and most were either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. No African-American had ever held a faculty position at Princeton, and there were none in 1949. And there were no African-American administrators or coaches for the athletic teams. Exclusion and conformity were important social values, and the sensibilities of an African-American student – too few to be visible – were rarely considered by administration or classmates.
By the time I graduated in 1953, much of the joy we shared as freshmen had disappeared. A few days after completing his freshman year Grady Smith attended a picnic with former high school classmates, and the joyful gathering became a shocking human tragedy. Grady drowned in the Passaic River. I attended the funeral with great pain and sadness. Over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to his funeral, including the governor of New Jersey. The governor recalled his meeting with Grady when he was elected Boys State governor. The governor and everyone present knew that we had lost a great future leader. The pain, joy, and enormous frustration revealed by Grady Smith's life still cloud my vision when I look back.
Royce Vaughn attended Princeton for four years, but he received his baccalaureate degree from another institution. He has enjoyed a very successful, fulfilling life as an artist and community organizer. Royce has gained recognition for his California Collector's Series, and he is CEO of Omni Business League in San Francisco. We remain close friends, and he is a loyal member of our class.
If it had been possible in 1953, when I graduated, to look forward into the future and see how Princeton would affect my life, I never would have believed it. In 1953 the struggle was not over. I have said before that I could not sing "best old place of all." But 55 years later, I count my blessings because I have been richly rewarded by unpredictable opportunities – and Princeton has changed.
Therefore, before I close I must look back from this day with humble respect to remember and celebrate the lives of President Robert Goheen '40 *48, Dean Carl Fields, and Frank Broderick '43. On the day I was born, no African-American or woman had ever received a baccalaureate degree from Princeton University, and we were not included in thoughts about "Princeton in the nation's service." The courage and human understanding of these three giants affected my life – and your lives. And the quality of a Princeton education has been enriched for all students.
In a few days you will join the growing thousands of African-Americans who have graduated from Princeton University since those defining events in the 1940s. The campus today and the celebration here this evening reflect Princeton's new vision – and the triumph after struggle is what I see as I look out over this wonderful audience.
My generation has been called the silent generation, but you are about to join the global generation, and there are so many needs, so many challenges, so many opportunities. James Baldwin also reminds us that "history is … present in all that we do." I would like to return one day to hear what you have within you.
Thank you, and God bless.