Bob Engs’ defanging of the so-called “Committee for Racial Reconciliation” in 1964 (Princeton Portrait, September 2020) conveys a lesson. In light of the discomfort arising from greater awareness of racism in America, it is easy to be disheartened. The question “what can one do?” is easily grounded by realizing that few of us can be Rosa Parks or John Lewis — whether by temperament or circumstance.
But Engs’ story reveals a truth. Racial progress is also the aggregate of small acts, each promoting justice.
Bob’s final work testifies to his celebration of small acts. When Bob retired from the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the College of William & Mary to lead the decade-long Lemon Project — a Journey of Reconciliation. Bob named the project for Lemon, a Black man enslaved by the College. Though only visible via scant records, Lemon, though enslaved, was an independent man. He sold produce to the College. The College paid him bonuses and purchased his coffin.
Bob insisted that analysis not stop at 1865. No belated apology for slavery could suffice. He demanded the work continue through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era and confront the unfinished business of integration and reconciliation. The work was to be done by faculty and students collaboratively. Many small steps.
Bob revered such steps taken by sincere, enlightened, non-heroic individuals. He knew the power and significance of symbols and names, whether it was the unknown Lemon or Woodrow Wilson, whose legacy Princeton was eager to embrace, until it wasn’t.
Small, catalytic steps.