“Across Nassau Street” brought back many memories of my years at Princeton.
When I was preparing to leave Wisconsin for Princeton in the fall of 1957, an aunt inquired: “Are there any black students at Princeton?” I told her that I did not know. When I arrived on campus, there were no black seniors. There were also no black juniors. There were two black sophomores. One was a student from Chicago, who was mentioned in PAW not too long ago. Unfortunately, he left at mid-year. The other was a very light-skinned fellow who made it quite clear he did not want to socialize with me. There were two freshmen, me (of course) and another guy who was passing for white.
There were many white students who made it clear to me they thought I did not belong. There wasn’t any physical abuse or outright taunting, but they refused to speak to me or made comments under their breath that they did not approve of me sullying their white school. I soon learned that Princeton was referred to as the northernmost of the Southern schools.
Fortunately, there were several other Wisconsin classmates who remembered me from Badger Boys State, where I had been elected to statewide office, although I was the only minority present. Additionally, there were other classmates who simply did not demonstrate any racial animus.
That first year, there was one black faculty member. One day as I was walking across campus, our paths crossed. He stopped me and said he knew I expected him to invite me to his house for a conversation. Without pausing, he said he was not going to do that and as far as he was concerned, I was on my own. His attitude really cut me. After that, I made a special effort to show him that I belonged.
I found comfort crossing Nassau Street and venturing into the local community. As much as I enjoyed the music from the Chapel organ, I found solace in the First Baptist Church of Princeton, just a few blocks across Nassau on John Street. I recall telling the congregation one Sunday morning that I really appreciated the choir’s versions of the spirituals I had listened to while growing up in Wisconsin. The church members made me feel right at home.
It was through that church I learned of a black barbershop several blocks down on Witherspoon. I went to that barbershop for four years and engaged in free-flowing conversations about what Jackie Robinson had done, what Henry Aaron was doing, and other typical barbershop topics. Through the church, I made contacts that allowed me to poll black Princeton teenagers on race relations for my junior independent work, which was very well received. A young lady who was very interested in my study provided valuable assistance in getting her fellow students to respond to my questionnaire. When my parents traveled to Princeton in June 1961 for Commencement Week, they stayed in her parents’ home on Maclean Street.
Because of these experiences, it was 20 years before I returned for a reunion. Experiences during the reunions I have attended and Princeton football games in San Diego have taken the edge off many of the experiences mentioned above. It is more common now for classmates to approach me, recall that they didn’t speak to me much while we were undergraduates, and then apologize for that treatment of me. They have grown, and that makes my memories so much easier to bear.
Princeton, as expected, was challenging academically. Socially, there were many problems. Emotionally, it was a devastating experience. Time heals all wounds, however. The California license plate on my car reads, simply, “61Tiger.”
Philip L. Johnson ’61
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
My years at Princeton began in the fall of 1956. From the beginning, needing to know more about the civil-rights movement, I began my exploration. When bicker occurred, I did not participate. I did not want “the Street”; I did not want the clubs; I did not want the elitism that all of that represented, even though my dad was head of Tiger Inn when he graduated in 1927. He wanted me to participate; I refused, because I had discovered an entirely different life down Witherspoon Street.
Had not Bennett Griggs and his family guided and instructed me in the trenches of civil rights while I was at Princeton, I would not have been sufficiently transformed to be able to become a producer of the movie Woodstock in 1969, less than a decade out of college. We won the Academy Award in 1971.
Dale Bell ’60
Santa Monica, Calif.
“Across Nassau Street” brought back memories of my senior year. Because of unpleasant experiences during the troubled 1958 bicker, when it came time for me to participate in the 1959 bicker, I declined. However, I was told that I could not remain a member of the club if I didn’t help recruit the next class, so I and two of my roommates resigned. Breakfast and lunch were easy; we had a refrigerator in the room, and I generally had cereal in the morning and made soup or a sandwich for lunch.
Dinner was more of a problem, particularly financially. We solved that by eating at Griggs’ restaurant on Witherspoon Street at least five nights a week, usually a large hamburger served on white bread, with some home fries, generally brought to our table by Mr. Griggs himself. On our last night there, he brought us a steak, on the house. My recollection is the meal cost a little over a dollar each evening. That allowed us to splurge one night every week or two at one of the smorgasbords at either the Nassau Inn or the old Princeton Inn, with all the roast beef you could eat for $2.50 or $3.50, respectively.
Richard J. Lederman ’60
Shaker Heights, Ohio
My father, Warrant Officer Herman Archer, attached to the Princeton ROTC, unmarried at the time, living in the barracks just north of the ROTC stables, desegregated Griggs’ restaurant, at the corner of Witherspoon and Hulfish (now Griggs Corner). That would be before 1928, when he married. They were good friends and met often until we left for the Philippines in 1937. In 1945, when my father returned from a Japanese prison camp, Mr. Griggs invited our family to a grand steak banquet at his restaurant. He was a grand man.
Herman Archer Jr. ’53
Web Exclusive: More ‘Across Nassau Street’ Letters
“Across Nassau Street,” about the black Princeton downtown, showed areas few of us knew. However, I’d like to point out the valuable role of the Princeton Summer Camp in Blairstown, N.J., where we undergrads made up almost all of the staff of counselors. There the boys/campers I recall were mostly from the underserved black Princeton community. It left an indelible mark in our education about the real world (our class had only two black students going through to University graduation!), while adding worlds to their education about the great outdoors, forests, lakes, and related sports. The summer camp later became an independent resource, but in the 1950s, it was an important ingredient offered by the University, to the benefit of both groups.
Paul Hertelendy ’53
Kudos to PAW for the wonderful article in the April 26 issue, “Across Nassau Street”: perhaps the finest article I remember ever reading in the publication. As an undergraduate student in the late Clueless Fifties, I recall hearing very slightly, perhaps from a professor in a lecture, that there was a “colored" population in Princeton, but no attention was ever paid to it. Nobody was encouraged to go there and no one was told not to – for all intents and purposes, such a thing existed largely in rumor (I certainly sensed, coming from Massachusetts, that Princeton was very much a Southern college, evidenced by so many of its students). I was delighted by the report of the oral-history project and learned a lot from it. And to add to that treasure, the photograph on the cover was a mute but stunning representation of Black Pride. Thank you so much!
Michael Ellis ’59
Reference: “Across Nassau Street”: The excellent photo on the Princeton Alumni Weekly cover and of Nancy and Emma Greene on page 25 are important as we are all, in fact, people of color, by virtue of being human (red blood runs through each one of us). Philip Diggs, the borough’s first black police officer who is shown on the cover, is noble and proud; that is true of Nancy and Emma Greene as well.
Daring of the Princeton Alumni Weekly to highlight the oral-history project generated by author Kathryn Watterson and conducted between 1999 and 2002.
Grenville Cuyler ’60
New York, N.Y.