Princeton sits on land that is part of the ancestral homelands of the Lenni-Lenape peoples, an Indigenous group. There is no recorded consultation with the Lenni-Lenape.
Jonathan Dickinson, who served as Princeton’s first president in 1747, owned an enslaved girl named Genny. The next eight presidents owned slaves as well.
Dickinson was known as a thoughtful, devout leader. At the same time, his Christian beliefs were used to justify his slaveholding.
He believed that enslaved people’s lives had value, that their souls could be saved, and they ought to be educated in Christianity like any white children. To him, this was his responsibility as a slaveholder.
“You are under a [similar] obligation to take care of the souls of your servants, as of your children; and in like manner to instruct them, and to impress upon their minds the vast concerns of eternity. For you should always remember, that the soul of your meanest slave is of more value than this whole world.”
—JONATHAN DICKINSON, FIRST PRESIDENT OF PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president and a founding father of the United States, profoundly shaped the University from 1768 until his death in 1794. He recognized the immorality of slavery but did not fight for abolition.
Witherspoon also shared his doubts on the inclusion of Native Americans in education:
“On the whole it does not appear, that either by our people going among them, or by their being brought among us, that it is possible to give them a relish of civilized life. There have been some of them educated at this college, as well as in New England, but seldom or never did they ever prove good or useful.”
“I do not think there lies any necessity on those who found men in a state of slavery, to make them free to their own ruin.”
Princeton’s early ties to slavery were reflected in its enrollment. University President Witherspoon recruited the sons of aristocratic planters in the southern colonies for admission.
From 1746 to 1865, about 40% of students were from the South.
Samuel Stanhope Smith, the seventh president of Princeton from 1795 to 1812, argued that race was a product of one’s environment. He believed that Anglo-American people were superior to Black and Native people, who could be “improved” by physical and cultural separation from their indigenous culture and assimilation into white culture.
Today, the Department of African American studies is housed in Stanhope Hall—a decision criticized during student protests in 2015.
Many of Princeton’s iconic buildings have ties to slavery as well. George Morgan, owner of the original Prospect Farm, was a friend to the Lenni-Lenape tribe. Yet, he also purchased land that had been taken from them, employing enslaved labor to work the farm. A later owner, Thomas Potter, built Prospect House in 1851 with money derived from slave labor on southern rice plantations.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Princeton was known as the most southern of the elite northern universities.
Between 1820 and 1860, about 9% of Harvard’s student body was from the South, as was 11% of Yale’s. At Princeton, it was 36%.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, roughly 74 students out of roughly 300 had left Princeton, called home for safety or to join the Confederate army.
Princetonians were intimately tied to the Confederacy. Alumni James Chesnut, Ephraim Seabrook, John Townsend, and John Manning signed South Carolina’s ordinance to secede.
“Stand up for Southern rights—never vote for a black—or any other kind of Republican—Fight the infernal rascals to the end—And if we have peace in the Union—we’ll give them...the biggest turn they ever got.”
—NOTE FROM PRINCETON STUDENT BENJAMIN DASHIELL ’1861
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but racism persisted at Princeton during Reconstruction. When University President James McCosh allowed Black students to attend his lectures in 1876, there was an uproar.
According to the Daily Princetonian, “five young gentlemen…recently left Princeton College rather than sit in the same room with a negro one hour a week.”
Princeton’s largest benefactor of the late 19th century, John Cleve Green, acquired his fortune from the opium trade in China. His donations endowed professorships and secured land and numerous buildings for the University, including Chancellor Green Library.
Woodrow Wilson became president of the University in 1902, reforming the curriculum but supporting segregation. After Wilson was elected President of the United States in 1912, his administration decided to re-segregate key federal offices including the Treasury, the Interior, and the Navy, creating separate offices, lunchrooms, and bathrooms. Wilson’s administration dismissed Black supervisors and denied Black federal employees promotions and raises, leading to a generational decline in Black homeownership.
At the White House, Wilson also held a screening for the white supremacist film The Birth of a Nation, which legitimized the Ku Klux Klan and catalyzed its resurgence.
Wilson said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
“The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems extremely unlikely that the question will ever assume a practical form.”
—WOODROW WILSON, 13TH PRESIDENT OF PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
While there were students from Asian countries in the 1870s, most were designated as “special students” and did not receive a degree. Japanese student Hikoichi Orita was the first Asian person known to graduate in 1876.
In the 1910s, the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program brought Chinese students to Princeton, who formed the Princeton Chinese Students’ Club and contributed to the national Chinese Students’ Monthly newspaper.
Images: Princeton Chinese Students’ Club in 1915.
The Chinese Students’ Monthly, a national newspaper with writing from Chinese students at Princeton.
During the 1920s, Princeton created a memorial atrium in Nassau Hall to honor students and alumni who died in the Civil War. Initial plans grouped names by the side they had fought on. University President John Grier Hibben rejected this design and insisted on removing affiliations entirely, effectively creating a moral equivalency between Union and Confederate causes:
“The names shall be placed alphabetically, and no one shall know on which side these young men fought.”
In the 1930s, Bruce Wright was admitted to Princeton, but administrators rescinded the offer when they realized he was Black. Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance told him, “If you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” Wright was later named an honorary member of the Class of 2001.
“The Negro has particular educational problems that could best be solved in more and better Negro institutions of learning, rather than by admitting Negroes to Princeton.”
—WALLACE J. WILLIAMSON ’43, PRINCETON STUDENT ARGUING ON THE QUESTION “SHOULD NEGROES BE ADMITTED TO PRINCETON?” IN A WHIG-CLIO DEBATE
As the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, there were three Asian students at Princeton. Kentaro Ikeda ’44, the only Japanese student, was labeled an “enemy alien.” He was not allowed to leave campus without government permission and could not communicate with anyone from Japan, including his parents. Students gave him the derisive nickname “Spy.”
Many schools on the East Coast hosted Japanese American students who were being forced into internment camps on the West Coast, but Princeton refused.
While a number of Black graduate students had attended Princeton decades earlier, John Leroy Howard entered the University through the United States Navy’s V-12 program and became the first Black undergraduate to receive a degree in 1947. Joseph R. Moss, who graduated in 1951, was the first regularly admitted Black undergraduate student.
As Black students began to attend Princeton, students and alumni debated issues of race and integration, with one alumnus writing, “I have nothing except good will for the Negroes and the Jews, but that doesn’t mean I want to live or associate with them constantly.”
As private establishments at the center of social activity at Princeton, eating clubs were and continue to be an important part of life on campus. Through a selection process called “bicker,” the eating clubs were able to screen students based on popularity, socioeconomic status, and background. As a result, many students of color and Jewish students faced social exclusion, particularly in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement energized the University community. 3500 people stood up for greater civil rights in the Princeton community, demonstrating at a rally against segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. In 1963, a group from Princeton traveled to attend the March on Washington.
Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Princeton in 1960 and 1962 to give sermons as part of the Student Christian Association’s Biennial Religious Conference. In 1970, Coretta Scott King received an honorary degree.
Former Alabama Governor George Wallace, infamous for his phrase, “I say, segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” campaigned for President of the United States at Princeton in 1967. While many students protested the event, some enthusiastically supported his visit.
Co-education began in 1969, and after transferring to Princeton that fall, Linda Blackburn ’71, Terrell Nash ’71 and Carla Wilson ’71 were the first Black women to graduate as undergraduates. One year later, Vera Marcus ’72 was the first Black woman to start and graduate as a regularly admitted “Princetonian.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, students opposing the practice of apartheid protested the University’s investments in companies conducting business in South Africa.
In 1990, Director of African American Studies Nell Painter received a letter stating that she “does not have the intellectual worth to teach at the college level.” Addressed from The National Association for the Advancement of White People — Princeton Chapter, it was a response to a column that she had written supporting multiculturalism and diversity in education.
In 1992, as the Los Angeles riots raged, Yolanda Pierce ’94 convened students to capture their experiences with discrimination at Princeton. She worked to secure pledges from local businesses “to treat all customers fairly and equally regardless of ethnic heritage or racial origins.”
In recent years, Princeton students have continued to organize against racial injustice. In multiple demonstrations from 2014 to 2020, students protested against anti-Black racism in the wake of police brutality across the country.
In 2015, the Black Justice League organized a sit-in and made demands for change.
Coming to Princeton, not only because it was outside of home but because it was Princeton, was just mind-boggling for me. I think I spent so much of those first few months walking around being like, ‘What am I doing here?’ And I think it’s things that a lot of students feel. They feel unprepared. They feel like it’s not somewhere they belong—unsure if you’re ever going to belong.
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