In 1776, the Declaration of Independence outlined the founding ideals of the United States:

But it withheld these ideals from Black Americans and other minority groups, who would face centuries of racism that continues to this day.

Princeton’s long and complex relationship with racism began decades before the United States was established—from the moment of its founding as an institution in 1746.

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.

Image: 1797 watercolor rendering of Prospect Farm, which later became part of the Princeton campus. (University Archives)

Source →

Out of Princeton’s 23 founding trustees, 16 were slaveholders.

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.

Image: Portrait of Jonathan Dickinson, Princeton’s first president. (Princeton University Art Museum)

Source →

“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.”

Image: Portrait of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president. (Princeton University Art Museum)
Source →

“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.

Image: Portrait of Samuel Stanhope Smith, Princeton’s seventh president. (Princeton University Art Museum)
Source →

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.

Image: Prospect House on the site of Prospect Farm, where enslaved people lived and worked. (Library of Congress)

Source  →

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%.

Image: Chart showing the proportion of southern students in each class at Princeton until the end of the Civil War. (Princeton & Slavery Project)

Source →

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.

Image: List of southern students excused from classes at Princeton because of the Civil War. (University Archives)

Source →

“Stand up for Southern rights—never vote for a blackor 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.”

Image: Daniel Wallace Culp, a Princeton Theological Seminary student who sat in President McCosh’s lectures. (James B. Duke Memorial Library)

Source →

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.

Image: John Cleve Green, a benefactor of the University tied to the opium trade. (Princeton University Art Museum)
Source →

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.

Image: President Woodrow Wilson in academic robes. (Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library)
Source →

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.”

Image: Film poster for D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, 1921. (Internet Movie Database)
Source →

“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.

Source →

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.”

Image: Princeton’s Civil War Memorial in Nassau Hall. (Princeton & Slavery Project)

Source →

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.

Images: Princeton Dean of Admission Radcliffe Heermance’s 1939 letter to Bruce Wright. (University Archives)

Wright at Class Day in 2001. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Source →

“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.

Image: Kentaro Ikeda ’44, a Japanese student who faced solitary internment on Princeton’s campus during WWII. (University Archives)

Source →

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.”

Image: John Leroy Howard ’47, the first Black student at Princeton to receive an undergraduate degree. (Nassau Herald)

Source →

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.

Image: A couple preparing for an eating club party in 1946. (University Archives)

Source →

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.

Images: Professor of Religion Malcolm Diamond and Director of the Program in Teacher Preparation Henry Drewry, who arranged for buses to the March on Washington. (Town Topics)

Newspaper clipping describing protests at Dillon Gym and Alexander Hall at an event with Governor Ross Barnett. (Daily Princetonian)

Source →

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.

Images: Martin Luther King, Jr. with Assistant Dean of the Chapel Reimers and other administrators on the steps of Chancellor Green after a 1960 sermon at Princeton.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking with Dean of the Chapel Ernest Gordon in 1960. (University Archives)
Source →

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.

Image: Student waving a Confederate flag at an event with Alabama Governor George Wallace. (University Archives)

Source →

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.”

Images: Vera Marcus ’72, one of the first Black women to graduate from Princeton.

In a group photo, Marcus is pictured on the left, second from the top. (University Archives)

Source →

During the 1970s and 1980s, students opposing the practice of apartheid protested the University’s investments in companies conducting business in South Africa.

Image: Protest signs in 1978 advocating for divestment from South Africa. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

Source →

Image: Protest against the University’s policies on South African investment, held on Cannon Green in 1978. (Princeton Alumni Weekly)

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.

Image: Daily Princetonian article describing the racist letter received by Director of African American Studies Nell Painter in 1990. (Daily Princetonian)

Source →

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.”

Image: Yolanda Pierce ’94, the University’s student representative to the Borough Merchants of Princeton. (Nassau Herald)
Source →

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.
Image: Protest outside of Frist Campus Center following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. (University Press Club)

Source →

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.

We want to hear from you.

Conversations around race and racism at Princeton should be ongoing. If you have a perspective or experience to share, please send them to us by using the form below. We will be collecting responses from the community and sharing a selection of them on our website.

Please include your name, class year, and email address with your response. If you would like your message to be anonymous, please select ‘I prefer to remain anonymous’ below.

What does this chapter bring up for you? What themes or topics do you want to learn more about?

What are your personal experiences with racism or exclusion?

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Ch. 2: Activism and Intersectionality