The Long Journey Home
Book on Black History traces Community-University Ties
When Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, was inaugurated as the University’s president in 1902, delegates from colleges around the country came to Princeton. Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, marched in the colors of Harvard University and Dartmouth College, from which he had received honorary degrees. But after the ceremony, the nation’s leading black scholar was not invited to dine with the other dignitaries nor stay with a Princeton faculty member. He slept at a black boardinghouse in town. The episode, according to local historian Jack Washington, showed “there was still much work to be done” in Princeton’s race relations, and much would happen in the decades to come.
With support from a three-year fellowship from the University’s African-American studies program, Washington, a high school teacher in Trenton, New Jersey with a Ed.D. in intercultural education from Rutgers, researched two centuries of accounts about the black community in Princeton. His book, The Long Journey Home (Africa World Press), was released in October 2004.
The Princeton community and the University have been connected for most of their histories, Washington said, but one oft-repeated link is actually a myth. The idea that Princeton’s black residents descend from slaves of Southern undergraduates is not supported by Washington’s research, which found that both slaves and free blacks were a part of Princeton before the College of New Jersey came to town.
Washington also learned that blacks were part of the University’s educational history long before the first African-American undergraduates were admitted. In 1774, two free blacks, John Quaumino and Bristol Yamma, came to the college and trained to become missionaries, receiving instruction from then-President John Witherspoon. Two decades later, former slave John Chavis studied religion at Princeton before becoming a Presbyterian minister. Newspaper articles refer to blacks attending lectures during James McCosh’s time on campus, shortly after the Civil War, and Alexander Dumas Watkins became Princeton’s first black instructor in the late 19th century, tutoring students in histology.
Black history at the University also includes more recognizable names. As early as 1910, W.E.B. DuBois campaigned for Princeton to admit black students, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke on campus in the 1960s. As Washington notes, Princeton lagged behind its Ivy peers in admitting black undergraduates. But he said the University eventually took a leadership role on matters of race, reflecting the values of its hometown. “Princeton is better off for having the University in Princeton,” said Washington, “and I think the University is a better place because of the diversity of the community.”