Woodrow Wilson, Princeton, and the Complex Landscape of RaceRoundup
tags: Princeton, racism, Woodrow Wilson
... For several years now, I’ve taught a small undergraduate seminar to investigate with students whether and how the history of Princeton University might be entangled with the institution of slavery. My students understand that the Wilson dilemma is, in some ways, the dilemma of Princeton—and so many other early American institutions—writ small. Since the inception of this nation, liberty and racism have been intertwined. And that complicated heritage is inscribed upon many of America’s great university campuses, perhaps nowhere more so than Princeton, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746.
In the spring of 1766, Samuel Finley, fifth president of the College of New Jersey, planted two sycamore trees in front of the President’s House to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. The house stood near Nassau Hall, the central building on the campus. The white clapboard structure, now home to the university’s alumni association, is still framed by those aged trees, the living reminders—as tour guides note—of the college’s devotion to the Revolutionary cause.
Just a few months later, however, in July 1766, Finley died. His executors announced they would sell his possessions: furniture, cattle, books, and “two Negro women, a negro man, and three negro children.” “The Negro Women,” the executors explained, “understand all Kinds of House Work, and the Negro Man is well fitted for the Business of Farming in all its Branches.” The slaves not sold beforehand would be auctioned off on August 19 at the President’s House, in the shade of those young liberty trees.
The university takes pride in being the site of an American victory during the Revolutionary War, and of hosting the Continental Congress in Nassau Hall in 1783. The campus literature fails to note, however, that the first eight presidents of the university, serving until 1822, held slaves at some point in their lives. Early college regulations required prospective students to present themselves to the president for examination before enrolling in the school. For generations of Princeton students, the first person they met on campus may have been the enslaved man or woman who answered their knock on the president’s front door. Quite literally, if Nassau Hall provided the storied backdrop of Princeton University, slavery was the face of the school.
Contrary to popular myth, Princeton students—many of whom hailed from the South—did not bring their slaves to campus. College rules forbade that. But students on the late-18th- and early-19th-century campus lived in a landscape inhabited and shaped by enslaved people. Enslaved workers toiled at Prospect Farm, adjacent to the campus. They worked on Nassau Street, the main commercial road bordering the school. They lived and worked inside of the President’s House, for some decades one of only two buildings on campus.
Those of us who study and teach and work at Princeton thus inhabit a historical landscape marked by freedom and opportunity, as well as slavery and segregation. The paradox of Wilson’s life, that insidious racism intertwined with genuinely progressive political ideas, is woven into the very fabric of our university. Indeed, it exemplifies the central paradox of American history. The debates over Wilson’s legacy ought to remind us of that, and push us towards even broader conversations about the presence and power of the past in daily life. History matters. Unless we engage it, we cannot fully address the structural inequities that continue to mark American life.