- The Southern-Most Ivy: Princeton University from Jim Crow Admissions to Anti-Apartheid Protests, 1794–1969
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the brother of famed black Renaissance man and former resident of the town of Princeton, Paul Robeson, attempted to apply to Princeton University. The university president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, refused his application even after the town of Princeton’s most popular black minister, William Drew Robeson of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, appealed to Wilson personally on behalf of his son. Historically, black ministers have acted as liaisons between black and white communities, and that had typically been evident in the town of Princeton. In the case of the Reverend Robeson’s son’s application for admission, the tacit relationship between the black clergy and white institutional power meant nothing. Paul Robeson, for the rest of his life, resented Princeton University for its treatment of his brother and father. Princeton, as a northern town and an elite university, was as segregated as any place below the Mason-Dixon Line for much of its history. Although black students met with cold reception when they arrived at the seven other American Ivy League universities, they could at least attend those schools. African American students could not attend Princeton in earnest until the middle of the twentieth century. For that reason, Princeton University earned the unique reputation of being what one might describe as the southern-most Ivy.1 In studying the experience of black people with Princeton University—a premiere institution of education—one can better understand how engulfing racism was in this nation’s history. By neglecting the histories of African Americans at Ivy League universities, [End Page 109] scholars have failed to acknowledge the expanse of the struggle for black freedom.
Those affiliated with Princeton University and other elite Ivy League schools can proudly say that their students, faculty, and administrators go on to literally lead the nation in terms of politics, culture, and economics. For instance, Princeton University presidents signed the Declaration of Independence and created the Fourteen Points Plan. One need not look any further than recent American presidents and Supreme Court justices for the contemporary influence of the Ivy League.2 Princeton affiliates continue to boast, as did Woodrow Wilson, while still a faculty member, in 1896, that their university is “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”3 In essence, Ivy League universities aim to represent the best and most powerful aspects of America. The selection standards and curricula established by Ivy institutions influence other institutions of higher education around the nation and world.4 Although Princeton University and its peers are among the oldest and leading American universities, like most other institutions of higher learning, they had to be led into a new era of freedom for black people and social justice. In the twentieth century, students and progressive-minded school officials influenced by social movements, led to Princeton’s acceptance of black students, the establishment of its Black Studies curriculum, and the school’s stand against apartheid South Africa.
Recent works have dealt with the relationship of universities to black people. Donald Downs described the rebellious black students who armed themselves in demonstrations at Cornell University in 1969. Wayne Glasker and this author wrote about the relationship of Ivy League universities (Penn and Columbia) to black neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Harlem. Scholars such as Joy Ann Williamson, Fabio Rojas, and Peter Wallenstein have described the role of black students in changing policy at public universities. Although there is rich scholarly literature surrounding Princeton University in general, there is surprisingly little written about Princeton and its historic relationship with black people. Carl Fields, who came to Princeton as an administrator in 1964, published his memoirs of his tenure at Princeton. Recently, Melvin McCray, a black alumnus, produced a documentary entitled, “Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni.” Jerome Karabel, in The Chosen (2005), discussed Princeton’s struggle to attract a certain type of student that did not include African Americans and even Jews at one point.5 Several articles in Princeton University publications have focused on the arrival of black students to...