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African American Studies: Archival Collections

African Americans and Princeton University

African Americans and Princeton University: A Brief History

The history of African Americans at Princeton, or lack thereof, is brought to light in an early 20th-century letter from a University administrator to W. E. B. Du Bois (quoted at the 10th anniversary conference of the Association of Black Princeton Alumni in 1977). “We have never had any colored students here, though there is nothing in the University statutes to prevent their admission. It is possible, however, in our proximity to the South and the large number of Southern students here, that Negro students would find Princeton less comfortable than some other institutions.”

Such was the case with Bruce M. Wright, the first African American admitted to Princeton in the 20th-century, in 1935. Upon arriving on campus Wright's race became apparent, and he was promptly sent home. Ironically, Wright went on to graduate from Lincoln University, a traditional black school founded by Princeton alumni. He later earned a law degree from New York Law School in 1950 and held several judgeships during his career, including election to the Supreme Court of the State of New York. In an effort to make amends for the injustices of its past, Princeton honored Wright during the 2001 Class Day exercises, and the Class of 2001 made him an honorary class member.

It was not until World War II, when the federal government opened a Naval Training School at Princeton on October 5, 1942, that the color barrier was finally broken. Four black students, John Leroy Howard, James Everett Ward, Arthur Jewell Wilson, Jr., and Melvin Murchison, Jr., entered the University through the United States Navy's V-12 program, with the first three earning undergraduate degrees. Howard was the first to receive a Princeton degree on February 5, 1947. Though both Ward and Wilson entered Princeton two weeks prior to Howard, Wilson did not receive his degree until June 7, 1947, and Ward was awarded his on October 1, 1947. (Murchison left the University without graduating on October 20, 1945, ultimately earning degrees from Virginia Union University and Carnegie Mellon University.)

The first African American to enter Princeton as an undergraduate during peacetime was Joseph Ralph Moss. A resident of Princeton, Moss entered the University in the autumn of 1947 and graduated on June 12, 1951.

Interestingly, the first Princeton degree to be earned by an African American was not John Leroy Howard's undergraduate degree. Rev. Irwin William Langston Roundtree received a Master of Arts degree from the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then known) on June 12, 1895. Rev. George Shippen Stark, also a clergyman, received the second Master of Arts degree earned by an African American on June 13, 1906. In addition, three African American men studied at Princeton in the 18th-century without earning degrees: for two years starting in 1774, John Witherspoon tutored John Quaumino (sometimes spelled Quamine) and Bristol Yamma before they undertook missionary work. In the early 1790s, former slave John Chavis studied religion prior to becoming a Presbyterian minister.

The first African American to earn a Princeton Ph.D. is undetermined at this time, but it is believed that African Americans began earning doctorates in the late 1950s. Anyone with specific information on this topic should contact the Mudd Library. However, from James McCosh's presidency (1868-1888) continuing into the 20th-century, African American students at the Princeton Theological Seminary took graduate courses at the University.

In terms of teaching, Alexander Dumas Watkins was Princeton's first African American instructor, tutoring students in histology, a branch of anatomy focusing on tissue structure. Watkins started as a helper to Professor William Libbey and was largely self-taught. He began tutoring students in the mid-1890s, but died at age 51 in 1903. It would take over 50 years after Watkins' death before another African American taught at Princeton. In fall 1955, Charles T. Davis was appointed assistant professor in the English department.

Starting with Robert Goheen's presidency (1956-1972) and continuing through today, the University strives for a diverse student body at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as on faculty and staff. While there is still work to be done, as evidenced by the appointment of Terri Harris Reed as associate provost for institutional equity in the fall of 2004, Princeton no longer is the place that Woodrow Wilson described in 1904 with these words: “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.”

Related Source

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005

Tad Bennicoff (March 11, 2005)