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Einstein and the People of Witherspoon Street

Stuart Mitchner

Reading Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor (Rutgers $23.95), I kept thinking it would be a good One Book choice for Princeton, the way John McPhee's The Pine Barrens seemed an appropriate pick for One Book New Jersey last year. With The Pine Barrens, however, the rationale for selecting it for community readership had as much to do with the author's gifts as it did with the New Jersey subject. This hypothetical One Book Princeton choice is no match for McPhee, who could dive into any assignment and come up with literature. Even so, co-authors Jerome and Taylor have put together a volume that would set local book groups buzzing. A lot of the buzz would be from Princetonians shocked to think that this town, this elite center of American intellectual life, could ever have been so benighted. The optimists might say "Look how far we've come." The pessimists would say the optimists were in denial. The book's detractors would call it a thinly veiled polemic employing Einstein as its instrument. Most readers, however, would have to admit that the authors have succeeded in showing why Einstein's greatness was not limited to his achievements as a scientist.

The title seems to promise a collection of Einstein's opinions on race and racism. In fact, his statements on the subject, which appear in full in a section called "Documents," consist of just under 20 pages in a 206-page book. A more representative title would have found a way to mention Paul Robeson, Princeton, and, in particular, the African American neighborhood that begins where Paul Robeson Place meets Witherspoon Street. While there are some photographs of Einstein included, most of the 26 making up the photo section are of people from the Witherspoon community whose lives were touched by him at one time or another. The voices of the neighborhood come through as well in an effectively condensed group of personal reminiscences. Probably everyone who lives here has heard their share of Einstein anecdotes, most of which helped to create the cuddly caricature that prevails as the image of the great man in Princeton, or what might be called the Walter Matthau version, as depicted in IQ, the movie filmed here a little over ten years ago.

Einstein on Race and Racism is dedicated to the people of Witherspoon Street, "yesterday and today." Although the mixture of affection and awe expressed in the Witherspoon Street reminiscences clearly relate to the same lovable character, the feelings communicated have more significance because his affection for the neighborhood and its affection for him came at a time when "Whites Only" was a fact of life in Princeton. In this context, Einstein's humanity is not merely admirable but heroic. The authors point out that none of his "legion of biographers" have reported that he spent "a good deal of his walking-talking time in Princeton's African American community." Some residents only saw him in passing – walking "slowly, his hands behind his back," or "riding his bicycle" or "walking up Witherspoon going to the hospital" or standing on the corner "pondering the universe" – while others remember him sitting on their porches talking or walking with them. Alice Satterfield recalls: "We didn't talk a lot – on a couple of occasions he held my hand without saying anything. He would just walk in a silent and wonderful way in which you knew everything would be all right .... You felt good walking with him .... He was inspirational."

Princeton and prejudice are no less central to the subject of the book than Einstein. If he's the hero, prejudice is the villain. It radiated from the University, from the government, from the Borough and Township, and even from the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was headquartered and where Director J. Robert Oppenheimer's secretary once told physicist Freeman Dyson that eating at the black-owned Griggs restaurant was "inappropriate for a member of the Institute." That was in the 1940s. When Marian Anderson sang to a full house at McCarter Theatre in 1937 only to be denied accomodation at the Nassau Inn, Einstein invited her to stay in his house, and she did; and whenever she came to Princeton, that's where she stayed, even after the "whites only" policy had become a thing of the past.

Because it was privately owned, McCarter was able to present African American entertainers to mixed audiences at a time when segregation was still blighting Princeton. Einstein's first meeting with Paul Robeson was after Robeson's 1935 concert there. Five years later their second meeting was also after a McCarter performance, when Robeson played the title role in The Emperor Jones. Authors Jerome and Taylor make special mention of McCarter as an enlightened presence in a town "dominated by a university whose decision-makers kept their white hands clutching the old supremacy myth, and kept their schools, stores, and movie theaters segregated well into the 1940s." Robeson himself referred to the Princeton he grew up in as "a Georgia plantation town ... spiritually located in Dixie." In 1947 he was back at McCarter in Othello, a production rejected by Broadway producers as "too racially risky."

Einstein's first written statement warning against prejudice was in "The Negro Question," a 1946 article that appeared in Pageant magazine. A mass-market publication a step below even Look and Life, it seems an unlikely place for a man of Einstein's stature to be writing about "the fatal misconception" of racism (he uses the word "fatal" again in reference to "the traditional bias against Negroes"). "Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force," he told his large middle-brow audience, "and in the white man's quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery."

Einstein did more than write and speak out: he joined with Paul Robeson in the American Crusade to End Lynching; he signed on with a national committee to oust the racist senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo; and he came to the rescue of W.E.B DuBois when the "world-renowned black scholar" was on trial in a federal court. After Einstein offered himself as a defense witness, the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence rather than confront the prospect of international publicity that would have resulted from his testimony.

However much readers of Einstein on Race and Racism may shake their heads at the idea that Princeton could be so backward, they can amuse themselves by imagining the expressions of disbelief on the faces of residents of either race in, say, 1946 if someone told them that three decades later Jackson Street, the boundary between black and white Princeton, would become Paul Robeson Place. Or that one of those kids in the Witherspoon neighborhood would grow up to be mayor. It might not be so hard to imagine, however, that Robeson's friend and fellow J. Edgar Hoover witch-hunt target, Albert Einstein, would be memorialized by a statue in the heart of the Borough.

Readings and book signings of Einstein on Race and Racism are set for September 18 at the Princeton Public Library and for November 21 at the U-Store. In February 2006 the book will be the subject of a discussion with science and history students at Princeton High School.


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