Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 2
 
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
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Witherspoon-Jackson Genealogy Group Looks Forward to Filling in the Gaps

Ellen Gilbert

“We know all about Betsy Stockton,” observed Princeton Public Library’s Terri Nelson recently, speaking of the Princeton slave who become the first female missionary of color to go to Hawaii in 1832. “But no one knows about Cecelia Van Tyne, another former slave, who went to Setra Kroo, Africa as a missionary in 1841.” Both women came home to educate Princeton’s African American children, but Ms. Stockton is the one memorialized with a stained glass window at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

Lacunae like these in the history of Princeton’s African-American community will hopefully be closed as the recently created Witherspoon-Jackson Genealogy Group gets to work. A steering committee, led by Chair Pennie Edwards-Carter, includes Carl E. Brown, Jr.; Diana Bess-Swainson; Eric Craig; Minnie Craig; Francis Craig; Robert Harmon; Wallace Holland; Henry F. Pannell; Lucy Hall; Shirley Satterfield; and Joseph Warren Tadlock.

The group concentrates on the history of families who lived in the historic Witherspoon-Jackson community. Using Ms. Nelson’s research know-how (like tapping into old census data, Sanborn Fire Maps, and historic directories), they meet monthly in the library’s Princeton Room “to share ideas, listen to speakers, get beginners started with researching their roots, and help each other with problems.”

The group may be fairly new, but Ms. Nelson’s research on the history of Princeton’s African-American community has been going on for some time. On the Princeton Public Library’s website, over ten screens provide a wealth of material on Paul Robeson alone (see www.princetonlibrary.org/robeson/links.html). Under the rubric “African American Genealogy on the Web” are links to information about African American history, African-Native Americans, death records, family histories, Federal records, libraries, military service, online texts, research outside the U.S., slave research, and more.

The group’s steering committee, which includes representatives from all four churches in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood as well as local fraternal organizations, would like to engage the greater community in its work. Possibilities include the creation of a blog or an email service — with photographs — for those with questions about family history.

The efforts of the Witherspoon-Jackson Genealogy Group may very well extend beyond personal queries about one’s ancestors. Although Princeton history is taught in fourth grade classes, Ms. Nelson suspects that most students don’t know, for example, about “Prime,” the slave who fought in the Revolutionary War. When he returned from the war, he was once again made a slave, and it took the passage of a state law to set him free. Links to sources about Prime are available on the library’s website under the “biography” heading in “African American Princeton on the Web” (www.princetonlibrary.org/history/links-new.html).

“Our Black History is very poorly documented,” commented Ms. Nelson at a recent steering committee meeting. “Mt. Pisgah Church was supposedly founded in 1832, but there are records indicating that there were members as early as 1818.”

At its monthly meeting on Monday, the Princeton Township Historic Preservation Commission expressed interest in the group’s work, saying that they looked forward to hearing more about its goals.

The Witherspoon-Jackson Genealogy Group meets the first Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. in the Princeton Room (a room devoted to the documentation of Princeton history) at the Princeton Public Library. For further information, contact tnelson@princetonlibrary.org.

An article about the history of Princeton’s African-American community by Linda Arntzenius will appear in the February issue of Princeton Magazine.

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