August 2, 2017

Trials and Triumphs of a Neighborhood — The Voices of Witherspoon-Jackson 

Kathryn Watterson’s I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton (Princeton Univ. Press) takes its title from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood’s most famous citizen, Paul Robeson (1898-1976), who celebrates “the honest joy of laughter in these homes, folk-wit and story, hearty appetites for life, and warmth of song” in “hard-working people … filled with the goodness of humanity.” Coming from a man known above all for his prowess as a singer, the emphasis is on “the warmth of song,” as in “Songs of love and longing, trials and triumphs … hymn-song and ragtime ballad, gospels and blues.” 

While examples of the “goodness of humanity” can be found on nearly every page of I Hear My People Singing, it’s another story when residents past and present bear witness to how it was to live through what Cornel West’s foreword terms “the worst of Princeton’s often overlooked recent past” in “this northern outpost of the Confederacy.”

A Statue of Shame

One of the most appalling manifestations of segregation in Princeton took place at the almost 100-year-old Garden Theatre, now one of the shining lights of the community, along with a state-of-the-art bookstore and library, the arts center named for Robeson, and the plaza named for one of the voices of Witherspoon-Jackson, Albert Hinds (1902-2006). This man, whose name is now rightfully associated with the life-flow of everyday diversity at the heart of the community, experienced first-hand what it was like when blacks wishing to see a movie at the Garden had to climb the staircase to what was then the balcony, the only place they were allowed to sit. In the book’s introduction, Hinds is described recalling “how it hurt him as a young man when his father could no longer climb those stairs. The last time they went, he carried his father up to his seat. After that they stopped going to the movies.”

The image is worthy of a statue of shame: a son carrying his ailing father up to the balcony because blacks couldn’t sit with the whites. At the Princeton Playhouse, which opened in 1937 and was demolished in 1980, Witherspoon residents were at least spared a climb. Bessie Parago (1907-2007) recalls how she was on her way down the aisle when her husband called her back, “Bessie, Bess, Bess, you can’t go down there …. You have to sit over here.” Meaning in the back, on the right.

A Child of the Neighborhood

Two people who could sit up front at the movies were Donald Moore’s Aunt Kissy (1899-1972), who played piano for silent films during the 1920s, and a boy of 12 named Donald Lambert (1904-1962), who did the same some years earlier, probably at the Princeton Theatre, which used to be on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring. It’s amusing to imagine a black kid creating pianistic gallops for white cowboys like Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Keeping up with a typical western posse-in-pursuit scene was good practice for when Donald Lambert became The Lamb, a legendary stride pianist who could play “Tea for Two” with his left hand and “April Showers” with his right and whose speed-of-sound version of “Hallelujah” could turn on a musical dime into “The Marine Hymn.”

A child of the neighborhood, Lambert grew up on Jackson Street (now Paul Robeson Place) before moving to Quarry Street. His father worked as a janitor at the University, where his mother, Elma Julia Skillman, sometimes played piano at special events; his grandfather was Israel Skillman, and his paternal grandmother Annis Bayard Whycoff. In the course of writing a feature article on Lambert in December 2003, I spoke with his grand-niece Leona Vernon, who recalled the day of his burial at Princeton Cemetery, when copies of his last album Giant Stride were handed out to family members. She also remembered sitting with Uncle Don as he played, which must have been a treat judging from the size of her smile.

The Princeton Plan

A recent New York Times series of archival photographs under the heading “Unpublished Black History” includes a picture from 1948 showing two second-graders in front of a blackboard at Princeton’s newly integrated Nassau Street Elementary School; the black girl has her arm raised as if to ask or answer a question while a white boy, chalk in hand, is mulling a problem in addition. The chapter in I Hear My People Singing titled “School Integration: A Big Loss for Black Children” expands on the truth behind the image, which is that African American kids were being taken out of a supportive environment and thrust into an “integrated” system that segregated them all over again, as happened when the black girl was automatically relegated to “general education” while the white boy was groomed for college.

You get a sense of what went down from Hank Pannell, who became the founder and president of the Jackson-Witherspoon Development Corporation. He was asked to sing “Shortnin’ Bread” by the music teacher at the newly integrated Nassau Street School and sent to the principal’s office when he refused. On the other hand, Joe Moore, the first African American to serve on the Borough Council, went to the same school and found the transition “a little intimidating” but “not that bad.” Eventually it “grew into a positive experience,” the first time he made white friends outside the John Witherspoon neighborhood: “And some of us remain friends to this day.”

Walking with Einstein

Fondly remembered throughout the book, Albert Einstein was for all purposes an honorary resident of the neighborhood, even though he lived on the other side of Nassau Street. The affectionate rapport the renowned scientist enjoyed with the black townspeople has also been documented in Einstein On Race and Racism (Rutgers Univ. Press 2005). Besides insights into the relationship between Einstein and Paul Robeson, I Hear My People Singing contains anecdotes like Shirley Satterfield’s (“I loved his uncombed shock of white hair, his baggy sweaters”); her mother Alice Satterfield (1922-2010), who worked in the kitchen at the Institute for Advanced Study, recalls in Einstein On Race and Racism, “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.”

A Witherspoon Duet

The word Singing set in red type on the cover of Kathryn Watterson’s book brings to mind the prize-winning 2003 collection The Singing (2003) by poet C.K. Williams (1936-2015). A resident of Leigh Avenue at the time, Williams captures the black/white dynamic of living in the neighborhood in the title poem, which begins as he’s “walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon under the blossoms/Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with their burgeoning forth.” Around the corner comes a young man singing, though it was “more of a cadenced shouting” that the poet can’t catch “because the young man was black speaking black” and “obviously full of himself hence his lyrical flowing over.” As they walk along in the same direction on either side of the street, the young man “shouted-sang ‘Big’” in reference to the 6’5 poet, who is amused to have his height “incorporated” in the other’s song. But when he smiles, the singer adjusts the message, chanting “I’m not I’m not a nice person.”

At this point, the poet understands that while “no menace … no particular threat” is meant, the singer is implying that if “I conceived of anything like concord between us I should forget it.” He then thinks of “all the unasked and unanswered questions … left where they were” and imagines singing back “I’m not a nice person either,” except “I wouldn’t have meant it nor he have believed it both of us knew just where we were/In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to which we were condemned.”

So “The Singing” ends, the duet of the races, poem and place made one in literature: “Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something is watching and listening/Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor heard no one was there.”

The Trolley Song

Donald Lambert’s piano pyrotechnics tend to inspire extreme analogies. One listener said that when he plays “The Bells of St. Mary’s” he makes it sound “like he’s playing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” When you hear him at his intoxicating best, you can imagine the pianist weaving the many voices of I Hear My People Singing into one great jubilant outpouring of spirit, the equivalent of Paul Robeson’s “love and longing, trials and triumphs.” Lambert’s stunning performance of “The Trolley Song” goes to the heart of the old neighborhood, what with all the memories of the trolley that used to run down Witherspoon Street. As is usually the case, the Lamb creates a sort of anticipatory hush before launching a full-tilt stride fantasia of clang-clang-clanging ding-ding-dinging zing-zing-zinging and thump-thump-thumping. After revisiting Lambert’s rendition on YouTube, I accessed the scene with Judy Garland belting out the original on the trolley in Meet Me In St. Louis. I was enjoying the technicolor splendor of the production, imagining the impact of seeing it on the big screen in 1944 at the Garden. But then it hit home, how it would have been to see a film overflowing with M-G-M’s vision of sentimental Americana at a time when Albert Hinds had to carry his father up to the balcony.

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Serendipity strikes again! You can see Meet Me in St. Louis as part of Hollywood Summer Nights at the open-to-everyone 2017 incarnation of The Garden, which no longer has a balcony, on August 16, two weeks from today, which, as it happens, is James Baldwin’s 93rd birthday.