October 30, 2019

Historical Society Gets Materials From “I Hear My People Singing”

PRESERVING A NEIGHBORHOOD’S HISTORY: In this circa 1890 photo featured in Kathryn Watterson’s book “I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton,” a group stands outside the Thomas Sullivan Grocery Store at 74 Witherspoon Street. The photo and other research materials from the book have been given to the Historical Society of Princeton.

By Anne Levin

Thanks to a gift from author Kathryn (Kitsi) Watterson, the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) is now the repository for the research materials, notes, and oral histories of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood Watterson collected for her 2017 book I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton.

Some 60 interviews on 88 video and cassette tapes, transcriptions, photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, maps, census records, historical documents, and drafts of the book make up the collection. Watterson spent nearly 20 years developing the book, which was published by Princeton University Press. The HSP was closely involved.

“We have been working together with Kitsi and the Witherspoon-Jackson community for over a decade in development of the book,” said Izzy Kasdin, HSP executive director. “We provided research materials and images from our collections, and many HSP people were involved. It has been a long process. We are so grateful to Kitsi, our staff, and her students. It was a major group effort with a lovely end.”

Watterson, a professor in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, commented in a press release from the HSP: “I am grateful that the stories in this book, from people who have witnessed the barriers and racist assumptions erected to bar their progress, will be more widely available now. Their words provide a window into the inner strength and ingenuity of a people who built families, institutions, and a vital community life, despite the pernicious injustices they faced. I also appreciate that this collection reveals the creative process involved, from the oral history project we began in 1999, when Hank Pannell told me that if we didn’t get these stories now, it would be too late, to all of the work, love, and spirit embodied in this book.”

The collection joins nearly 500 existing oral histories in HSP’s collection, including oral histories conducted with members of Princeton’s African American community for the seminal “A Community Remembers: African American Life in Princeton” exhibition at HSP in 1996. The material from Watterson also supplements existing HSP collections that document African American life, such as a time capsule from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, records related to African American social clubs, and artifacts from African American-owned businesses in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, among many other items.

“We are honored to steward this significant collection,” said Stephanie Schwartz, HSP’s curator of collections and research. “Oral histories are vitally important local history research tools, often filling in the gaps where written historical records are silent, which commonly occurs when it comes to the histories of marginalized communities. We’re particularly excited that we have grant funding in hand from the New Jersey Historical Commission to immediately digitize the voices recorded on these vulnerable cassette tapes, ensuring that they are preserved.”

Through first-person accounts by Witherspoon-Jackson residents including Albert Hinds, Hank Pannell, Alice Satterfield, and Bruce Wright, I Hear My People Singing describes slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow racism confronted by African Americans in a Northern town through the past three and a half centuries. But the book also details the closeness and cohesiveness of the community. Many of the people Watterson interviewed are now deceased.

“I feel it is, and felt it was, important to preserve the history of the Princeton African American community,” said Penelope S. Edwards-Carter, adviser and coordinator. “The community was shrinking when the project started and is rapidly disappearing. We’re happy that this digitalization by the HSP means that family members and descendants will be able to access these materials for genealogical research.”

Project originator and adviser Hank Pannell said, “I’m glad that people can learn about this wonderful neighborhood and all the great people who lived here and took care of each other. I couldn’t be happier about these stories being available for the future, especially for lessons they teach about living, respecting each other, and being human.”

The collection is now open for researchers to access by appointment with the Historical Society’s research staff. Research appointments can be requested via a form on www.princetonhistory.org.

“We hope that, once we digitize the oral history recordings, they will be available to people in several locations,” said Schwartz. “Our priority is to make these recollections, in the singularly evocative voices of the people who personally experienced this history, as widely and easily accessible as possible.”