People are talking in Ferguson. They are talking in Chicago. And they are talking in Princeton. After the August 24 rally protesting the fatal shooting by a white police officer of the unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the organization Not in Our Town (NIOT) offered concerned locals a chance to continue to speak about racism last Thursday at the Princeton Public Library.
Co-sponsored by NIOT and the Princeton Public Library, the special event, “Continuing Conversation on Race,” aimed to provide a safe and confidential place for frank and meaningful discussion in the wake of the rally that had seen well over a 100 protesters march down Nassau and Witherspoon Streets to Hinds Plaza.
NIOT’s Linda Oppenheim, an industrial relations librarian at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, welcomed about 25 participants to the library, including Wilma Solomon, Jim Floyd, Shirley Satterfield, and the library’s Kim Dorman. A poster showed an enlarged version of the recent cartoon by Ben Sargent, titled “Still Two Americas,” depicting two identical situations of young boys going outside to play, each saying: “I’m goin’ out, Mom!” One kid is white. the other is black. In the case of the white kid, Mom replies: “Put on your jacket.” In the case of the black kid, Mom says: “Put on your jacket, keep your hands in sight at all times, don’t make any sudden moves, keep your mouth shut around police, don’t run, don’t wear a hoodie, don’t give them an excuse to hurt you, don’t …”
“Raising consciousness of what black moms have to do is what we are here for,” said Ms. Oppenheim, using the cartoon as a conversation starter and introducing some discussion guidelines that included “listen actively; don’t interrupt; speak from your own experience, using “I” rather than ‘we,’ ‘you,’ or ‘they.’”
August 14 Pew Research Center statistics were made available. The survey shows that 80 percent of blacks as opposed to 37 percent of whites believe that the shooting of Mr. Brown raises important issues about race. It reports that 65 percent of blacks and 33 percent of whites think that the police response to the shooting “has gone too far,” and that 52 percent of whites as opposed to 18 percent of blacks had confidence in shooting investigations.
In addition, an excerpt from the August 14 blog, “What Matters with Janee Woods,” offered 12 suggestions for “Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder.” The list included: “Learn about the radicalized history of Ferguson [and your community] and how it reflects the radicalized history of America”; “Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts, and the prison industrial complex”; and “Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.”
To get the discussion on such sensitive issues underway, Ms. Oppenheim quoted Richard Harwood (www.theharwoodinstitute.org) on the need for communities to “have opportunities and spaces to engage in constructive conversations where they can express their anger, pain and frustration in public ways.”
Among the first to speak was a young African American woman who teared up as she described her own inter-racial family and the crucial need for “identity awareness.” “America is truly a melting pot and generations to come will have friends of all different backgrounds; we need to teach respect for others and realize that there is no ‘inferior’ race,” said B. Virtue Mitchell, one of three generations of her Princeton family to graduate from Princeton High School (PHS). “I will not walk with anger or fear,” she said. “And I refuse to be a victim. Whether we want change or not, it’s here.”
At 92, Jim Floyd, former mayor of Princeton Township, has seen a great deal of change, not all of it positive. Mr. Floyd shared his knowledge of Princeton history, especially the history of the African American community, Palmer Square and the Jackson/Witherspoon neighborhood. “I’ve seen the Colored signs in the railroad cars and faced discrimination when trying to buy a home in Princeton. I don’t ask you to fight my battles, but don’t be an enemy,” he said, addressing the white participants. The questions to ask in Princeton today, said Mr. Floyd, are “how diverse is our governing body, our police department, our school system.” Mr. Floyd went on to describe coming to Princeton from Trenton and running for Township Committee in order to promote affordable housing in Princeton.
Pointing out that Paul Robeson Place was formerly Jackson Street, Mr. Floyd, recalled urban renewal efforts of the 1930s and 1950s that displaced African American residents from what is now Palmer Square, relocating or destroying black homes in the center of town and pushing residents further down the Witherspoon/Jackson corridor. “The only place segregation disintegrates is in the bank line,” said Mr. Floyd, quoting his father.
He cited the experience of black property owner Burnett Griggs, owner of Griggs’ Imperial Restaurant, which he ran for 42 years until his retirement at age 83. Mr. Griggs also owned 26 acres where Griggs Farm is today.
“I lived this history in Princeton, I know how we were treated in this town,” said Shirley Satterfield, who conducts an informative tour of Princeton’s African American history for the Historical Society of Princeton. Ms. Satterfield, a former PHS counselor, went on to describe inequality in Princeton’s schools, particularly with respect to the choir. After hearing that black children felt discouraged, she had started the “Inspirational Choir.”
One woman whose daughter had been a PHS student, reported her daughter’s contrasting experiences of shopping with black friends on Nassau Street as compared to visiting the same stores with her white friends on another occasion. Ms. Oppenheim asked whether any of the black people present had experienced suspicion on the part of shop owners. The response clearly showed that they they had.
Many people shared their own experiences of growing up in Princeton. One white woman described her friendship with a black teen from Birmingham, Alabama at PHS in the 1960s. “Oscar played the oboe and I played the French horn, we used to write poetry together, taking turns to contribute a line,” she recalled. But when Oscar was her escort to the school prom, “all hell broke loose,” she reported, adding that through this important friendship she had “learned how wonderful it was to play with someone without paying any attention to racial background and I’d love to have that experience again.”
What can be done?
It was suggested that music would be a way to transcend racial divides, which led to further discussion of Princeton’s schools and the lack of African Americans in the PHS choir. One person suggested “white privilege” could explain this saying that by the time children were selected for the choir, more white than black kids had benefitted from music lessons.
“We need to work with the schools, level the playing field for the black kids,” said one. While some suggested that the high school would be a good place to start, others thought that high school was too late.
Ms. Oppenheim spoke of the need for adults to examine their own views. “Are we ready to speak up in opposition to racism in circumstances which might be uncomfortable?” she asked.
“I don’t want to forget that I have biases and racism inside of me,” offered one white male participant. “I have to be conscious of the truth of what happened in this country. We can only be truly free if we can acknowledge the truth of what happened here. Slaves didn’t come here because they wanted to and we need to talk about that if killings like Michael Brown are ever going to end.”
One former teacher commented that it was unfortunate that “the sort of truth and reconciliation that happened in South Africa hasn’t happened here. White people need to talk more to white people about race,” she said and described her students’ resistance to such discussions and their belief that racism ended with slavery. The difficulty of engaging teens on the topic of racism was also the experience of the group’s youngest participant, a Princeton Day School student.
Socioeconomic status came into the conversation, as did the idea that in some communities the idea of academic success is regarded as not cool. Is this an issue for black kids? one person asked.
But before the conversation could continue, the library closing announcement was heard. NIOT holds a monthly “Conversation at the Princeton Public Library, usually on the first Monday of the month; the next meeting is scheduled for Monday, October 6.
For more on the history of the African American community in Princeton, including a self-guided walking tour visit the Historical Society of Princeton: www.princetonhistory.org.
For an article on the history of Princeton’s African American Community, see the Princeton Magazine article: http://bit.ly/1osLycA.