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Jack Washington's Journey Reveals Myths Linked With Black Community

Matthew Hersh

For Jack Washington the last stretch of his journey documenting one of the oldest communities in Princeton's history has been a long time coming.

During the three-year Princeton University fellowship that culminated in his book, The Long Journey Home, Dr. Washington, a history teacher at Trenton Central High School, found that while the Princeton black experience has been a journey through hardships and setbacks, as well as accomplishments and progress, certain myths have become part of the story along the way.

The general idea is that much of the black community arrived in Princeton as slaves to work on Princeton's then Virginia-style plantations, or as house servants to residents. But that's not necessarily the case, as outlined in Dr. Washington's book, which was funded by a research grant through the African-American Studies Department at the University, and sponsored by recently-retired Professor Nell Painter.

The fact is that while slaves and freed slaves were present in the origins of Princeton's black community, others arrived as community leaders, entrepreneurs, and even, at least early on, as students at the University.

In hopes of "debunking" the myths of the community's black origins, Dr. Washington recently shared his findings to a full house at the Princeton Public Library's Community Room.

And while the neighborhood speaks volumes, or, in Dr. Washington's case (his account spans from the U.S. independence to the bicentennial) one volume, it took more than a bit of digging to unearth the final product.

"You've really got to dig hard: I started with every book in all the libraries in this area that related to Princeton." Those libraries, Dr. Washington said, included the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress was a bit more difficult to navigate, Dr. Washington said: "They have millions and millions of documents, and one microfiche might have 25,000 pages on it," leaving the researcher with a mass of raw data that filled a whole room in his Ewing house.

"This became an obsession, and if you're not going to be obsessed about it, you shouldn't even try it," he said.

The story of Princeton's black history began emerging only after an "exhaustive search" that brought Dr. Washington to the University's Firestone Library for whole days at a time.

It soon became clear, he said, that the black community was not established post-Civil War, but in the pre-Colonial era. In fact, Witherspoon Street's early name, "African Lane," dates back to Colonial times, discrediting the notion that the town's black origins are based in the Civil War era. "How that myth got started, I don't know," Dr. Washington said, adding that he had also looked at the census track and could not find data providing a lineage linking Princeton's Colonial blacks with slave-owners.

Another commonly held belief – that no blacks graduated from Princeton University before 1947 – has also been challenged in The Long Journey Home. The author found transcripts indicating that a Rev. Stark received a master's degree from the University in 1905, and that a year later another one was earned by the Rev. I.W. Roundtree.

While there were no black undergraduates until the mid-20th century, the graduate school did have black students, Dr. Washington said, and before 1947 "there was a whole host of blacks who attended the University, or studied on campus, and took seminar courses."

Dr. Washington also discovered that when Woodrow Wilson was president of the University, his ideas on integration in education were regressive compared to those of President John Witherspoon a century before.

In addition to examining and correcting myths of the black community, Dr. Washington's book also looks at the 20th century growth of the commercial and residential activity in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood: from the 1902 James Margerum purchase of parts of Hulfish, John, and Jackson streets, to Griggs' corner, to the numerous black-owned shops and businesses that thrived independently of what was available "uptown" on Nassau Street.

Upon the book's release last November, Dr. Washington said he was humbled by his journey through Princeton's black history: "When I first took this project, I thought this would be a little, small story about a small community and I didn't think it would go far." And the journey, he said, still continues.

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