A Proud Princeton Community Deserves Historic Designation
To the Editor:
The African American community has been a vital presence in Princeton since the late 17th century. They were slaves who worked on large farms and in homes as agricultural and domestic servants. The early presidents and trustees of The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) owned slaves. John Witherspoon, sixth president of the college and Richard Stockton, trustee of the college, owned several slaves. Both Witherspoon and Stockton were signers of the Declaration of Independence.
By the 1700’s there were free colored residents who were descendants of slaves and in later years, many families had migrated to Princeton from the south to find employment. The increasing wealth in the community together with the university’s expansion created a high demand for labor and service positions that were generously offered to the colored residents. These families were relegated to the area that is now known as the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.
Because Princeton was a Jim Crow town, the colored population was not welcomed in certain stores, could not eat at restaurants, or frequent social establishments; so by the early 1900’s there were many businesses and establishments owned by the residents in the area of Jackson Street to Birch Avenue: florists, barber shops, beauty salons, candy stores, ice cream parlors, restaurants, clothing stores, and taxi services; as well as teachers, lawyers, and physicians. This community was self-sufficient and many homes were built by skilled carpenters and laborers who lived in the area.
A segregated Princeton created separate housing, schools, YM/WCA, fraternal organizations, establishments, clubs. and the cemetery. Our families were moved from Baker Street to build Palmer Square, and Jackson Street (now Paul Robeson Place) for a municipal thoroughfare. Witherspoon Street, from Paul Robeson Place to Birch Avenue, was referred to as “African or Guinea Lane”. Compared to other communities in Princeton, the Witherspoon-Jackson community was a neglected area by the town of Princeton, but a proud, clean, and welcoming community by the hardworking residents.
For the centuries that African American families have resided in this area of Princeton they welcomed their neighbors who were Italian American, Irish, and Jewish families. After several years many of these families moved to other areas of Princeton leaving the descendants of the African American families to continue to live, contribute, and serve in the Witherspoon-Jackson community.
When a writer makes such statements as “… poverty and decay,” “… lead to decline and deterioration,” “… could create hostility between the different ethnic groups,” when referring to the Witherspoon-Jackson community, the question becomes — how well informed is the writer about the history of Princeton and its people and what authority or research does the writer have to make judgments about what should and should not be preserved?
There are 19 historic districts in Princeton, all based on history, distinction, noted Princeton residents, architectural features, and boundary lines. The Witherspoon-Jackson community meets all of these features and deserves to be the 20th historic district in Princeton, New Jersey.
Through blood, sweat, skills, and faith, generations of proud and contributing residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson community have been the backbone of our town and Princeton University. Their lives, services, love, and hope should remain a lasting and respected presence in Princeton.
Shirley A. Satterfield