October 11, 2017

Princeton & Slavery Project Digs Deep Into Town’s Past

By Anne Levin

Soon after moving to Princeton eight years ago and becoming a history professor at Princeton University, Martha A. Sandweiss began thinking about a project examining the town’s relationship to slavery. She was aware that other universities were involved in similar endeavors, and thought there might be a relationship worth investigating in Princeton.

What she imagined would be “a one-off class,” Sandweiss says, has mushroomed into a community-wide series of programs and events, a four-day symposium with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison as keynote speaker (to be introduced by poet and University professor Tracy K. Smith), and a special website scheduled to go live next month.

The Princeton & Slavery Project got underway in late September with the exhibit “Making History Visible: Of American Myths and National Heroes” at Princeton University Art Museum; and a book discussion, “Einstein on Race and Racism,” led by University professor Ruha Benjamin at Princeton Public Library. Additional events including exhibits, discussions, screenings, plays, and author talks are scheduled through the end of the year.

“After that first semester, I began to see that this could be a bigger project,” says Sandweiss. “I reached out to the community, and everybody from all of these organizations was interested in becoming a part of this. They are like my dream team. I want to emphasize that this is such a collaborative project between students and community organizations.”

Since 2013, graduate and undergraduate students at the University have been working on the project under the guidance of University Archivist Dan Linke. The Historical Society of Princeton, the University’s Center for Digital Humanities, McCarter Theatre Center, Not in Our Town, and Princeton Public Schools are on board along with the Princeton Public Library (PPL) and University museum.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), PPL is presenting a variety of programs. Among the highlights is an exhibit of actual historical documents from the University’s archives and the Historical Society of Princeton. Included are such disturbing reminders of Princeton’s past as a 1777 receipt for the purchase of a slave. It reads “To be sold…two Negro women, a negro man, and three negro children.”

McCarter Theatre is staging The Princeton & Slavery Plays, with a post-show community conversation led by facilitators from the organization Not in Our Town, which is committed to racial justice. The seven short plays were created from documents uncovered as part of the research project. Short films by University students will be presented at the library, and the documentary Facing Slavery: Princeton Family Stories by University alumnus Melvin McCray will be shown at the Garden Theatre as part of the four-day symposium.

The November 16-19 series of panels, discussions, and student presentations is the heart of the project, scheduled for different locations on and off the campus. Events are free and open to the public; some require tickets which are already running low. “It will be challenging for everyone to get tickets,” says Sandweiss. “There is so much interest. I know that McCarter has added a third performance of the plays to accommodate the demand.”

 The research website that goes live November 6, which will include primary documents and many other items of interest, will continue to be built upon. Sandweiss wants to keep some of it under wraps until the official unveiling. “We’ll wait to talk about the content,” she says. “There is just so much documentation. Any research project is full of surprises. That’s why it’s fun to be a historian.”

Sandweiss continues, “I just hope people will be excited to learn about where they live and where they are from, and understand we have not recovered all the stories there are to recover. But we have an awful lot. Whatever conversation ensues, it’s going to be such an informed conversation. And that really excites me.”

For a complete list of events, visit slaverysymposium.princeton.edu.