June 1, 2022

Digital Tour on History of Princeton Public Schools Reaches Back to Mid-19th Century

A FAMILY OF STUDENTS: The children of Henry Egglesfield, the butler at Moses Taylor Pyne’s Drumthwacket estate, attended a small school at Stony Brook. This image is among those now on permanent digital display by the Historical Society of Princeton.

By Anne Levin

Anyone who attended Princeton Public Schools over the past several decades might recognize themselves, or their classmates, in a digital tour available on the website of the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP). But “Princeton’s Public Schools: A History” is as much about the distant past as it is about more recent years.

The 19-part tour goes back to a time that predates photography. Starting with “Betsey Stockton and Her District No. 6 School” in the 1830s and continuing through last year’s student-driven renaming of John Witherspoon Middle School to Princeton Middle School, because of its namesake’s links to slavery, the profile of Princeton’s public educational system is all-encompassing.

A collaboration of the HSP and Princeton Public Schools, the tour is illustrated with photographs, documents, and oral histories. The issue of race figures prominently, as it did in an original exhibition mounted in 2009 acknowledging 150 years of Princeton Public Schools history. The tour draws on, and makes digitally accessible, materials and research collected for that first show, which was the product of efforts by the historical society, Princeton Public Schools, Princeton Public Library, Princeton University Libraries, Lisa Paine, Shirley Satterfield, and several other contributors.

“Race definitely plays a huge part in the Princeton Public Schools story,” said Stephanie Schwartz, the HSP’s curator of collections and research. “I imagine it shows up in other towns’ stories as well. But in terms of how well known The Princeton Plan is [for school reorganization, in 1948] was nationally as a model for integration, it naturally is a focus of the exhibition.”

The HSP was approached by some of the people involved in the original exhibit about a way to translate it into a digital format. “There had been an exhibit at the Valley Road [Board of Education] building, but due to COVID-19 not many people were able to see it,” Schwartz said. “And it is such a distinctive history. The images and ephemera are fascinating.”

Betsey Stockton started the first public school for Black students in 1937. A detail from the town superintendent’s Common School register, circa 1847, calls her an “excellent teacher” and notes her compensation of $1.50 a week. The schoolhouse is “wood — rectangular, neat, and convenient.” A map from 1860 shows the “African Ch School” between Maclean and Quarry streets, facing Witherspoon Street, built for $900 raised by the community.

A photo of the 11-member class of 1882 at the whites-only Princeton Model School, located at 185 Nassau Street and intended to be a model school for teachers in training, is accompanied by a copy of the program from the school’s closing exercises. The Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, at 184 Witherspoon Street and later at 35 Quarry Street, was a continuation of Betsey Stockton’s Common School.

The school started a newspaper and mobilized community support during World War I. Despite subpar facilities and hand-me-downs from the white schools, the students “also found themselves part of a supportive and intimate community,” according to the digital tour. “Many teachers lived in the same neighborhood as the students, allowing them to act as role models for their young pupils.”

Another point of interest is a 1903 photo of the school’s student body, taken on the schoolhouse steps. The caption indicates that it may or may not include five-year-old Paul Robeson, whose father was a teacher and the school’s affiliated minister. If students at the time wanted to go further than its offering of kindergarten through eighth grade, they had to attend high school in another community. Princeton High School was off limits.

Communities in what was formerly Princeton Township — Cedar Grove, Mount Lucas, and Stony Brook among them — had their own small schools. The austere-looking classroom of the Mount Lucas School, attended by children from the Herrontown farming community, is now a private home. Stony Brook School was attended by the 10 children of Drumthwacket butler Henry Egglesfield.

Also of interest is Howard Waxwood’s “certificate of promotion” from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, circa 1918, before he became principal of the school in 1935 and the building on Quarry Street became the middle school for all sixth-to-eighth graders. Today, it is an apartment complex known as The Waxwood.

The digital tour can be viewed at princetonhistory.org. “We’re so lucky because of how strong our photo collections are,” said Schwartz. “There is so much more in our collection that didn’t make it in. We have such a wealth of material to share.”