June 15, 2022

“Naming Party” on June 25 to Highlight Witherspoon-Jackson Family Stories

“DO YOU REMEMBER?”: The Arts Council of Princeton is inviting the community to a “Naming Party” on Saturday, June 25 to help identify friends, family, and neighbors pictured in the collages of the late Witherspoon-Jackson artist Romus Broadway. (Photo courtesy of the Arts Council of Princeton)

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton community is invited to a “Naming Party” and a trip down memory lane through the photographic collages of the late Witherspoon-Jackson (W-J) artist Romus Broadway on Saturday, June 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP).

As part of a collaborative project with the Joint Effort Safe Streets Program, the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society, the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association, and Princeton University’s Special Collections, the gathering will allow participants to view Broadway’s photos and help to identify and preserve the names of friends, family, and community members pictured in his collages. Coffee, pastries, and lunch will be served at this free event.

Princeton Councilman Leighton Newlin reflected on the legacy of Broadway, who died in 2020, and on the upcoming Naming Party.

“Romus is gone, but his pictures are still here,” said Newlin. “He and they continue to tell the story that documents the rich history of a great neighborhood. Who knows? This gathering could inspire the next storyteller.”

He continued, “Saturday, June 25 will be special because people will be able to review Romus’ work and help the curators identify the people who are in the pictures that he took. Some will see themselves; others will see members of their family. Everybody will see somebody they know.”

Broadway’s collages and other photographs have been on display at various events at the ACP, church services, schools, and community programs over the years. Princeton University has purchased a large collection of his work.

Maria Evans, ACP artistic director and a W-J resident, came up with an idea for creating public artwork using vinyl banners to display the collages, and she and ACP Executive Director Adam Welch approached Jennifer Garcon, librarian for modern and contemporary special collections at Princeton University.

“She loved the idea,” said Welch. “The Department of Special Collections is digitizing the collages and sending those digital versions to us, and we are getting permission to do this banner project.”

The project, which would display banners throughout the W-J neighborhood using portions of the collages, is a “proposed future temporary public art project,” Welch noted, with approval still to be obtained from Princeton Council, the Public Art Selection Committee, and various channels of PSE&G.

With encouragement from Princeton University, seeking help in naming the hundreds of individuals in Broadway’s photos, Welch and Evans arranged a meeting with W-J community leaders Lance Liverman, Shirley Satterfield, John Bailey, and Newlin.

Welch proposed a Naming Party with refreshments and lunch and the collages printed out very large and put on tables in the ACP theater. “We’ll have a bunch of sharpies and we’ll just start identifying people, putting names to faces,” he said.

“What’s beautiful about it is that not only is this going to fulfill the hopes of the University to get their images identified, which will eventually be put into their collections online so that everybody can be seen and known for generations to come,” Welch continued. “But it will also bring all of these people together again and let them tell their stories, let them share their recollections of all this. The beauty of it is that we have an opportunity to use this art to bring these people together. We’re really excited about that and we’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to make a lot happen.”

Evans for many years has curated the art, including many of Broadway’s photographs, for the Chip Fisher Memorial Art Exhibition held every August in conjunction with the Joint Effort Safe Streets celebration. She commented on the power of Broadway’s work. “Romus’ photos feature years of Witherspoon-Jackson residents at proms, cookouts, dances, graduations, buying new cars. He captured the everyday social fabric of his neighborhood.”

She continued, “Attendees of those exhibits enjoyed seeing the collages, and I observed how powerful they were. Upon viewing the photographs, people would immediately begin to offer memories of places, names, and events. Romus had visually captured the pulse of a neighborhood and I knew the collages had to be preserved and more widely displayed. The idea of keeping his work alive for
generations to come is an exciting one.”

Bailey, lead organizer of Joint Effort Safe Streets, which will take place from August 5 to 14 this year, emphasized the importance of the University, the community, and the W-J neighborhood collaborating on this project.

Noting the University’s continuing commitment to address its legacy of slavery, Bailey added, “Joint Effort has always been about trying to bring attention to the current residents who are the descendants of slaves who came from the South into the Princeton community. Capturing the photos and the residents who lived in this community is very important spiritually and it’s ancestrally driven.”

Bailey is hopeful that the proposed banner project will be approved in time for residents to appreciate the banners as a celebration of community during the Joint Effort activities. Joint Effort, Bailey explained, is “a recognition and dedication to our ancestors and our families. This is one of the ways we’re trying to keep family, ancestors, and community alive in the memories of those who still exist on the planet. The Romus piece is a capturing of all that history photographically.”

It’s the ancestors, Bailey claimed, who have provided the inspiration and guidance for Joint Effort, for this Romus Broadway project, and for other successful initiatives. “The University doesn’t know, but it’s being driven by the ancestors,” he said. “I’m being driven by the ancestors. Any time there’s something going on in the Black community that’s positive or progressive, it’s being driven by the ancestors, and those of us who are alive and who are doing the work are being driven and guided by the ancestral enlightenment.”

Newlin discussed the lasting impact of Broadway’s work. “Romus over all the years knew exactly what he was doing with the legacy that he would leave,” Newlin said. “He was not simply taking pictures; he was weaving a story to create a narrative of both the trials and tribulations of the African and Italian Americans who lived on an eight-block island. He was not so much a photographer as he was a storyteller. Through the years, he captured the life and times of a neighborhood with pictures of everyday people living everyday lives.”

Newlin added, “Simultaneously, he was intentionally putting on display the intense pride he had in the people that made the W-J neighborhood a village.”