June 7, 2023

Library Exhibit to Introduce Einstein as Outspoken Civil Rights Champion

EINSTEIN, ANOTHER VIEW: An exhibit on the renowned scientist’s relationships with residents of Princeton’s traditionally Black neighborhood and with many Black leaders of the mid 20th century will be on display in the Princeton Public Library from June 15 to August 1, a collaborative project by the Princeton Einstein Museum of Science and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society. (Photo courtesy of the Princeton Einstein Museum)

By Donald Gilpin

Two stories embedded deeply in the history of Princeton and the world are Albert Einstein as the great scientist developing his theory of relativity and contributing to the theory of quantum mechanics, and Einstein as one of the first members of the Institute for Advanced Study, serving there and paying frequent visits to Princeton University from 1933 until his death in 1955.

But Einstein and his involvement with the African American community is a little-known facet of the man’s life that will be on display from June 15 through August 1 in an exhibit in the second floor Reading Room at Princeton Public Library (PPL).

“Albert Einstein: Champion of Racial Justice and Equality,” funded by the McCutcheon Foundation and consisting of 11 panels of text and images, will then move from Princeton to other New Jersey sites to be on display for about 18 additional months.

The Princeton Einstein Museum of Science (PEMS), preparing to open in 2026, and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society (WJHCS) have teamed up to mount this pop-up exhibit focusing on Einstein’s relationships with residents of Princeton’s traditionally African American neighborhood and with many prominent Black leaders of the mid 20th century.

PEMS President Elizabeth Romanaux, who grew up in Princeton and whose father went to Princeton University and remembered seeing Einstein around town, and WJHCS President Shirley Satterfield, lifelong Witherspoon-Jackson resident who knew Einstein when she was a child, met and since last October have been working on this exhibit.

“The thing Shirley and I want this exhibit to do is to tell people more about Einstein,” said Romanaux. “Shirley said to me, ‘Einstein was such a wonderful person and we know him only as a scientist.’ I think we know him less as a humanitarian. We wanted to get this right. We wanted the story to be authentic. We’re excited about telling this.”

Romanaux explained that the Einstein Museum will include an introductory gallery showing Einstein’s life in Princeton in order to give visitors some context before they enter the science section. Three pop-up exhibits are planned, one each year, before the museum officially opens in 2026. Next year the Princeton Einstein Museum will choose another partner for a pop-up exhibit on either “Art Meets Science” or “Strictly Science,” which are the two topics planned for the next two pop-up displays.

Romanaux described learning only recently about Einstein’s involvement with the African American community on a national level, as he was a member of the NAACP, maintained a 20-year friendship with Paul Robeson, corresponded with W.E.B. Du Bois, and joined a committee to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama young men who were falsely accused of rape in 1931.

Romanaux recalled the story of Einstein’s friendship with the renowned singer Marian Anderson, who had come to perform at McCarter Theatre in 1937. Einstein went backstage to congratulate her after the show, but when he dropped her off at the Nassau Inn afterwards, she was refused accommodations because she was Black. Einstein invited her back to his home on Mercer Street to stay with him and his daughter, which is where she also stayed on subsequent visits to Princeton.

“He was brave to step out of everybody’s comfort zone to do what he knew was right,” said Romanaux. “He did that again and again. I read that his colleagues told him that he should stop involving himself in politics, but he declined to do that. He said he was going to continue to involve himself, that he was particularly interested in the condition of Blacks in America and he was committed to improving that.”

She continued, “So that’s what this exhibit is about. It’s important for us to talk about these things. If we really want to be one community and cure the ills that have come before, we have to take an unvarnished view of what has gone on and talk about it. Shirley and I feel that this is a good topic, and we can all learn from it, and that’s the point of it.”

An opening reception will be held on Thursday, June 15 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the second floor Reading Room of the PPL, where the exhibit will be displayed.