Understanding Black History is important because we must understand the past in order to guide our current and future actions – both as individuals and as a town.
African Americans in Princeton have had a particularly difficult history, although the town has had some achievements in race relations along the way. Blacks did much of the work, along with Italians, paving our roads and performing menial tasks at Princeton University for generations. They also worked in the homes of wealthy professors and industrialists – but were excluded from shops and services on Nassau Street. In the 1930s, blacks were forcibly relocated from their homes in what is now Palmer Square to Birch Avenue and other streets in the Witherspoon Jackson area.
On the other hand, Princeton was the first town in New Jersey to integrate all its schools under the Princeton Plan in 1948. The Nassau School at 185 Nassau St became the elementary school for all, while John Witherspoon became the middle school. Interestingly, Princeton High School was already integrated by then.
While African-Americans make up just 5.4% of our residents, a percentage that has been declining as housing costs increase and many children of black families cannot afford to live here, organizations such as Not in Our Town, Committed and Faithful Princetonians, and the Princeton Human Services Department work every day to support this group as they do all others. Of course, these organizations and agencies recognize that there is a huge range of economic resources within the African-American community – from wealthy to very low-income residents.
With the unfortunate events of last summer and fall in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland — exactly the opposite of what Police Chief Sutter is striving for here in Princeton — it is more crucial than ever that each of us treats everyone with dignity and respect, to help ensure all negative past practices are truly gone from Princeton. As FBI Director James Comey, whose forebears were Irish, said in a very recent speech at Georgetown University, “What the Irish had gone through was nothing compared to what blacks had faced. That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness……It is our cultural inheritance.”
This is why we study Black History.