Letters: Why Black History Month?

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.

John Heilner


  1. While I agree, I find it counterproductive to refer to it as “Black History.” I don’t know the heritage of other historical people is discussed. Then it stops being history, and becomes genealogical discussions. I think emphasizing race makes it appear these are the only examples. I suppose “colorblind” is the talk of dreams.

  2. This is very well written and the findings are on point. I think Black History should be included in all history studies in our school systems. We should not just take one month and focus on the many accomplishments of an entire race. Black History Month should be celebrated by all year round. Let’s lift up groups instead of constantly tearing groups down. We are lucky to live in a country that respects and honors all groups.

    1. Lance: You’ll be pleased to know that New Jersey is at the forefront of infusing African American history into school curriculums year-round through the efforts of the Amistad Commission and its curriculum. https://www.njamistadcurriculum.com In Princeton, the board of education worked with administrators to ensure that students learn that black history is American history. While I know there is a debate about Black History Month — I’ve heard several artists ask why they can only get shows in February — I personally find it valuable. This year, for instance, I learned about the 1921 Tulsa riot, during which an angry white mob burned to the ground the most affluent African American community in the county (known as the Black Wall Street). I’ve studied U.S. history at every level and am now in my 50s, but I missed any mention of this significant event. Now, it’s entirely possible that I just wasn’t paying attention, or maybe the story of the deaths of dozens of African Americans and leveling of 35 city blocks was judged by historians to not be as important as other incidents in the history of race in America. Whatever the case, I’m fortunate that when I did hear about Tulsa, there were many resources available online so I could learn more.

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