Presbyterians Apologize to Historic Black Congregation for Racist Past in Princeton

The Rev. William Drew Robeson was driven out of Princeton in 1900.
The Rev. William Drew Robeson was driven out of Princeton in 1900.

At a banquet held Sunday night in honor of the 175th anniversary of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, the congregation received two gifts, one from a neighboring church and the other from denominational leaders.

The first gift to the historically black congregation was a formal apology from the Nassau Presbyterian Church for the long history of racism in Princeton that strained the relationship between the two churches and led to the removal of the Rev. William Robeson as pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1900.

The second gift, a reparation of sorts to symbolically make amends, was a resolution and a $173,000 grant from the Synod of the Northeast, the regional denominational body, to cover the two mortgages on the Robeson House. The house served as the parsonage during Robeson’s 21-year tenure as pastor of the church, and is the birth place of legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson, the minister’s son.

“This is a milestone for the presbytery and a blessing for the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church,” church member Shirley Satterfield said of the apology.

Denomination leaders spent the past year researching the history of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, drafting the apology, and working out the details for the grant. But the effort actually began more than a decade ago when the Rev. David Prince was the interim pastor at the church. He and his wife, Nancy Prince, were told about how Rev. Robeson was forced out of the congregation because whites thought he was stirring up too much trouble. The removal has remained an open wound for the local black community all these years.

Nancy Prince became interested in the issue, read biographies about the Robesons, and then dug up the minutes of church and presbytery meetings in the Presbytery Historical Society. From the research, she and her husband came to the conclusion that a public apology for past actions would be appropriate.

In the early 1800s, Princeton was totally segregated.  Slaves and servants had to sit in the balcony for services at the First Presbyterian Church, now Nassau Presbyterian Church. After there was a fire at the church, a church for blacks was formed on Witherspoon Street in 1840.

Robeson began working at the church in 1879. The former slave fought for the rights of black people, and preached the gospel of racial equality. He became increasingly vocal and worked to organize blacks regionally. White people felt threatened by his efforts, so they orchestrated his removal from the church. The New Brunswick Presbytery, the governing body for area churches, was going to remove Robeson, so he resigned under duress, left the Presbyterian church, and later became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

A review this year of the minutes from 1900 by church leaders showed there were no misdeeds by Robeson that were cited as reasons for his removal.

“The unrest and dissatisfaction on the part of others in Princeton: was cited as one reason for his removal, according to documents.

Many parishioners were not supportive of the move, and they signed a petition opposing the removal.

Some members of the Nassau Street Presbyterian Church and other church leaders today refer to the move to push Robeson out as “an ecclesiastical lynching.”

    The Robeson House on Witherspoon Street was once the church parsonage.
The Robeson House on Witherspoon Street was once the church parsonage.

The parsonage the Robeson family had lived in on Witherspoon Street was sold shortly after Robeson’s departure because the church needed money. In 2005, the church was able to buy the house back for $435,000, but the church has been paying off two mortgages on the house while also trying to raise money to restore it. Church members hope to turn the house into a center for the study and advancement of human rights that will also celebrate the legacy of the Robeson family.

“What better use of mission money could there be than to assist the congregation that is seeking to discern its future in its changing neighborhood? wrote David Prince in a letter last year. Prince died last December. His wife was able to attend the banquet Sunday night to see the apology and grant proposals become reality.

The grant will help the church focus its resources on restoring the house and creating a community resource where people can learn about the past and address social issues, church members said. The house is being restored by architect Kevin Wilkes of Princeton Design Guild.

At the banquet, the Rev. Lauren McFeaters and the Rev. John White read the letter from the Nassau Presbyterian Church addressing racism in Princeton’s past.

“We lament the sins of our forebearers and acknowledge the institutional complicity of the First Presbyterian Church in our community’s hesitance to embrace the abolition of slavery and, thereafter, our community’s participation in the establishment and maintenance of Jim Crow segregation,” says the letter signed by more than 25 of the church’s representatives.

A resolution from the presbytery apologizing for the removal of Robeson was also read by the synod moderator. Church leaders said the letter and resolution are a beginning, and promised to continue to show solidarity with the church through both words and actions.

The Rev. Peter Paris, the keynote speaker for the evening, lifted up the Rev. Robeson as a “shining example of what faith can do.”

Paris applauded the efforts of the Nassau Presbyterian and Witherspoon Presbyterian churches.

“This evening unites the spirit of apology with that of forgiveness,” he said. “The churches can move forward together, working for the freedom and just treatment of all peoples.”

11 Responses

  • I grew up in Princeton in the 1960s and graduated from Princeton High School in 1974. I can recall how during that period Princeton was strictly divided along racial grounds. We all knew exactly where the “ghetto” was located. The schools began to be desegregated and they started busing to add diversity to the school system I think around 2nd grade? Was that when they shut down the Nassau Street School? I’m not sure of the details. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that the wrong doing of racist Princeton did not stop with the ejection of the Rev. Robeson. Here we had the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church and the Nassau Presbyterian Church and “n’aer the twain shall meet” was my impression. The only place in Princeton where I recall an integrated congregation was the Calvary Baptist Church where I used to go which remains in its location right across from the Princeton High School. I can recall we had several African American folks that would join us for our services. But I never saw that anywhere else in the other Churches in town. As for the Nassau Street Church, I believe in high school the Church invited the Pastor of the Witherspoon Street Church to give the sermon at one service, and that was supposed to be a “big deal”! So the divisions were real and lasted well into the 70s. I am aware that at my last full fledged high school reunion there was some racial hostility, and all black tables, and that was not much different than the actual hostility that existed in the schools in the 70s when I was going to Princeton High. So this grant for the Robeson House and the apology is minimal in the light of the lengthy and complex history of racism in Princeton. I would also like to add, just as an aside, regarding the general heartlessness of the Nassau Presbyterian Church. I went to that Church for a number of years and was a member of the Church youth group. When my little brother, David, died after a lengthy and devastating illness during my junior year of high school not a single member of that Church and not a single member of my youth group bothered to send me a card of condolence or speak to me personally regarding my loss. So this is a Church with a long and in depth history of being heartless, let alone racist. There is not enough money and there are not enough words in the dictionary that will ever give that Church forgiveness for its total lack of Christian moral values or love and care.

    • Salute !!!!!! Thank You For That Honest Perspective and Detailed Look At “The Condition” of The Spirit of Princeton. People are worried about a “Revolution” not Understanding They Are Already Knee Deep In A 400 Year Revolution !!!!

  • The whole country needs a truth and reconciliation movement. The government should not only apologize to African Americans but also to the original peoples. The original peoples lived here for thousands of years before they were slaughtered and forcibly removed from their tribal lands. We have to learn to live together in peace and harmony. Violence will solve nothing.

    • You don’t seem to understand that all of these demands for self-flagellation will likely lead to violence.

      Movements based on lies (‘Black Lives Matter’ for instance) have caused irreparable harm to the cause of racial harmony, as has our divider-in-chief.

      • Racial ‘harmony’ on white peoples’ terms is NOT racial harmony. It is mere capitulation to the current white supremacist ethos and staus quo.

        • . . “Name One Good Thing That Came Out of a Room Full of “White” Men” . . . We Can’t . . .

      • Spoken Like Someone Who Has Given “The Klan” A Pass . . And I Find It Ironic That A Nation Built On Violence Expects “Peaceful Protest” From The Oppressed . . The Hypocrisy is Stifling !!!!

  • I am glad to learn of this step taken by Nassau Church and Witherspoon Church. I lived in Princeton for 35 years and attended Nassau Church. I first went to Witherspoon because I lived around the corner from that church. The first Sunday no one talked to me though I tried to greet some congregants. The second Sunday at Witherspoon, I was appraoched by a gentleman who told me I didn’t belong at Witherspoon- to try Nassau Church instead. This was 1977. It takes two as they say!

    • They have “Reason’s” . . And Deserve To Be “Wary” . . Wouldn’t Your Church Given The History ? They Have Nothing To Prove To Anyone . .

  • A Salute of Gratitude and Love To Shirley Satterfield and Her Congregation !!!!!

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