Author Toni Morrison praises research behind Princeton and Slavery Project

A slave sale took place on the Princeton University campus, and the first nine Princeton presidents were slaveholders at some point in their lives.Those are just two of the findings of the Princeton and Slavery Project, a faculty and student project that explored the ties of early Princeton University trustees, presidents, faculty and students to the institution of slavery.

Several hundred source documents were reviewed for the project. Findings, documents, more than 80 articles, video documentaries, and interactive maps, released this month can be reviewed on the Princeton and Slavery website.

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who taught at the university from 1989 to 2006. returned to Princeton University on Nov. 17 to give the keynote address for the Princeton and Slavery Project Symposium. 

Morrison highlighted themes from the project, focusing on Princeton’s hesitance to critique slave ownership. According to a project overview by Martha Sandweiss and Craig Hollander, two directors of the project, Princeton tried to prioritize political diversity by appeasing both northerners and southerners. In the words of Sandweiss and Hollander, Princeton “administrators sought to make their southern students and slave-holding patrons feel welcome,” a tendency that continued throughout and beyond the Civil War.

“Princeton is, oh, ‘late,’ let’s say, of the Ivy League colleges to curtail slave ownership. Although the institution never owned slaves – Princeton’s smart – its funding was dependent on the dominant southern students and alumni,” Morrison said.

Despite Princeton’s attempt at transcending political boundaries, violence broke out on and around campus. Morrison referenced violence towards local abolitionists, as well as the “appetite” for wealth that motivated the tolerance of slavery. For example, the Princeton and Slavery Project features recollections from 1835, when about 60 students attempted to lynch a local abolitionist and ran him out of town.

“From harrowing and violent behavior toward local abolitionists to the self-serving, calculated funding of cost, Princeton has really an embarrassing, and some say even shameful [past],” Morrison said. “The fact that it was normal for most of the northwest is hardly a satisfactory excuse.”

Morrison praised the research behind the Princeton and Slavery Project. Sandweiss founded and directed the project, working alongside almost 40 others to compile stories and primary resources, and create lesson plans and videos about Princeton’s ties to slavery. Unlike similar investigations at Brown or Yale University, the Princeton and Slavery Project was built from the ground-up, led, and executed by faculty and students. Much of this research includes interviews with descendants of slaves.

“Princeton’s slave history is as profound as it is revelatory, since finally, it does include the voices and the recollections of the children of the enslaved,” Morrison said.

Morrison said that she could not acknowledge the entire project in a single speech. Her address marked the beginning of the Princeton and Slavery Symposium, a four-day event that included seven short plays based on the project’s findings that premiered in McCarter Theatre. Princeton University also commissioned artist Titus Kaphar to create “Impressions of Liberty,” a two-ton sculpture that stands outside Maclean House to memorialize the slave auction that took place there in 1766.

Staying true to her occupation as a creative writer, Morrison ended her address with a personal image. Morrison, now 86-years-old and speaking from a wheelchair, described one of her grandfathers. This ancestor was three years old at the beginning of the Civil War.

“He had heard whispers of the word ‘emancipation.’ It was whispered in anticipation and anxiety,” Morrison said. “So when it finally came, he hid under the bed.”

Following the address, Princeton University renamed one of its buildings “Morrison Hall,” in the author and scholar’s honor.

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