Princeton University to name garden and arch in honor of two slaves

Princeton University will name a garden and an arch after two slaves who were pillars of the Princeton community during their lifetimes.

Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society, Portraits of American Protestant Missionaries to Hawaii (Honolulu: Hawaiian Gazette Company, 1901).

The garden between Firestone Library and Nassau Street will be named for Elizabeth “Betsey” Stockton, a slave in the Maclean House home of a Princeton University president. Stockton became a missionary and later served the Princeton community as a founder of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and as a teacher and founder of the school for children of color in Princeton.

An arch in East Pyne Hall will be named for James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson, a fugitive slave from Maryland who worked on the Princeton University campus for more than 60 years, first as a janitor and then as a vendor of fruits, candies and other snacks he sold from a wheelbarrow. When he died in 1902, alumni and students purchased a headstone for him in Princeton cemetery, and inscribed an epitaph that described him as “the students friend.” The East Pyne arch is the first arch students pass through when they leave the chapel after opening exercises, and as they approach graduation, it is the first arch they pass through when they leave the chapel after the Baccalaureate service.

The trustees of Princeton University approved the recommendations of the Council of the Princeton University Community Committee on Naming, a committee of faculty, students, staff and alumni that was established in the fall of 2016 to advise the trustees on the naming of “buildings or other spaces not already named for historical figures or donors to recognize individuals who would bring a more diverse presence to the campus.”

In the fall of 2015, students held a sit-in at the Princeton University president’s office to demand that the school remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from buildings and programs because of his racist views. Although the board of trustees decided not to remove Wilson’s name from institutions, the board “called for an expanded and more vigorous commitment to diversity and inclusion at Princeton” and took other steps, including forming the naming committee.

This year, the trustees asked the committee to propose a name for the new garden that is being constructed as a green roof covering a portion of Firestone Library.

Stockton was born into slavery around 1798 in Princeton and given by her owner, Robert Stockton, to his daughter when she married the Rev. Ashbel Green, who became president of the college in 1812. Green freed Stockton several years later. In 1822, she traveled to Hawaii as a missionary, where she established a school for Hawaiian children. In 1828, she relocated to Philadelphia and established a school for African-American children. In 1833, she returned to Princeton, where she helped found the sole Princeton public school for African-American children. In 1840, she played a leading role in founding what is now Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and led its Sunday school.

The naming committee recommended that the garden be named for her “given the many lives she nurtured over the course of her courageous life.” The committee hopes the garden will be “a place of beauty and reflection for both town and gown.”

James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson photo courtesy of the University Archives, Princeton University Library.

Johnson arrived in Princeton in 1839, and worked as a janitor until 1843, when he was recognized by a student who alerted his previous owner. He was then tried as a runaway slave. Following the trial, a local woman paid about $500 for his freedom, and students of the college took up a collection that raised $100 to help him start a business. He opened a used clothing and furniture store on Witherspoon Street and obtained the right to sell snacks on campus.

According to an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “For some of the white students who encountered him, Johnson left a lasting impression as a font of humor and wisdom. … For many African Americans in Princeton, Johnson’s persistence and entrepreneurship served as a model for the development of businesses and social activities that provided them some measure of dignity and economic success…”

In recommending the arch be named for Johnson, the committee said his story should be brought to the attention of future generations of Princetonians “by associating his name with an arch that looks out on the places where he befriended students and sold his wares, but also one that looks out at the statue of John Witherspoon, one of the first nine Princeton presidents, all of whom were slaveholders at one point in their lives. Johnson’s experiences with Princeton students, both being turned into authorities as a fugitive slave and being befriended and defended, reflect the complex history on our campus with African Americans and with the institution of slavery.”

A photo exhibit about Johnson will be on display beginning the week of April 30 in the Frist Campus Center, with an opening ceremony scheduled for May 1.