Petition calls for removal of anti-abolitionist John Witherspoon’s name from middle school in Princeton
Princeton High School alumnus Geoffrey Allen created the online petition on Monday that had garnered the support of almost 400 people as of Tuesday night.
The organizers of the petition say that naming the school after a slave-owning, anti-abolitionist creates a hostile environment for the district’s racially diverse student body. The group’s letter to the school board details John Witherspoon’s history of opposing slave liberation and oppressing Black people, citing research from the Princeton and Slavery Project. The alumni group has suggested two potential names to replace Witherspoon — activist Paul Robeson and Princeton slave Silvia DuBois.
Many alumni have reached out since Monday to express their support and share stories about their experiences in the Princeton Public Schools, Allen said. John Thompson, a 1988 graduate of Princeton High School, hopes that the symbolic name change can prompt uncomfortable conversations that lead to real change and force Princeton residents to acknowledge racism in their community.
“Princeton has always been what I call a private town. The racial disparities are hidden,” Thompson said. “Growing up here offered distinct advantages in education and diversity, though the experiences of being Black [meant] the same stressors as any other city.”
In the letter to the school board, some alumni shared personal anecdotes of their time in the district and made several suggestions to improve education about race in the curriculum. They have proposed a ‘History of Princeton’ class focused on the local history of racism that would incorporate racial discourse into elective courses at the middle school, and discussions of racially-discriminatory public policy in the mandatory civics class for all eighth-graders. “We as alumni believe that creating and sustaining an effective curriculum for future generations will help to counter racism at the local level,” reads the letter.
The idea of renaming the John Witherspoon Middle School has been discussed in the past, said Jennifer Cohan, a community activist and Princeton resident, but the momentum of the current anti-racism activism, as well as the recent renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School, contributed to what Cohan describes as a “long overdue change finally being made.”
School officials have been in touch with Allen, and the school board policy committee will be making recommendations to the board regarding public input and any process for renaming the school, School Board President Beth Behrend said.
Behrend said the board is committed to combatting systemic racism. “Acknowledging our nation’s flawed history, and adapting our spaces and curriculum to welcome a diverse community is essential for each and every one of our students to thrive and to achieve his or her greatest potential,” she said. “As the events of the past months point out so clearly, much work remains to be done.”
She added that the district has been “pursuing significant changes to its curriculum and culture in pursuit of equity,” including adopting “restorative justice” principles and practices, educating staff on implicit bias and cultural responsiveness, and developing a racial literacy curriculum. She said the board is considering expanding the racial literacy curriculum in the coming school year.
Allen said he believes the petition has motivated some Princeton residents to educate themselves on John Witherspoon and the town’s history of racism. He hopes to collect at least 500 signatures for the petition and keep spreading awareness about the town’s history.
The full letter to the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education
Dear Members of the Board of Education,
We write to you as alumni of Princeton Public Schools and residents of the township to implore that a change is made. The Princeton community has already made a statement showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but more must be done. On June 27th, the Princeton University Board of Trustees finally made the decision to remove the name of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, from the title of the School of Public and International Affairs. This is a subject that has sparked contention and opposition over the years, especially considering the current struggle the Princeton community currently faces over amending its racially charged history. Last month in an online post shared with parents, students, and faculty, Principal Baxter of Princeton High School stated, “[Princeton Public School wants] to do more to counter racism and heal our community”. While this announcement was a step in the right direction, many Princeton Public School alumni believe that that the district has an obligation to uphold its statement on discrimination with decisive and meaningful action. The continuing support for the Black Lives Matter movement has created an opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to distance itself from its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake, John Witherspoon. This is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy could create an unwelcoming environment for the middle school’s racially diverse student body.
The fact that John Witherspoon owned slaves is well-established and inescapable. As documented by the Princeton & Slavery Project, he ratified the Articles of Confederation, an early codified constitutional charter that equated the value of enslaved to horses. As early as 1790, Witherspoon sat on a committee examining the prospect of abolishing slavery in New Jersey, he along with the majority of the committee voted against immediate actions on the grounds that slavery was “already dying out”. However, because of their actions slavery in New Jersey continued until 1865 when slavery was nationally abolished. Despite his efforts to educate enslaved and free Black men (the latter including, among others, Bristol Yamma and John Quamine), he took no action to emancipate the enslaved people he taught or owned. Witherspoon’s moral inconsistencies regarding the rights of Blacks in America illustrates the hypocrisy of his personal values, especially because he was a Presbyterian clergyman. Many other contemporary theologians (such as Samuel Hopkins and Ezra Stiles) of his time were champions of the abolitionist movement, however, Witherspoon did not advocate for the abolition of slaves. Further, he saw the Transatlantic slave trade as “unlawful,” yet adamantly opposed the liberation of slaves born in the United States. Although he was a prominent Founding Father and played a critical role in the development of Princeton, he oppressed and tyrannized Black lives in Princeton, and throughout the state during his lifetime. Therefore, Witherspoon’s name should neither be celebrated nor should it represent the diverse body of Princeton’s one and only public middle school.
As alumni of Princeton Public Schools, we believe our social studies curriculum lacks sufficient education and critical dialogue on racial issues in our community’s history. Consequently, PPS failed to properly educate students on the implications of historical racism on currently marginalized groups. In this regard, we ask that our district propagate more deeply the Amistad Bill of 2002, which required all New Jersey schools to “infuse the history of Africans and African-Americans into the social studies curriculum in order to provide an accurate, complete and inclusive history.” We strongly believe that internal curricular reform would reinforce the district’s support for the values that have driven us to write this letter demanding visible and necessary anti-racist changes. Furthermore, this change would amplify the responsibility that schools have to implement programs to reduce racism within their communities. Unfortunately, the current district curriculum prioritizes western historical perspectives through Euro-centric classes that neglect the history of marginalized groups. The American history courses predominantly focus on the nation’s historical and military accomplishments and impacts while skimming past the many atrocities committed in the process. Instead, the school system should focus on producing courses to include both African-American history and other global perspectives that reflect the student population and our town. We can begin the process of highlighting the prejudiced history of our nation by starting with our local community and adding a ‘History of Princeton’ class. This course would present discussions of how previous racist policies and stratagems have shaped the Princeton community. Consequently, this would help to educate students on the roots of many of the socio-economic issues that affect the Princeton community.
For your further information, the following paragraphs are some succinct and distinct perspectives of alumni of various backgrounds:
“I, as a Black student, remember when I first stumbled onto the historical event of the Tulsa race riots of 1921. It was a racially charged event that ravaged what was known as “Black Wall Street” — a lesser-known site of Black wealth in segregationist America. In light of recent events, this state-sanctioned hate crime has recently come into public dialogue after the outrage of President Donald Trump’s rally that occurred around the anniversary of the incident. Discovering the Amistad Bill has made me realize that even laws put in place 18 years ago are not as effective as they should be.” -Anonymous Student, alumni of PPS
“As an East Asian American student, I recall learning that the 13th Amendment freed slaves, but I learned only recently of the details of the Amendment’s loophole that has culminated into the mass incarceration issue the American government refuses to address, and what the general public remains unaware of. Additionally, although PHS offered an East Asian Studies course, I graduated not knowing it ever existed, as it was overlooked often. The name of the class, however, also reflects the normalization of disregarding proper representation of and for the Asian American student population, as Asia is extremely diverse both in culture and perspective. We were required to take World History classes with the expectation of gaining basic understanding and covering material for a whole continent, yet spent the most time on China. We are not all Chinese.” -Anonymous Student, alumni of PPS
“In the fall of my senior year, I was repeatedly told — by White students and non-Black minorities — that my admission to elite universities was “guaranteed” simply because of the fact that I was Black. Their ignorant statements completely ignored the years of hard work I put in so I could achieve such a strong academic standing. Further, another issue that seems to be overlooked is the blatant lack of racial representation when it comes to AP and accelerated classes. I often found myself to be the only black student in AP classes, especially when it came to STEM courses. While I understand that there are more White and Asian students in the district, I still feel PPS can do a better job of combating the racial disparity by addressing the socio-economic barriers that prevent AP enrollment, offering mentorship and support systems for underrepresented minorities, and providing resources for black and brown students to consider and pursue STEM and other fields at the elementary and middle school level. It is crucial for district employees to understand that PPS plays a monumental role in shaping future leaders of society. They can either be complicit or proactive, and I urge all staff to truly commit themselves to provide educational equity for all students.” -Anonymous Student, alumni of PPS
“As a South Asian American student, I learned about the concept of ‘White privilege’ — the social, political, and economic privilege that benefits White people over Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) — through social media my sophomore year of high school. This concept was never an in-depth class discussion topic until I reached college. Before gaining this crucial knowledge, my BIPOC peers and I have felt as if our racial oppression, a direct consequence of White privilege, is ignored and normalized in our school’s culture. Additionally, reflecting on my own experiences with racial oppression, I learned through my peers the difference between racial microaggressions and institutional racism; racial oppression cannot be grouped into one type of lived experience. It is not a monolith and should not be treated as such, therefore showcasing the need for more inclusive education for the students’ sake, as I and my peers learned the bulk of racial terminological knowledge outside of the classroom.” -Anonymous Student, alumni of PPS
We have three urgent requests.
- Formally replace the name of John Witherspoon from the middle school. Some possible alternatives include the well-known activist Paul Robeson or even the less acknowledged Princeton slave Silvia DuBois, who stood up to her mistress and gained her freedom. While removing the name of an enslaver from a middle school indicates symbolic change, more can still be done. One way is by fostering inclusive dialogue and a globally holistic approach to teaching history in classrooms.
- Expand the district’s curriculum to include more courses discussing the racism found in our community’s past and present. An example of this could include implementing a History of Princeton elective class. The middle school has electives that emphasize arts such as drama, orchestra, or 3-D programming, yet all of these electives do not center around racial discourse.
- Include dialogue on racially-discriminatory public policy and behavior in the United States in core classes such as the mandatory civics class for all 8th graders. This would act as another opportunity to introduce discussions of race at an early age, and establish greater knowledge of Princeton, and the nation’s racial history before students enter high school.
We as alumni believe that creating and sustaining an effective curriculum for future generations will help to counter racism at the local level.
The following address was given to the Princeton Town Council on this topic five years ago when the gerrymandering of American history began its popularity in Princeton. The eminent historian David Hackett Fischer has referred to the overlay of the values of the present on the events and people of the past as the historical fallacy of “Presentism”:
A three-minute defense of John Witherspoon:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which ensures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this very morning by every pen in this house. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name of free man. “
With these words, John Witherspoon sought to convince his fellow congressional delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Today there again is a tide in our affairs, where some people seek to paint a false picture of the Founding Fathers and the issue of slavery. This attempt is both intellectually and historically dishonest. The historical fact is that slavery was not the product of, nor was it an evil introduced by the Founders; slavery was introduced in America nearly two centuries before the Revolution. In fact, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay noted that there had been few serious efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery prior to the Founding Fathers. The American Revolution itself was actually a turning point in the national attitude toward slavery.
Thomas Jefferson complained that King George:
“… has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. . . . Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold …”
Benjamin Franklin, in a 1773 letter to Dean Woodward, confirmed that whenever the Americans had attempted to end slavery, the British government had indeed thwarted those attempts. He wrote:
“. . . a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.”
The following year, Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society. Rush described slavery as “repugnant to the principles of Christianity.” John Jay was president of a similar society. Other prominent Founding Fathers who were members of societies for ending slavery included Richard Bassett, James Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William Few, John Marshall and Richard Stockton of Princeton. As a result of their efforts, Richard Allen, who was a friend of Benjamin Rush, a former slave and the founder of the A.M.E. Church in America said in his famous address “To the People of Color:”
“Many of the white people have been instruments in the hands of God for our good, even such as have held us in captivity, [and] are now pleading our cause with earnestness and zeal.”
John Adams, who to his credit owned no slaves, said of John Witherspoon, “he is as high a Son of Liberty as any man in America.”
Witherspoon preached against slavery in his discourses. He also chaired the New Jersey legislative committee concerned with the abolition of slavery in the state. Because of these efforts New Jersey began the process of ending slavery in 1804 just ten years after Witherspoon’s death.
Have you ever heard of John Chavis? He was the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States. He began his studies for the Presbyterian ministry at the College of New Jersey, where he was personally tutored by the President of the College, John Witherspoon. Of course, Witherspoon had previously tutored James Madison, the father of our Constitution.
In his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, Martin Luther King said:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
King also pointed out that it was to him obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note, so far as people of color were concerned.
Now some would say that some of the Founding Fathers were hypocrites. Let’s agree that is true in the lens that we view them from today. However, history itself teaches us over and over again not to judge the past through the lens of the present.
Is it incumbent upon all of us to ensure that the promissory note of Liberty is fulfilled for all people? Yes it is. But you ensure that by honoring the terms of the note itself, not by burning down the bank upon which it was written.
T. Jeffery Clarke
Princeton, New Jersey
As far as I know, no one put a gun to the heads of the founding fathers and Witherspoon forcing them to become owners of fellow human beings. They chose to be owners of human beings because, hey, the profits were good. Witherspoon talked morality and high-mindedness but he was still a slave owner. Actions speak louder than bromides and happy talk, the man was a hypocrite. Of course some religionists went even further and used the bible to justify slavery and later segregation and the Jim Crow laws.
An eminently eloquent statement of the problem and it encourages the healing of my increasing mental disequilibrium to read something sane in a time, and yes, a place, that has decided to use the rhetoric of logic to assemble trains of ideas that are the drivel of fools. I shall say nothing about Witherspoon here. This is a topic which requires something with more gonads than the review of the facts, however exquisitely done and learned as Mr. Clarke’s excellent rejoinder, and I will not attempt this aus dem Stegreif, as the German idiom for such situations would here demand. I will say something about the spiritual lynching of Woodrow Wilson. Princeton may not be red neck, but it certainly qualifies for Burgundian princely Scarlet-neck. Of all people in American history, the person I would least like to have a beer with is Woodrow Wilson. However, the man was a virtual saint. He loved God. He loved America. He loved his fellow man. Without quibbling over the nuances of his decisions, he was indeed a racist. So was Queen Victoria, as well as all of my countrymen there. So was everyone almost all of my countrymen here, including Honest Abe. The history of the treatment of minorities in Princeton would make you vomit. All of the sins of omission and hate that are now au courant to condemn in others are nesting today in the hearts of many who take advantage of the disgusting stirring up, with self-serving deliberateness and motive by that lunatic in the White House. But that is another matter. For now, the ascendancy of the guilt until proven innocent mentality will backfire. Drawing attention to the”mistakes” of the past allows those of the present to be ignored. Wilson has courage, which is more than that ringing silence of President Eisgruber in is graduation address rings with. Moreover, if Princeton University is the no. 1 university in the nation, I’m flabbergasted by the silence of the history faculty. The object of the study of history is not to transform it into something that will not offend our oh! so tender sensibilities. Sleepers Awake. It is a moral wrong what is being done to Woodrow Wilson. He did his best. Nothing more can be asked of any man or woman.
In closing, a word to the German faculty. Meine Damen und Herren: Sie sollen sich zusammenbringen in einer heiligen Eidgenossenschaft um die Ameriker „woke“ zu machen. Das, was jetzt in den Vereinigten Staaten vorgeht, ähnelt sich genau die frühen Tagen des dritten Reiches, ich meine Pressezensur und das Deklarieren gewisser Leute als Personæ non gratæ. Nachdem Himmler einmal in einer gewissen Kleinstadt eine Nazivortrag gehalten hat, gab es Leute dabei, die glaubten, die Rede hatte mit Hygiene zu tun, weil sie so oft von der Reinigung des Staates Warnung machte. It’s your duty to warn against the cleaning up of the state. There’s a lot more than cleanliness at stake. Maybe you in a group will be listened to. Bitte Fehler verzeihen.
I was a member of the first class to attend John Witherspoon. How like Princeton to remove the name of a patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence to replace it with that of an avowed communist.
I hope we can make the new History and Social Studies courses available to adults in the community as well! Bravo!
As a graduate of the PPS, I agree that our education in American History, Black History, and the History of Social Movements was grossly incomplete.
An impartial observer would conclude that our education system is designed to turn out two different classes of people with two different understandings of History! I had to go to college to learn about Social Movements, and I would have had to have been a History Major specializing in African American Studies to learn about most of the atrocities which have befallen black folks in these United States of America.
For instance, what happened in East St. Louis on July 7, 1907? It should be an infamous date in American History.
It’s time to “tell the children the truth,” to quote Bob Marley.
Correction – July 7, 1917, not 1907
Why should we name schools after anyone? Let’s have Princeton Middle School, just like the high school. Every person has their failings and different people will object to them. Then we won’t have any controversy. Let’s not use the schools and their names for political purposes.
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