Princeton school board rejects proposal to remove the name of John Witherspoon Middle School for now and will continue discussion on the issue

Elizabeth “Betsey” Stockton Middle School. Michelle Obama Middle School. Shirley Satterfield Middle School. Princeton Middle School. These are just some of the suggestions residents have proposed for renaming the John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, universities, colleges, and other institutions across the country have been removing from buildings the names of historical figures who supported slavery or promoted racism. Last month, Princeton University removed the name of Woodrow Wilson from its prominent school of public and international affairs and a residential college on the campus.

Many alumni of the Princeton Public Schools want to see the name of John Witherspoon removed from the middle school, and have circulated a petition calling on the school board to change the name and make other reforms. Witherspoon, a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, a president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves and opposed abolition in New Jersey. Some residents have suggested that his name be replaced with the name of another prominent resident, or that the school not be named after anyone.

At the school board’s virtual public meeting on Tuesday night, board member Deb Bronfeld proposed that the board remove Witherspoon’s name from the school by the end of the year. She said the board could decide on a new name in the coming months with the public’s help.

“As a board I feel we should make a statement that yes, we want to change the name. We want to remove John Witherspoon from our middle school,” Bronfeld said. “I wanted to make a statement that we are going to take action.”

The board voted 6-2 against her proposal. Bronfeld and board member Dan Dart were the only two to vote to change the name. Board member Dafna Kendal supports the name change but abstained because she wanted more information. She asked a question but the board had already decided to end the discussion.

School board members Beth Behrend, Brian MacDonald, Betsy Baglio, Michele Tuck Ponder, Susan Kanter, and Jessica Deutsch voted against the name change. Some board members said they didn’t want to rush a change or decision.

“I appreciate my colleague’s attempt to get us to act or commit to act. I struggle with this whole name change because we can change the name or remove it from the middle school,” Ponder said. “We can’t remove it from Witherspoon Street. We can’t remove it from the John Witherspoon neighborhood. We can’t remove it from the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church. There is a history associated with why that school is named John Witherspoon Middle School. There was a school named Witherspoon School for Colored Children.”

Ponder said changing the name would be an empty gesture without other changes. “I’m not ready without hearing from a lot more people — and we heard from a lot of people at that policy meeting — but for me, if we are going to change the name and the school still fails the kids that are supposed to be harmed by that name, the harm is greater than the name. The harm is in our inability to offer kids an equal opportunity to excel in our school,” Ponder said.

More than 150 people attended an 8 a.m. school board policy meeting the previous week to discuss the name change issue. People also brought up the issue and the petition and a previous school board meeting earlier this month. Most of the speakers spoke in favor of changing the name and made suggestions for other school names.

Local historian Shirley Satterfield, an expert in the history of the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood, suggested at the meeting that the school be renamed in honor of Elizabeth Betsey Stockton, who was born into slavery but later became an influential educator and missionary. For three decades, Stockton taught at various schools in the Black communities surrounding Princeton. In 1848, she helped found the first African American Presbyterian Church in Princeton, which eventually became the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Stockton later established a night school called the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, and persuaded seminary students to teach at the school.

Behrend said Tuesday night thatthe board wants to hear from more people before contemplating a name change. “I feel like we are still in the middle of a process that is a great one. I just don’t feel quite ready that we decide something before we finish hearing from everyone,” Behrend said.

Deutsch and other board members also said the district should hear more from other residents and students. “We share the sense of urgency and the opportunity for this to be a meaningful learning opportunity for kids to be a part of the process with us,” Deutsch said.

Bronfeld said she felt the board was missing the point. “I want us to have maybe three more nights, and meet with the students and the community. We need more of that,” Bronfeld said. “What I want to do is make a statement on what the board feels with this name. This is nothing to do with how long it is going to take us to come up with a new name. If the town wants to change the name of Witherspoon Street, that is up to them. The school falls under us, and I feel that this is the time for us today that yes, we want to change the name. I’m not saying what the new name is.”

Tuck Ponder then called the question. The interim superintendent then said when the school board does change the name, the district will have to have a new name selected to provide to state officials.

Dart said the resolution could have a time frame for the change, for example by the end of the year or within six months. He said the resolution could indicate that the board is committed to removing the name.

Kendal said it might be appropriate for Princeton Public Schools alumni who signed a petition calling on the board to change the name to attend the next meeting and to approve the resolution then.

Tuck Ponder repeated that she had called the question.

Peter Katz, the representative from Cranbury and the new head of the school board’s policy committee that develops policies for all schools in the district, can only vote on issues related to the high school and had to abstain from the vote. But he still commented on the name change issue and questioned what the point of voting was that night if discussions would still be taking place with the community in the future.

Bronfeld said the school board should take swift action instead of just discussing it. She noted that Princeton University took action on a name change last month.

MacDonald said the board should be cautious when referencing the university when they are not present to speak for themselves. “They removed the name of Woodrow Wilson on a school of public policy. They left it in other places. They are leaving the names of all of the other slaveholders as of now, and have no process, to the best of my knowledge, of looking at those. So if we are following the university’s lead, we would be leaving the Witherspoon name. I would suggest that this is a time for us to do what is right for us…We can’t say that we are doing this because the university did something that in fact was very different.”

Bronfeld said she was only citing the university as an example that there is a movement. “I want to get out there and say yes, to show the public where we are going — a deliverable, an action. I was using the university as an example of change.”

Baglio suggested that instead of voting to remove the change, that the board resolve to “enthusiastically engage” in the process of considering renaming the middle school.

Tuck Ponder called the question and MacDonald seconded the motion. The board then voted against the resolution to remove the name.

At the urging of Kendal for a concrete date to discuss the issue again, the board’s equity committee will welcome comments on the name change issue at the committee’s 7 p.m. meeting on Aug. 10.


  1. Go, Deb, Dan, Dafna, even Betsey for her “re-examination”. True, it’s not just the name that matters. But it’s part of genuine action. A pity to specialize in non-action.

  2. Such an odd action to force a vote when the board is in the midst of gathering input from the community in an open and inclusive way. The first public session was rich with feedback (the majority supporting a name change). Regarding Princeton University, the school established a “Wilson Legacy Review Committee” that met for months in 2015 before rejecting the name change. When they moved swiftly this year they at least had the benefit of that past process to inform today’s decision. Let everyone’s voice be heard and then make a thoughtful decision. Sounds like a good process to me, not “non-action.”

    1. Ted, Why do they have to have a billion meetings and talk about it so much?
      Why do you support this as a white man in America?

      It is worth also really teaching an reteaching the history.

      Witherspoon was a slave owner. He clearly voted against abolition. His public position was that abolition of slavery should not happen. He willed his slaves, his human property to his children. This seems indisputable.
      Princeton University has been successful in large part bc of its history of educating the children of slave owners.
      Slavery was a huge part of the economy in Princeton, NJ and that was not the case everywhere to the same degree it was in Princeton, NJ in 18th C U.S.
      Slavery existed in Princeton just as it did in the South, how many children in our community actually know that…
      The PPS have really poor statistics on equity when it comes to race and ethnicity. The legacy of educating slaveowners that is Princeton U permeates the community and the country, and when one goes back and reads the history and looks at this, it is pretty eye-opening to really think about how obvious and deep these connections between you Ted, and our history run… They should have voted to remove the name quickly and used this as an opportunity to educate ether community about who Witherspoon was, why he was important… and why his name cannot be any longer on the Middle School building. The school could be just called Princeton Middle School. It doesn’t have to be named after anyone and certainly not a slaveowner who was against abolition. White men run too many meetings and there is too much of these euphemisms for your power Ted over us all that don’t really address the fundamental facts of the issue, the fundamental history and present …
      They should have voted to remove the JW name.
      And they should be clear why they voted no if they voted no. As in, well I would like to be sure about the new name first. Indecision and running meetings is not like a skill into and unto itself and yet it is what most white men seem to get credit for in our society still…

  3. @Ted – I agree. I watched first part of the meeting live and the rest via the recording. What I observed re this motion was most members trying to reconcile making such a concrete statement without specifics re the what, how, when etc. I perceived this as responsible on their parts. I think even the most action-oriented organization, work team, person would want to have additional, more specific actions to accompany such a dramatic statement about an issue when the process for discussing is underway and gaining positive traction. This headline reads like a flat-out rejection of changing the name which is not at all the case. At first I thought tossing out such a significant motion at the tail-end of a meeting was just impulsive and not thought out. This coverage honestly makes it seem in hindsight like a bizarre, squeeze-play type of set-up.

  4. For full transparency, I, Debbie Bronfeld, emailed the entire Board of Education and the Interim Superintendent over 24 hours prior to our board meeting on 7/28/20. (actual email time stamped 4:04 pm on 7/27/20) In my email I shared that under new business on the agenda (P. Closing Discussion/Comments of the Board) I would be proposing a resolution. My exact email to my fellow board members and our interim Superintendent was: A resolution to remove the name of John Witherspoon from our middle school ASAP. I will not be suggesting a new name, a new name is a community responsibility. Fairfax County, Virginia the eleventh-largest school district in the U.S. proposed a resolution to remove a Confederate general’s name from its high school in February 2020, they just renamed their school last week. I did not receive any comments from my fellow board members that I should NOT present this resolution. I followed our board rules by having no “surprises” at board meetings and by letting my fellow board members know “exactly” what I planned to do. NO SURPRISES. FULL TRANSPARENCY to the full board.

  5. I, along with other board members, received Debbie’s email a day in advance. I supported her proposed resolution in advance and also agreed to second her motion to introduce the resolution, required under Robert’s Rules of Order. I admire her courage, conviction and desire to take action after the open Policy Committee meeting with the public demonstrated broad and deep support to change the name of our middle school for the benefit of all students.

  6. Just so everyone is clear, buildings can no longer be named after individuals.

    Policy. File Code: 7550

    While certain facilities may be named after individuals or institutions whose service to, or support of the district and to the community have been significant, school buildings themselves, subsequent to the date of this policy, shall not be named after individual persons.

  7. This is all so woke. Why not spend time working on how to get the kids educated and teachers paid, while statistically-irrelevant risks force your staff into hair-on-fire panic?

  8. @Debbie – First, I’m writing as an individual and not on behalf of the Board. Second, with all due respect, I believe that it’s important that we are transparent with the Princeton community. When you write that, “I did not receive any comments from my fellow board members that I should NOT present this resolution,” you are not letting the public know that I emailed you three times prior to the July 28th Board meeting regarding your proposed resolution. Those emails were sent at 5:57 pm and 10:22 pm on July 27th and at 3:36 pm on July 28th.

    I thought these were cordial and respectful exchanges in which I raised a number of questions and concerns about your resolution and explained why I could not support it, although I support removing the JW name from our middle school. I’m posting content from my emails to you to make sure that the public is provided with the full context around the Board’s discussion and this particular vote about the John Witherspoon name.

    In my first email, I wrote the following: “In terms of the resolution to rename JW, I have one question and one concern. The question is whether the laws of NJ permit us to remove a name prior to having a new one. I think Barry suggested that this might not work in NJ. This would seem to be a question for counsel that could be answered prior to the meeting.” I continued,

    “The concern is that I was asked in advance by members of the public who could not attend the Policy Committee meeting whether there would be another opportunity for public comment. Apparently several members of the public made this same request and my understanding was that the Policy Committee decided that they would schedule at least one additional meeting to get more input from the public and that’s what I conveyed to the people who asked me. So, while I’m highly inclined to support the removal of the name, I would not be able to support it at this meeting.

    In my third email, I wrote: “I still have concerns about acting before we have more community input…” and later in the email, “I don’t sense any Board support for leaving the name, but I think the question of what process and timing best serves our mission is a legitimate one.” Later, I continued, “For me, the message that I’d like to convey is that we agree that while JW made numerous important contributions to the University, the Town and the Country, for which he has a permanent place in history, the fact that he owned slaves no longer makes him an appropriate symbol of the values and aspirations we have for our schools and our school children.”

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