Princeton Middle School will be the new name of the school on Walnut Lane that was formerly the John Witherspoon Middle School. The temporary name since August of 2020 has been the Princeton Unified Middle School.
Last summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew stronger in the area, a group led by Geoffrey Allen, a Black alumnus of the school district, called on the school board to change the name of the school because of John Witherspoon’s legacy as a slave-owning, anti-abolitionist.
During the academic year, students at the middle school researched potential alternative names for the school and voted on their favorites, which included the names of local and national figures, as well as non-person names. The finalists were: Albert Einstein Middle School, Elizabeth Stockton Middle School, John Lewis Middle School, Michelle Obama Middle School, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation Middle School, Paul Robeson Middle School, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Middle School, Shirley Satterfield Middle School, Princeton Community School, and Walnut Lane Middle School.
Last month, middle school principal Jason Burr recommended to the board of education that a non-person name be chosen for the school. Students and staff voted on five non-person names using a ranked voting system. “Princeton Middle School” received more votes from students than other top contenders like “Princeton Community Middle School” and “Walnut Lane Middle School.” Local and national figures who were considered for the school renaming will be honored with a permanent display in a hallway at the school.
The school board voted 8-1 Tuesday night for the name “Princeton Middle School.” A few hours prior to the actual vote, the board issued a press release about the name selection meeting, including a note that the name would probably be Princeton Middle School.
During the meeting, board Member Dan Dart cast the lone “no” vote for the name, noting that staff members voted for Princeton Community Middle School as their top choice. “I think we should go with the staff choice at the middle school level,” Dart said.
Board member Dafna Kendal said Princeton Middle School was “the most common sense” name. “My concern was always how the kids felt about it,” she said.
Before the vote, some residents urged the board to reconsider naming the school after local resident Shirley Satterfield, and questioned the naming process.
“What happened to the vote put to residents when Shirley won the vote? The board should understand the decision not to accept the vote from residents, and understand how it feels to Black citizens of Princeton, whose input and will were so easily set aside by a board that lacks diversity,” said Satterfield’s daughter, Dawn Collins, who accused the school board of making an offensive decision and inflicting more trauma on Black residents by ignoring their voices, when the point of the renaming was to cure the trauma caused by the former name. “The dismissal of the vote (for Satterfield) is a local manifestation of what we are seeing on the national scale,” Collins said. “A free and fair vote citizens of Princeton – usurping that for a neutral name instead – is unfortunate and disappointing.”
Board President Beth Behrend asked Superintendent Barry Galasso to correct the information in the statement by Collins.
“It was not a vote by the community, it was a poll by the community,” Galasso said. “The leading vote getter from the poll from community was a non-specific name, thirty-some percent.”
Resident Andreas Winawer-Wetzel said there was a campaign for Satterfield in the community and people wanted the school renamed for someone significant in the community who is Black. “A picture in the hall is not the same at all,” he said.
Resident Hinda Winawer questioned why the school board didn’t go with just naming the school after a human, and why naming the school after a person wasn’t an option presented last month again. “Quite frankly, it does feel a little like Princeton is whitewashing history like the rest of our country,” she said, calling the decision profoundly and grievously disappointing.
The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, said about 60 percent of the people he talked with on in the neighborhood knew Satterfield and supported the idea of naming the school after her. He said naming the school after Satterfield would have been a wise and moral decision. Mjumbe was cut off by school board member Jean Durbin, who was keeping time and limiting speakers to three minutes.
Resident Jennifer Cohan called a presentation about the naming the previous month a sham, and said the district was not acknowledging that the movement to change the name was started by a Black mother and a white Jewish mother. She also accused the district of ignoring Black residents “historically and in the present.” She said the multiracial coalition that signed a petition calling for the name to be changed didn’t want a generic name for the school. “You’re not listening to Black Princeton residents,” she said. She also chided Durbin for cutting people off.
Behrend said the school board has been talking about the renaming for almost a year, and that it was time to take a vote.
Burr joined the Zoom meeting during the discussion and said the non-person choice was the winner in the student vote, as well as the staff and community polls. He said kids also ranked John Lewis very highly and Shirley Satterfield received 19 percent of the votes for a person. “The thing I resonated on – there were people who spoke strongly for different individuals,” Burr said. “Then this voice was asking, maybe we don’t pick a specific person.”