Letters: Rename middle school after local Black educator

To the members of Princeton Public Schools Board of Education:

As faith leaders, we believe that the names of our schools should speak to the best of where we have been and who we are, and inspire us to what we seek to become. We were encouraged when in 2020 the Princeton Public Schools decided to listen to the principled appeals of justice-loving communities in Princeton and remove the name of “John Witherspoon” from our local middle school as a remnant of a legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and racial injustice. We were also encouraged when the leadership of our public schools wisely decided to give the community at large (students and community) the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process for the renaming of the middle school. Democratic decision-making is a hallmark of so many of our healthiest communities and best practices.

However, we were deeply discouraged when we learned of the decision to discount the indisputable choice made by the people of Princeton and attach a “non-specific name” to the middle school. Shirley Satterfield received the highest number of votes (19.3%) from the list of the final nine specific candidates offered through a process designed and managed by the board.

The people have spoken with wisdom and clarity. It is disingenuous to ignore the original call for racial justice that led to the name change as well as the clear choice of a living, African American woman and educator by the broader community by generically renaming our school, “Princeton Middle School.” We urge you to listen to the voice of the people of Princeton, honor the local legacy of leadership of the African American community, and vote to rename our local middle school “Shirley Satterfield Middle School.”

Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia
The Presbytery of Central NJ

Reverend Dr. Darrell Armstrong
Shiloh Baptist Church
Trenton, NJ

Reverend Deborah Blanks
Mount Pisgah A.M.E.
Princeton, NJ

Reverend Charles Boyer
Greater Mount Zion A.M.E.
Trenton, NJ

Reverend Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd
Princeton, NJ

Reverend Dr. Dave Davis
Nassau Presbyterian Church
Princeton, NJ

Reverend Sharyl Dixon
Kingston Presbyterian Church
Kingston, NJ

Reverend Karen Hernandez-Granzen
Princeton Civil Rights Commission
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Trenton, NJ

Reverend Paul Jeanes
Trinity Episcopal Church
Princeton, NJ

Dean Rene John
Trinity Cathedral Episcopal Church
Trenton, NJ

Reverend James Klotz
Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton Theological Seminary
Slackwood Presbyterian Church
Lawrenceville, NJ

Tamisha Mills, Moderator
Candace T. Lovelace, Vice Moderator
Association of Black Seminarians
Princeton Theological Seminary

Reverend Lukata Mjumbe
Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church
Princeton, NJ

Reverend Len Scales
Nassau Presbyterian Church
Princeton, NJ

Reverend Gregory S. Smith
Second Calvary Baptist Church
Hopewell, NJ

Anna Stamborski
Anti-Racist Coalition
Princeton Theological Seminary

Reverend Dr. Mark L. Taylor
Princeton Theological Seminary, Faculty Member

Dr. Norbert Wetzel
Princeton Family Institute

Gender and Sexuality Association of Seminarians
Princeton Theological Seminary

En Conjunto
Princeton Theological Seminary

Episcopal Anglican Student Fellowship
Princeton Theological Seminary

Students for Peace & Justice
Princeton Theological Seminary

The Lutheran Group
Princeton Theological Seminary

Dr. Ruha Benjamin
Princeton University

Reverend Marcus Lambright
First Presbyterian Church of Trenton

Reverend Dr. Paul LaMontagne
Central Presbytery of NJ

Elder David Redmon
Westminster Foundation-Princeton Presbyterians

Editor’s note: Planet Princeton reached out to the school district for comment on Friday. A response was expected on Monday. A spokesperson for the school district said the school board will have a statement on Tuesday. The response will be added to this letter once it is provided.

The school board statement in response to the letter (the response was not signed by an individual school board member):

Middle School Statement

The Princeton Board of Education appreciates the involvement of our students, educators and local community members in the recent 10-month renaming process of the Princeton Middle School, which included an examination of the complexity of our community’s racial history and how we honor inspirational figures in our middle school spaces and facilities. This student-centered, educational process included classroom discussions, student presentations, multiple polls, public meetings, open committee meetings and several full board meetings with presentations (May 25) and opportunities for public comment.  More information is available on the PPS website.

The Board voted (with nine members voting yes and one voting no) on the name on June 15, 2021, based on data gathered during this process, as reflected in the administration’s recommendation. The Board chose “Princeton Middle School” and also directed: 

  • the honoring of leading persons in consideration by naming other hallways and other public spaces; 
  • the creation of a historical exhibit in the Learning Commons on the history and timeline of education in Princeton, including the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, and potentially honoring local figures such as Mrs. Shirley Satterfield and Ms. Betsy Stockton; and 
  • the installation of a marker on school grounds highlighting the name change. 

We are grateful for the engagement of the Princeton community in the middle school renaming process, as well as for the overwhelming support for our dedicated educators and staff as they have worked tirelessly to meet the many and varied needs of our students during the pandemic.  


  1. The process of renaming the middle school has been problematic on many levels. The students had made videos of the people nominated, citizens were invited to vote on the district website. Then the board, changed rules midstream and asked the students to vote, but not for the candidates that had been nominated. They were, instead, given the choice of “neutral” names like Princeton Middle School, and similar names-not Shirley Satterfield or John Lewis or RBG, or others that the students had researched and diligently presented in their videos. The board voted to name the school Princeton Middle School, a neutral name. The community had elected Shirley Satterfield, whose family has been in Princeton for several generations, a beloved educator and guidance counselor, an African American woman and active member of the Princeton Historical Society and Deacon in historic Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Ms. Satterfield is by far the most fitting individual to replace John Witherspoon, who had enslaved people, as the person for whom our middle School will be named. A neutral name obscures the truth of the process and of our history as a nation and a town. Let’s respect the democratic process and enact justice by naming the Shirley Satterfield Middle School!
    Respectfully submitted.
    Hinda Winawer, parent of four former Princeton Public Schools Students

  2. The Board made a wise decision. The problem with the community name survey was the same as with elections with multiple candidates. Even if the top choice gained 20% of the vote, the majority may still prefer not to have that choice. There needed to be fewer choices or a way to rank one’s vote.

    The controversy about which name to pick shows that it’s good to have no name chosen so that the focus of the schools is entirely on the students.

  3. I thought “John Witherspoon” was a decent name. It connected the school to the broader community historically. In 30 years people will reflect on this period and wonder why every naming decision was so racialized. Go with “Princeton Middle School” and move on.

  4. Presented to Princeton Council five years ago in anticipation of this sort of intellectual dishonesty:

    “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

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