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Princeton's Involvement With Slavery


Princeton University, like many elite institutions, is grappling with how to understand and respond to its link to slavery. That undertaking led to the Princeton and Slavery Project, an ambitious research effort into the institution's racial history. This week, the project launched a new website that includes documents and stories from deep within the school's archives, stories about slave-owning university presidents, a mob of students who attacked a local African-American resident and pro-slavery commencement addresses. Princeton history professor Martha Sandweiss is the director of this project, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MARTHA SANDWEISS: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I suppose all American history is intertwined with slavery. But can you tell us about Princeton and its history with slavery?

SANDWEISS: Princeton University was founded in 1746, and it really doesn't come as a surprise that it, like virtually all 18th-century American institutions, should have a connection to slavery. Our first nine presidents owned slaves. Many of our founding trustees were slaveholders. Many of our early professors were slaveholders. But in the end, I don't think that makes us different than other early American universities. It makes us actually just like them. In our history, as in our nation's history, liberty and slavery have been intertwined from the very start.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many people might view this and think it's extraordinary that we're only now just in 2017 recognizing the impact of slavery on an institution like Princeton, which is, after all, an educational giant with many researchers. Why do you think that it's taken so long?

SANDWEISS: That's a good question, Lulu. You know, I think that the archives have been there from the beginning. Princeton University has extraordinarily rich archives. We're not the first people to look at these documents. But historical documents answer questions, but you have to pose the questions. And I think the questions that my students have been posing as part of their work on this project simply haven't been asked of these documents in the past.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are those questions?

SANDWEISS: Some of our questions are very basic. Were you a slaveholder? Did your money come from the labor of enslaved people? Many of the questions we're asking at our university are the same as the questions that people are asking at other universities. But I think we have one very special part of our story. That is that Princeton really was a very Southern school.

And it turns out that between 1790 and the outbreak of the Civil War, about 40 percent of our students came from the South. That's extraordinary. And there were some consequences of this very Southern orientation of our student body. There were some horrific acts of violence in our community in the 1830s and '40s as Southern boys raised in slaveholding families came to this town in New Jersey and encountered a free black community for the first time in their lives.

These Southern students were important to our school. Their tuition money was important. Keeping their parents happy was important. So the ethos on our campus was, let's just not talk about this stuff. Let's keep the peace.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, we are having a debate in this country right now about the legacy of the Civil War. And as a historian, I'd like your thoughts on how you resolve the tension between remembering and honoring.

SANDWEISS: That's an excellent question, and we're particularly challenged in this regard. On the Princeton campus, we have the only Civil War memorial in the world, as far as I know, that lists the names of students who died both for the Southern cause and the Northern cause but without indicating the side for which they died.

So the official Civil War memory as it was encoded on this campus was what we would call a reconciliationist memory. Each boy was equally right. Each boy was fighting for the side that he believed in. And it's a way of remembering the Civil War that completely erases slavery as the cause of the war and the great moral stake of that war. So this tension between remembering and commemorating is front and center in a monument on our own campus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so what are your thoughts on that tension?

SANDWEISS: (Laughter) I don't think we need to change our Civil War monument. I think it's an artifact of a particular historical time, and I think it's a wonderful starting point for a conversation about why Princeton chose to remember her alumni in that particular way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So just to sort of look at this big picture, Princeton could be seen as a microcosm of, as you mentioned, America's history and the difficulties that America's had writ large. But why are we having this conversation in 2017? Why is this still so unsettled?

SANDWEISS: I don't think we're still having this conversation now. I think we're finally having this conversation now. Whether we can ever find agreement or ever find resolution around these difficult questions I think remains to be seen. But unearthing these stories, making public these stories is absolutely the essential starting point for the conversations we need to have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martha Sandweiss is a professor of history at Princeton University. We talked with her about the school's new website, slavery.princeton.edu. Thank you so very much.

SANDWEISS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF B. FLEISCHMANN'S “BROKEN MONITORS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 11, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
In a previous correction, we erroneously clarified remarks from professor Martha Sandweiss to say that that the first nine U.S. presidents were not all known to own slaves. In fact, as can be drawn from context, Sandweiss was referring to the presidents of Princeton University — not the U.S. — the first nine of whom she says owned slaves.