June 7, 2006: Features
By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Princeton’s newest crop of undergraduates — the Class of 2010, which will enter in the fall — could well include a record number of minority students: According to the Prince, 37 percent of students who accepted Princeton’s offer of admission have minority backgrounds. Given the great effort spent on recruiting top candidates from all ethnic groups, it may be startling to learn that the student believed to be the University’s first regularly admitted black undergraduate arrived only in the fall of 1947, just months after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. The name of that student, all but forgotten now, was Joseph Ralph Moss ’51, though he endured the nickname “Peatmoss.” To everyone who knew him well, he was just “Pete.”
Moss, who died in 1984, was a private person who had little contact with his classmates after graduation; once-sharp memories of him have dulled. He was a “townie,” born in Princeton in 1930. His parents had moved north from Georgia around the time of World War I and settled on Quarry Street in an integrated neighborhood. Moss’ father, who died when he was 12, had an eighth-grade education and worked as a servant for Professor Edward Corwin, the constitutional scholar. Moss’ mother, Mary, had graduated from what is now Paine College in Georgia and worked for a local nursery school. She threw herself into community affairs; a small park on John Street, just a few blocks from campus, is named for her.
Though the neighborhood was integrated, the campus certainly was not. There is some debate as to whether one or two freed slaves studied at Princeton in the 18th century, but a color line was deeply drawn by the time of the Civil War. While many northern colleges admitted black students, albeit in small numbers, Princeton remained all-white at the undergraduate level, a fact perhaps best characterized by its Southern president, Woodrow Wilson 1879, who once advised a black prospective student that it would be “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter” Princeton. (Nevertheless, at least two black men received master’s degrees from Princeton during Wilson’s tenure as a faculty member and as University president.)
Wilson was succeeded as president by northerners, but still the color bar remained for undergraduates. In 1920, Dartmouth’s president, Ernest Martin Hopkins, summarized the state of racial enlightenment in what would come to be known as the Ivy League this way: “There are three attitudes among northern colleges which may be taken, one being that of Princeton, in which the color line is drawn with the utmost rigidity and the man is not even given access to the curriculum. ... The second attitude is that of Yale, which gives colored men admission but where it is definitely understood that the man shall be denied all the privileges of membership in the college except that of attending classes and receiving a diploma. The third attitude is that of Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell, and Pennsylvania, where the number of negroes who can qualify for admission to the college is an insignificant number of the total enrollment, and where the man who is enough an exception to the general standards of his race so that he can qualify for college membership ... is neither given less nor more consideration than he would have under other circumstances.”
For some Princeton students, World War II was a turning point, as The Daily Princetonian published a series of front-page editorials in 1942 calling on the University to admit African-Americans. “While the United States seeks to propagate ... confidence in America’s promises of universal freedom without discrimination because of race, color, or creed ... Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy,” the students scolded. But although a poll showed that the faculty approved of undergraduate integration by a 3-to-1 margin, only a bare majority of the undergraduates did.
The decision to admit the first black undergraduates was made for Princeton by the Navy, when in 1945 it sent four African-American officer candidates to campus as part of the V-12 training program. Two years later, one of them, John Leroy Howard ’47, became the first black student to earn a Princeton bachelor’s degree. But no African-American had yet been regularly admitted as an undergraduate by the University itself.
By the time Moss decided to apply to Princeton in 1947, the decision to admit black students seems to have been made, as his personal admission folder includes no discussion of his soon-to-be landmark status. Following a campus interview, an admission officer wrote: “Saw this boy and his mother, 2/20/47. Colored (light). A bit young-looking — pleasant. Mother seems to be very high-grade.” Beneath these notes, someone else wrote, “Give this boy every consideration. ... Will live at home to save money.” At a time when the campus was overwhelmed with returning servicemen and dorm space was sometimes scarce, it was not uncommon for students to live off-campus. But the expectation that Moss would not mix with white students in the dormitories, coupled with his light skin, may have made him a less obtrusive, and hence a more attractive, candidate.
The admission officer noted that Moss’ older brother, Simeon, was a student in Princeton’s graduate school — believed to be one of the first African-American graduate students in 40 years. (In a 1997 interview for an oral history project at Rutgers University, Simeon Moss *49 recalled his own admission to Princeton, under the G.I. Bill: “At that time, Princeton wasn’t too good about admitting blacks, either at the graduate level or at the undergraduate level, so I said, ‘I’m gonna try ’em out.’ I called them, I sent the stuff in, and the dean called me up a couple days later and said, ‘When do you want to start?’ So then I had to.”)
Joseph Ralph Moss, responding to a question on the admission application asking why he wanted to attend Princeton, wrote: “The fact that Princeton is one of the outstanding universities of the country and is located in my hometown is my reason for selecting Princeton as my college. I am sure that I shall be well qualified to secure employment in my field when I have completed a course at Princeton.” His high school principal noted that Moss was a good student, though “his father is dead and he has to work after school to aid the family financially.” He was “well-behaved and scholarly.” Asked on the recommendation form whether he had confidence in Moss’ integrity, the principal answered: “Entirely so.”
What changed Princeton’s policy on the admission of African-Americans — whether it was the altered nature of the postwar world, the precedent set by the V-12 students, or the simple untenability of its color line — is unclear. Minutes of Princeton’s admission committee from that era were damaged in a flood, and so the record is incomplete. A note in the December 1946 records suggests that officials were concerned about changes in state antidiscrimination laws. Then, in February 1948, the dean of admission reported on the outcome: He “spoke about the antidiscrimination laws covering college admission in New Jersey and pointed out the difficulties which these might cause the Committee on Admission.” (The New Jersey State Constitution was rewritten in 1947 and, for the first time, prohibited discrimination because of race, color, ancestry, or national origin.)
In a time before identity politics, Moss did not deliberately draw attention to himself as black. No one who knew Moss recalls any racial incidents — slights, passing remarks, or harassment — during his undergraduate years. Simeon Moss also does not recall any incidents directed either at his brother or himself, which he attributes to the large number of returning servicemen on campus, many of whom had seen more of life. “There was,” he says, “an egalitarian spirit at Princeton [then], despite what the newspapers said.”
According to Bob Brush ’51, the only flak Moss ever spoke of receiving came from some of his friends in town, who accused him of putting on airs by attending the University and trying to pass for white — a charge that Moss’ classmates discount. “He was a man who could pass, but he never played any games like that,” says Gus Brothman ’51. “He was who he was.”
Like many undergraduates, Moss participated in extracurricular activities — singing in the chapel choir and managing the freshman crew — but otherwise he stayed on the fringes of campus life. Occasionally, he served as substitute organist at a local Presbyterian church. In addition to the modest financial aid he received from the University ($300 per semester — half the total tuition in his freshman year), Moss worked part-time in the library and during the summers as a waiter at a camp.
Moss’ haven seems to have been his eating club. Prospect Club was founded in 1941 as a place for those who rejected the University’s more established eating clubs — or were rejected by them — or just wanted a cheaper place at which to take their meals.
“It was a haven for malcontents,” recalls Bill Davis ’51. “If you felt you were on the fringe at Princeton in those days, you’d find a welcome home at Prospect.” The club often held lively backyard volleyball games, which few remember Moss joining. After dinner, though, he would frequently join those gathered around the club’s TV set, one of the very early models, and watch John Cameron Swayze, Milton Berle, and the popular puppet show, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.
He became Prospect’s steward and, by virtue of being a club officer, was allowed to live there. His duties consisted of ordering the club’s groceries and serving as a liaison with its two hired cooks, both black. Friends recall some disputes when Moss, who was responsible for controlling costs, would remove a particular item from the menu and then have to withstand lobbying to have it reinstated.
Davis recalls Moss in these disputes as “quiet and firm. He was not fierce, but opinionated. When he decided something, that was it.”
“I think he was a very private person,” adds Ed Woolley ’51, Prospect’s president during Moss’ senior year, speculating that this may have been a defense mechanism to avoid drawing attention to himself in a somewhat alien setting.
Simeon Moss speaks similarly, recalling his brother as “quiet and sometimes kind of aloof. To my knowledge, he had a minimum of friends, though he was very close to the friends he had. He wasn’t a loner-type, but he stayed to himself quite a bit.” He was not a particularly distinguished scholar, though he achieved his goal of majoring in foreign languages and wrote his thesis on “Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, and Nature Poetry.”
After graduation, Moss and a group of Prospect friends drove west, stopping in Ohio and Colorado on their way to San Francisco. Though Simeon Moss says that his brother “was always very positive about everything he had to say about Princeton,” that was to be the last time most of his classmates saw him. Details about the remainder of Moss’ life come from Simeon.
He joined the Army during the Korean War, attended Officer Candidate School, and served overseas. He never married, but settled in California, where he taught foreign languages at a public high school in the Los Angeles suburbs and for many summers led groups of students to France. At one point, he also owned two laundromats, after taking a course in how to repair the machines. His admission was not a harbinger for Princeton, which continued to admit only a tiny number of blacks until the 1960s.
But the Mosses went on to become a multigenerational Princeton family, and a distinguished one at that. Simeon, a Rutgers graduate who received his Princeton master’s degree in history and a Silver Star for gallantry during World War II, became a leader in Princeton community affairs and helped organize the Princeton delegation to the March on Washington in 1963. He became an educator and public official, serving as New Jersey’s assistant commissioner of labor, as a top administrator in the Newark school district, and as the state’s first black county superintendent of schools, in West Essex. His daughter, Deborah, graduated from Princeton in 1987 and became a lawyer.
In a 1997 interview for a Rutgers oral history project, Moss speaks proudly of both his children (his son, Simeon Jr., went to Cornell) and recalls the family chain of Princeton alumni. “I was proud that [Deborah] went to Princeton because my brother had gone to Princeton years ago, too,” he told the Rutgers interviewers. “And he always talked about her succeeding him.”
Joseph Ralph Moss died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 54; his classmates don’t recall ever seeing him at Reunions or other campus events. His death was reported to Princeton by a colleague at work. A memorial did not appear in PAW until three years after his death.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.