Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70
Office of Communications
June 6, 2007:
Carl Fields came to Princeton
Behind the scenes,
three men played key roles in his becoming a dean
By Gregg Lange '70
Five days before Paul Robeson, the only black student
at Rutgers University, delivered his 1919 valedictory address, Carl
Fields was born. The chance of a black person of his generation
becoming a dean at Princeton University was no better than becoming
a U.S. senator, possibly less. When you add in personal animosity
– his cousin transferred to Princeton from Ohio State in the
1930s and was rejected immediately when it was discovered he was
black – it’s completely unbelievable. Three Princetonians
played important roles in making it happen.
Curiously, the first was Bill Bonthron ’34,
one of the great milers in the world in his time, whose demeanor
Fields greatly admired, being a track star himself. In the aftermath
of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Fields
was the first black student to be offered an athletic scholarship
at St. John’s, and the first to be captain of an athletic
team there. By the time he graduated in 1942, he was used to standing
The second was W. Bradford Craig ’38, a World
War II hero. He took President Bob Goheen ’40 *48’s
challenge and led – from the unlikely position of director
of student aid – the 1964 effort to increase and stabilize
the minute black student population at Princeton. Those approached
often wouldn’t apply, those admitted often did not come, those
who came often did not stay. Craig’s solution was to recruit
a highly skeptical Carl Fields from New York to be Princeton’s
first black administrator. When Fields finally relented and began
his work in the financial aid office, there were a grand total of
12 black undergraduate and graduate students on the campus, eight
of whom were new freshmen. They became his test lab.
The third key person was Dean of the Faculty J. Douglas
Brown ’19 *28, Robeson’s high school friend from Somerville.
He was now the ultimate Princeton power insider, having held his
post for almost 20 years (since even before Goheen got his Ph.D.),
with important achievements going back to 1946, when he spearheaded
the University’s bicentennial celebration. He would go on
to be the first provost under Goheen. When Fields made his big case,
the arbiter in the room, providentially, was Doug Brown.
Fields had quickly realized that the existing University
support structure was inadequate to the challenges of being a black
Princetonian in such an extreme minority; as a classmate of mine
notes, his Keyceptor was a great guy, but had no idea where a black
man could even get a haircut. Fields’ solution was to align
each of the students with a black sponsor family from the local
community, and he pitched this idea to an administrative committee
that bordered on becoming belligerent until Brown stepped in and,
in essence, approved it unilaterally. There’s no indication
that Fields ever knew of Brown’s close friendship with Robeson,
but that decision was monumental in making black students feel welcome
in Princeton, and in keeping Fields, too; if rebuffed, he would
have quit then and there.
The acid test of his efforts came 40 years ago, on
May 11, 1967. George Corley Wallace, presumed presidential candidate
and white supremacist, was asked to speak in Dillon Gym by Whig-Clio.
White student radicals, seeing an opportunity to gain credibility,
tried to get black student leaders to align with them in disruptive
protest. Fields, a veteran of Urban League activism, counseled reserve.
The black students, virtually to a man (there were by now 41undergrads),
distributed their own leaflets to the strains of freedom songs and
Frederick Douglass quotations in Dillon courtyard beforehand, then
sat up front in the gym for the speech. When Wallace began to belittle
“nigras” halfway through his address, they simply stood
up silently and walked out, averting the type of obstreperous confrontation
he sought for publicity’s sake. The passive-resistance display
created a sensation on the campus and beyond (who WERE all those
people?), and the black student presence at Princeton was instantly
established and defined.
A year later, the Association of Black Collegians
was up and running, Jewish students had approached Fields (to his
astonishment) about helping them form a student group, and the same
restlessness and curiosity that had gotten him to come to Princeton
in the first place was nagging him to leave for new challenges.
On hearing this, an alarmed Brad Craig confronted Goheen and Dean
of the College Edward Sullivan, and they almost instantaneously
created for Fields a position as assistant dean of the college.
Then Goheen added the chairmanship of the new University Human Relations
Committee, giving Fields a place on the senior Administrative Policy
Board – a seat at the table. He accepted this validation of
his efforts, and became the senior ranking black administrator and
first black dean in the Ivy League – ever.
And all eight black men who matriculated with the
Class of 1968 graduated with their class.
Three very lively years later, Fields was off anyway,
this time to the equally challenging and offbeat role of a lone
American administrator at the University of Zambia. Before he left,
one of his last initiatives at Princeton created the Third World
Center. In 2002, it was renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality
and Understanding. If you want an idea-packed adventure, read his
book Black in Two Worlds about his times in Princeton and
Africa and consider: Carl Fields was all about understanding.
This year, on Feb. 25 at the Fields Center, Princeton
honored 10 of Carl’s sponsor families from town who generously
helped those young Princetonians with haircut advice and Sunday
dinners so many years ago. Bob Goheen began the proceedings, as
he had begun the transformation of Princeton then. Along with the
families, the late Brad Craig and Bill Bonthron were there in spirit.
So were the late Doug Brown and his “warm and loyal friend”
Paul Robeson, who left 110 Witherspoon St. for the wider world one
hundred years before.
Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni
Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer,
and a trustee of WPRB radio.