Illustration by Paul Zwolak

March 24, 2004: Perspective

When change began
After the war, a battle for Princeton

By John H. Bunzel ’46

John Bunzel ’46 is a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A former president of San Jose State University and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Bunzel has written or edited seven books, and for the past 10 years, has done a stand-up comedy monologue during Stanford’s reunion weekend.


I am not a believer in a Divine Presence, but I do believe in luck. Maybe they are one and the same. In June 1943, after leaving Princeton to enlist in the Army, I was about to be sent to the South Pacific and the war. Instead, my orders were changed, and I was transferred to a small unit that ended up in Anchorage.

I was the “kid” in the group. The members of my unit debated politics long into the night, and I know now that these friendly but intense arguments marked the beginning of a profound questioning of the views with which I had grown up. A year later our unit was transferred to Seattle, where I spent my free time at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, and discovered what it was like to mingle with people of all ages and backgrounds. It all made me realize how far I had come from my home, a comfortable, all-white, Republican neighborhood in New York City.

When I returned to Princeton with many veterans of World War II in 1946, the campus, like the rest of the country, was in transition. Looking back, it seems almost inevitable that the new intellectual and political climate would encourage us, as students, to try to expunge a long and poisonous chapter in the University’s otherwise remarkable history. We could not accept the idea that Princeton continued to exclude blacks.

We were not the first students who wanted Princeton to end its “whites-only” policy; in the early 1940s, Frank Broderick ’43, editor of the Daily Princetonian, compared the admission program to a “caste system that deifies the white man and condemns the black man to the indignities of segregation and discrimination.” The dean of admission, Radcliffe Heermance, dismissed the charge, insisting that race was never a factor. But his words belied his true feelings. In 1939 the dean had written to a black student who had hoped to go to Princeton, “I cannot conscientiously advise a colored student to apply to Princeton [where] there are no colored students and a member of your race might feel very much alone.” The campaign by Broderick and his fellow activists to integrate Princeton ended in October 1942, when the Undergraduate Council voted 7—6 against admitting blacks.

But after the war, the fight to end racism at Princeton began again, when a group of us formed the Liberal Union in the fall of 1946. Our platform was straightforward: We were opposed to racial and religious discrimination in any form. We believed opportunities for a Princeton education should be open to all who could meet the academic requirements. We wanted Princeton to reflect our nation’s deepest values – fairness and equality. We were heartened by a campus poll that showed 56 percent of the students agreed with our position. But we also knew that there were many Princeton undergraduates who disagreed.

One of the Liberal Union’s first decisions was to reach out to the large postwar group of older and more worldly students on campus, who, we felt, would be sympathetic to our cause. (That fall, there were almost 2,500 veterans on campus.) We won the support of prominent faculty members, and persuaded the Prince and PAW to print our platform calling for the admission of blacks. We sponsored open forums that brought national leaders such as N.A.A.C.P. Executive Director Walter White to speak. (Hecklers tried to shout White down when he spoke of the emerging “new Princeton.”) We engaged in letter-writing campaigns to spread our views and answer our critics, who were increasingly vocal and sometimes personally hostile. Students often shouted at me, across the quad: “Communist!” “Nigger lover!”

But the war had created a situation over which Heermance had no control. In June 1945 the U.S. Navy sent four black sailors to its officer-training program on campus, leaving the University with no choice but to allow the Navy men to continue their studies as civilians. It was my friendship with Arthur J. “Pete” Wilson Jr. ’48, who became captain of the basketball team, that helped me understand what it was like to be a black student in the years immediately after the war. I remember him telling me about the sense of isolation he and his Navy colleagues felt on campus, the kind of loneliness the rest of us would never know. I was not surprised to learn how they sought a “comfort zone” by reaching out to black residents in town. It drove home, for me, the difference between being “in” but not “of” the University community.

Early in 1947, the Liberal Union began what became a two-year effort to invite blacks and other minorities to apply for admission to Princeton. With the help of black and white educators and ministers, some alumni, and the United Negro College Fund, we wrote letters and made phone calls to more than 1,000 high schools, and 20 qualified candidates were found. What followed is etched in my memory. I received word that Dean Heermance wanted to see me. Visibly upset, he began by telling me he recently had a “pleasant” phone conversation with my father (Class of 1914) to see if he knew about his son’s activities and what a “small number of undergraduates were agitating for.” (My father, who strongly disapproved of my actions, had told me about the call.) The dean wanted to know if I had regretted returning to Princeton, since “we seem so offensive to you.” I replied that the Liberal Union’s concerns were specific and that we had a deep affection for the University. “Our doors are open,” Heermance said, “but in my years here, no black student has applied.” I responded that we simply were trying to let blacks know they would be welcome at Princeton. He reminded me that he was the dean of admission – not the Liberal Union.

In June 1949, President Dodds announced that Princeton had enrolled three black students in the September freshman class. The color barrier was gone, but only temporarily. What had started in the 1940s marked the beginning of the end of an era largely fallen from memory. It would be another 25 years, however, before Princeton would show the democratic face it does today.


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