July 16, 2008: Sankofa:
Looking back as we move forward
By Robert J. Rivers
The following address by Robert J. Rivers Jr. '53, a former
Princeton trustee and a vascular surgeon, was given at the third
annual Pan-African Graduation June 1 in Richardson Auditorium.
It has been almost 60 years since my last opportunity to speak
at a graduation in Princeton. When I graduated from Princeton High
School, I spoke at the ceremony held in McCarter Theater. The personal
feelings of honor and privilege have never gone away.
Now, once again I am humbled and honored by an invitation to speak
at this very special ceremony. Graduation is an important rite of
passage that will take you into the future, and we pause this evening
to honor you and your successful pursuit of dreams at Princeton
University. Personal thoughts from the past magnify my congratulations.
My respect, admiration, and congratulations also go to your family,
friends, mentors, and the distinguished Princeton faculty –
the believers who supported your successful journey. This evening
I will go back to a very different time to talk about people, events,
and my dreams.
Princeton is the place where I was born; the place I grew up.
Princeton University was a Southern school with strong Southern
social preferences. It just happened to be above the Mason-Dixon
Line. Important defining events took place at this University in
the 1940s during and after World War II, and the resulting changes
significantly and profoundly altered the course of history for African-American
students at Princeton University. This evening I would like to frame
those early changing times with a personal perspective. James Baldwin
said that "the great force of history comes from the fact that
we carry it within us," and this evening's presentation is
a small, but important, part of what I carry within me. It is what
I see when I look back to those years shortly before I became a
These events are framed by a deep and strong family history. Ancestral
generations, and a probable slave master, are buried a few miles
from here. My grandfather planted the original elm trees you see
lining Washington Road as you drive into Princeton. Aunts and an
uncle moving with the great migration began arriving at Princeton's
Infirmary in 1918, and they gave many, many years of loyal respected
service. My father worked for 43 years serving Princeton as a Tiger
Inn servant and University dormitory janitor. A loving mother became
a live-in maid for a Princeton professor's family. She died last
year at the age of 97 – after seeing four grandchildren graduate
from this University. My brother served Princeton as a varsity football
coach and head varsity baseball coach. Yes, my family has many very
personal stories to tell about the highs and lows at Princeton University,
but this evening my focus will be on those important defining events
in the 1940s.
In 1940, when I lived with my mother in the professor's house,
this University would not have been able to identify a single African-American
who ever received a baccalaureate degree from Princeton University.
John Chavis became the first enrolled African American in 1792,
and reliable sources have concluded that Robert Lincoln Poston was
student at this University in the early 1900s before he became
Marcus Garvey's secretary general. Princeton's total for 200 years?
Two undergraduates, and neither graduated.
The following is a quotation from The Daily Princetonian in 1942:
"While 13,000,000 Negro Americans look for signs of their
admission to a rightful place in American democracy, Princeton continues
its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted
to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory
more characteristic of our enemies." Frank Broderick '43
Princeton's comfortable Southern social traditions were interrupted
by World War II. Our nation and the University were forced to re-examine
fundamental human values. Frank Broderick, from New York City, Princeton
Class of 1943, challenged the humanity of Princeton University by
calling attention to Princeton, white supremacy, and Nazi racism
in the context of a war to protect democratic values. War disrupted
business as usual, and the voices for social justice were growing
louder. The voice of the campus was the Princetonian, and Frank
Broderick was the editor.
In 1942 Broderick and his coeditors published three very courageous
editorials entitled "White Supremacy at Princeton." Prior
to printing the editorials, Broderick interviewed Walter White,
the NAACP executive director, and Paul Robeson. The editorials attacked
the University's social and intellectual hypocrisy, and the campus
erupted with very emotional conflicting opinions.
A huge crowd attended a forum, and a panel debated "Should
Negroes be admitted to Princeton ?" The African-American press
ran front-page headlines. The Undergraduate Council voted against
admitting Negro students, and a minority but significant number
of the faculty agreed with the Council. Letters to the Prince opposed
African-American students on campus, three to one.
Princeton's president informed the board of trustees about the
matter at their next meeting, but no action was taken and no clear
sense of direction emerged. In 1942 the University's priorities
did not include admitting African-Americans.
During the controversy a 19-year-old young man from Princeton's
black community also submitted a letter to the Prince that was printed
on the front page. Andrew Hatcher introduced himself as "a
son of Old Nassau … a Negro youth whose choice of a college
was decidedly affected by racial barriers." His heartfelt moral
appeal asked Princeton to make the right decision by deciding to
admit Negro students. Andrew Hatcher did not benefit from Princeton's
academic excellence, but his talent was appreciated by others. He
became a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy during his campaign to
become president, and Andrew Hatcher was President Kennedy's first
official African-American appointment when he became associate White
House press secretary.
Frank Broderick's undergraduate years were interrupted by the
war. When he came back to Princeton after the war he was still deeply
committed to social justice, and he became the student director
of Princeton Summer Camp in 1946. The camp, in Blairstown, N.J.,
was run by Princeton University students with advisory support from
faculty and administration.
Although the camp for boys had been in operation for many years,
African-American youngsters always had been excluded. Frank Broderick
appealed to his University advisers to allow a small group of black
youngsters from town to attend the camp as a "social experiment,"
and the advisers agreed. I happened to be one of the eight youngsters
who arrived at the camp that sunny day in August. The camp's African-American
chef kept an eye on the situation, and anyone who seriously anticipated
trouble must have been relieved and surprised.
The "experiment" benefited all campers, and it resulted
in a very positive learning experience for Princeton students and
Princeton's administration. The experience also became a defining
moment for a 14-year-old African-American. I began to think seriously
about personal possibilities at Princeton University.
During his life after Princeton, Frank Broderick served as director
of the Peace Corps in Ghana, and later he became the first chancellor
of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The camp's chef, George
Reeves, also was a highly respected community leader. His son-in-law
in later years became the mayor of Princeton Township, and Mr. Reeves'
grandson, James Floyd, graduated from Princeton in 1969. Jim also
received an ABPA Alumni Service Award in 2003.
A series of organizational changes took place over the years that
eventually led to the present Princeton Blairstown Center. Many
of you, who are now about to graduate, probably received your introduction
to undergraduate life at an Outdoor Action program held at Princeton
Princeton's rigid position against African-American admissions
was forced to change in 1945, and the force for change came not
from within but from the U.S. Navy. During the war, in order to
increase the number of commissioned officers, federally funded V-12
college training programs were placed in colleges and universities
across the country.
Four highly qualified African-American students were assigned
to the program at Princeton. Princeton's admission officer was not
a significant factor in the selection of individual participants.
I was about to enter Princeton High School when they arrived,
and the entire African-American community was very excited. Three
of the students, Arthur Wilson, James Ward, and Melvin Murchison,
are remembered with pride by older members of today's African-American
community. Melvin Murchison did not graduate from Princeton, but
he remained long enough to become Princeton's first African-American
football player. Arthur "Pete" Wilson was captain of
the varsity basketball team for two seasons, and our community was
very impressed when he appeared in an exhibition game against a
local African-American team in the gym of "our school"
– Witherspoon School for the Colored. Jim Ward eventually
married the daughter of a local family, and he has repeatedly described
how important the African-American community was in helping him
deal with the University's very different social climate.
Twenty years later, Carl Fields also recognized the value of community
support, and he developed a program to introduce Princeton's students
to families in the African-American community. The program served
as a "home away from home," and it improved the social
experience of Princeton's African-American students.
The years immediately following World War II became a very important
chapter in the history of African-American education at Princeton
University. The three students remaining in the V- 12 Navy Program
graduated, and 1947 marked the first time ever that African-American
undergraduates received baccalaureate degrees from Princeton University.
John Howard received his degree first, on Feb. 5, 1947, and Howard
went on to enjoy a rewarding career as an orthopedic surgeon in
Los Angeles. Pete Wilson, the Princeton varsity basketball captain,
received his degree a few months later on June 9. He eventually
became a U.S. marshal in Illinois. James Ward received his degree
Oct. 1, and Ward went on to become legal counsel and investigator
for the Texas Commission on Human Rights.
I contacted Mel Murchison's wife a few years ago to learn more
about his life after Princeton. He majored in chemistry at Virginia
Union University in Richmond. Later, he graduated from Carnegie
Mellon University with a degree in metallurgical engineering, and
his career as an engineer eventually took him to the U.S. space
program in California.
Melvin Murchison participated in the development of the booster
for Apollo XI, which successfully orbited the moon. He died in 1993,
and his obituary remembered Princeton University. Princeton should
remember Mel Murchison.
The University's firm position against racial integration began
to soften after the war. Some of those returning white GIs who had
fought beside black comrades saw an even greater need for social
justice, and they established the Liberal Union in 1946. This student
organization invited Walter White, the NAACP's executive director;
Eleanor Roosevelt; and other speakers to the campus. I have never
forgotten the scene where Princeton students taunted and threw snowballs
at the NAACP executive director.
The first indication from Princeton expressing any interest in
admitting African-American students came in the spring of 1947.
Princeton's dean of students indicated that Princeton was evaluating
black students for possible admission, and the following fall Joseph
Ralph Moss, or Pete as I knew him, became the first African-American
undergraduate to be admitted by Princeton's admission process since
John Chavis and Robert Poston. Joseph Moss received his baccalaureate
degree in 1951. Moss also came from Princeton's African-American
community, and his graduation was a very significant milestone for
the University and the African-American community.
Two years later three more African-American students appeared
on Princeton's campus. In 1949 I filled out an application for one
college: Princeton University. Fortunately, and with divine help,
I was accepted. Two other African-American students also accepted
Princeton's offer. Grady Smith was an extraordinary young man. He
was born on a sharecropper farm in Alabama, and he migrated to New
Jersey with his family in 1939 to live in the tenement district
of Jersey City. Ten years later he entered Princeton University
with a four-year scholarship that paid all expenses. Royce Vaughn,
from Cleveland, Ohio, had been accepted by many schools, including
Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. He chose Princeton.
I have been asked many times "why Princeton," particularly
when there appeared to be so little University commitment. My Princeton
education actually began in the community long before I became a
Princeton undergraduate. Unpleasant social encounters resulting
from white privileges and preferences became a boot camp for survival.
The enriching part of my education came at Witherspoon School for
Colored Children – an excellent school made excellent by excellent
teachers and a nurturing environment. And the motivating experience
I enjoyed at Princeton Summer Camp was also very important.
But the times I spent cutting beans and dusting furniture in the
professor's house were also valuable experiences (the discipline
to do it right, and on time). The experiences I had as a youngster
working at the Prospect Avenue clubs also added to my Princeton
training: taking care of the coal furnace at Dial Lodge on Prospect
Avenue before I went to school in the morning; or working with my
brother at Tiger Inn, serving the turkey a la king before the football
games; or working as a bartender when I was still in high school.
I was not attracted to Princeton because of life in the eating clubs,
but the experience was part of my Princeton education. After I became
a Princeton student I was insulted without
apology by the bicker process, and I rarely returned to Prospect
Avenue even after I graduated. In fact, the traditional Princeton
eating clubs offered very little social comfort for most of Princeton's
early African-American undergraduates.
In 1949 I added these experiences to my dreams, and I chose Princeton.
The challenge was certainly exciting, but it was more about changing
times, and increasing optimism about access to opportunities for
African-Americans. And it was about pride. Paul Robeson, Jackie
Robinson, and Dr. Charles Drew were some of my heroes, and their
individual excellence stood tall against the racist rhetoric about
black inferiority. And the standards for acceptable legal and social
behavior finally were beginning to change. The social reality of
two separate worlds still existed, and I wanted to be well prepared
for opportunities in both worlds. Princeton barely had opened the
door, but I saw a chance to
benefit from Princeton's academic excellence. That, for me, was
the primary attraction. The social experience, although sometimes
unpleasant, also would prove to be a valuable learning experience.
When the three of us arrived on the Princeton campus in 1949,
things were very different. The different time is defined by tuition,
which amounted to a few hundred dollars each semester. We joined
a freshman class of approximately 700 young men, and the class,
without us, was essentially all white. Most came from prep schools,
and most were either
Episcopalian or Presbyterian. No African-American had ever held
a faculty position at Princeton, and there were none in 1949. And
there were no African-American administrators or coaches for the
athletic teams. Exclusion and conformity were important social values,
and the sensibilities of an African-American student – too
few to be visible – were rarely considered by administration
By the time I graduated in 1953, much of the joy we shared as
freshmen had disappeared. A few days after completing his freshman
year Grady Smith attended a picnic with former high school classmates,
and the joyful gathering became a shocking human tragedy. Grady
drowned in the Passaic River. I attended the funeral with great
sadness. Over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to his
funeral, including the governor of New Jersey. The governor recalled
his meeting with Grady when he was elected Boys State governor.
The governor and everyone present knew that we had lost a great
future leader. The pain, joy, and enormous frustration revealed
by Grady Smith's life still cloud my vision when I look back.
Royce Vaughn attended Princeton for four years, but he received
his baccalaureate degree from another institution. He has enjoyed
a very successful, fulfilling life as an artist and community organizer.
Royce has gained recognition for his California Collector's Series,
and he is CEO of Omni Business League in San Francisco. We remain
close friends, and he is a loyal member of our class.
If it had been possible in 1953, when I graduated, to look forward
into the future and see how Princeton would affect my life, I never
would have believed it. In 1953 the struggle was not over. I have
said before that I could not sing "best old place of all."
But 55 years later, I count my blessings because I have been richly
rewarded by unpredictable opportunities – and Princeton has
Therefore, before I close I must look back from this day with
humble respect to remember and celebrate the lives of President
Robert Goheen '40 *48, Dean Carl Fields, and Frank Broderick '43.
On the day I was born, no African-American or woman had ever received
a baccalaureate degree from Princeton University, and we were not
included in thoughts about "Princeton in the nation's service."
The courage and human
understanding of these three giants affected my life – and
your lives. And the quality of a Princeton education has been enriched
for all students.
In a few days you will join the growing thousands of African-Americans
who have graduated from Princeton University since those defining
events in the 1940s. The campus today and the celebration here this
evening reflect Princeton's new vision – and the triumph after
struggle is what I see as I look out over this wonderful audience.
My generation has been called the silent generation, but you are
about to join the global generation, and there are so many needs,
so many challenges, so many opportunities. James Baldwin also reminds
us that "history is … present in all that we do."
I would like to return one day to hear what you have within you.