University projects will explore 'overlooked' topics in Princeton's history

Projects examining slavery, civil rights and community activism in the 1960s, and the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, have received support from the Princeton Histories Fund. The fund fosters the exploration of "aspects of Princeton's history that have been forgotten, overlooked, subordinated or suppressed."

The fund was created last spring as part of recommendations of the Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson's Legacy. The goal is to encourage a deeper and more nuanced engagement with the University's history and to explore the legacies of that history at Princeton and beyond. Funds are available to faculty, staff and students to undertake an original research project and/or generate community conversations through public programming.

"Acknowledging our past represents a commitment to the University's core values of diversity and inclusion," Provost David S. Lee said. "The Princeton Histories Fund provides us with an opportunity to apply the strengths of Princeton scholarship to some of the most challenging aspects of our own history, and to do so in thoughtful ways that showcase rigorous research, critical thinking, creativity, and student and community engagement. Confronting the past will better prepare us to face the future. We look forward to supporting our faculty, staff and students as they examine the complexities of the University's history for the benefit of Princetonians and the broader community."

The first round of funding will support the following five projects.

Princeton and Slavery Project

During the past four years, Professor of History Martha Sandweiss has been investigating the University's links to the institution of slavery through the Princeton and Slavery Project. She teaches undergraduate courses about slavery, has partnered with Mudd Library to uncover relevant materials in the University Archives, and has led postdoctoral and graduate student research on the subject.

"In brief, we've learned that Princeton epitomizes the paradox at the heart of American history: it was a place where the rhetoric of liberty thrived alongside the practice of slavery," Sandweiss said in her proposal to the Princeton Histories Fund.

The University's first nine presidents owned slaves, though not all did during their tenures as president. And while students did not bring slaves to campus, a significant number of students during the University's first 120 years came from the South and many held anti-abolitionist views.

Sandweiss' work will culminate in fall 2017 with an academic symposium and the launch of the Princeton and Slavery Project website featuring online exhibits written by undergraduate and graduate students; documents from Mudd Library; interactive maps and charts; and short film clips produced by undergraduates. The project's findings also will be shared through public programming in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, Lewis Center for the Arts' Atelier program, the town of Princeton's public schools and McCarter Theatre Center.

The Princeton Histories Fund will help support the public programming, as well as ongoing scholarship about Princeton and slavery that will be updated on the project's website.

Princeton and slavery plays

As part of the Princeton and Slavery Project's community programs, McCarter Theatre has commissioned seven original, 10-minute plays based on the archival record of Princeton's history related to slavery. Public readings and discussions of the plays are scheduled for fall 2017, in conjunction with the launch of the Princeton and Slavery Project website. The histories fund will support the plays' commissioning.

McCarter's Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann will contribute one short play, as well as playwrights Nathan Alan Davis, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Dipika Guha, Class of 2006 graduate Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Regina Taylor.

"All of us at McCarter are honored to play a part in bringing the Princeton and Slavery Project to life," McCarter Theatre Literary Director Emilia LaPenta said. "The years of research conducted by the project's founders will shed new light on Princeton's unique place in history, and McCarter's resources with regards to new play development will find engaging ways to share these stories with the community."

Case study of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

The histories fund also will support the scholarship of Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English, regarding Princeton's curriculum in the 19th century and slavery. His research will focus on the classicist Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, who graduated from Princeton in 1849 and later served in the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War.

Gildersleeve was a well-known classicist who taught at the University of Virginia and founded the graduate program in Greek at John Hopkins University. He also was a supporter of slavery. Gikandi will examine Gildersleeve's life, as well as the proslavery clergy and scholars at Princeton in the 19th century when Gildersleeve was an undergraduate.

"How do we reconcile Gildersleeve's education in the best tradition of what we now call the humanities and his commitment to slavery?" Gikandi said in his project proposal. "To what extent did his education provide the language and vocabulary through which the case for the enslavement of the African could be conducted? And what lessons can we now learn from our work as scholars caught between complicity and responsibility?"

Gikandi will address these questions by conducting a critical reading of the University's curriculum in the 19th century, with particular attention to Gildersleeve and his contemporaries. He said he is interested to understand how the Princeton undergraduate experience at the time may have "unwittingly created the grounds for the American proslavery ideology."

LGBTQIA oral histories

The Princeton LGBTQIA Oral History Project, which will launch summer 2017, is a partnership between the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Center; Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies; University Archives at Mudd Library; and the Bisexual, Transgender, Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association (BTGALA).

The histories fund will aid the collection of oral histories from nearly 100 Princeton alumni and former and current staff during the project's two-year pilot period. Undergraduate and graduate students will interview alumni and staff about their lives and being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) community at Princeton. The oral histories will gauge perceptions of the climate for LGBTQIA people at Princeton at different points of time.

"The audio and transcripts will be housed in the University Archives and online, and we hope will be accessed by current and future students and scholars to learn about the Princeton LGBTQIA community or to use in academic research," said Judy Jarvis, director of the LGBT Center.

The Trenton/Princeton Project

This project is a research, teaching and civic engagement collaboration among three Princeton faculty members focused on the intertwined Trenton-Princeton region in the 1960s. The project is led by Alison Isenberg, professor of history; Purcell Carson, documentary film specialist and lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; and Aaron Landsman, lecturer in the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Belknap Visiting Fellow in the Council of the Humanities.

The histories fund will support research that will ultimately result in oral histories, a documentary film, walking tours and community conversations. The project connects with the professors' respective classes, "Documentary Film and the City" taught by Isenberg and Carson, and the freshman seminar "Remapping Princeton" taught by Isenberg and Landsman.

"The Princeton Histories fund will allow us to get closer to realizing the ideal of a collaborative project that deeply engages students and faculty, as well as people in the Princeton and Trenton communities — an ideal that provides the most exciting, creative research opportunities for students and faculty but extends beyond the timeframe and format of [traditional] academic courses," Isenberg, Carson and Landsman wrote in their funding proposal.

The proposed documentary will highlight overlooked connections between the University and Trenton during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, including the April 1968 riot in Trenton. The film will feature Princeton alumni who worked as community activists in Trenton, as well as participants in a pilot "upward bound" program where high school students from Trenton and other New Jersey cities spent the summer of 1964 learning on Princeton's campus. The professors plan to debut the film during a public screening and discussion for the Princeton-Trenton community, and will develop curricula for educators to use the film in their classrooms.

In addition, Isenberg and Landsman's students will develop walking tours focused on the region's history in the 1960s, and the role that significant yet forgotten events, and overlooked campus and urban spaces, played during that time. Carson and Isenberg's students made micro-documentaries on Trenton in the 1960s, which will be screened at Artworks in Trenton on Jan. 24.

"Our ambition for all of these projects will be to make Princeton and Trenton history and archives a dramatic and living part of the public conversation," the professors said.