Trustees name garden for Betsey Stockton, arch for Jimmy Johnson

April 17, 2018 10 a.m.

The Princeton University trustees have accepted recommendations to name a publicly accessible garden between Firestone Library and Nassau Street for Betsey Stockton and to name the easternmost arch in East Pyne Hall for James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson.

Stockton was a slave in the Maclean House home of Princeton President Ashbel Green who, upon gaining her freedom, became a missionary and then served the Princeton community as a founder of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and as a teacher and founder of the first school in Princeton for children of color. She is commemorated in a stained-glass window in the church that was presented by her former students.

Johnson was a fugitive slave from Maryland who worked on campus for more than 60 years, first as a janitor and then for many years as a vendor of fruits, candies and other snacks that he sold from a wheelbarrow. When he died in 1902, alumni and students purchased a headstone for him in Princeton cemetery, and inscribed an epitaph that described him as “the students friend.”

Artist's rendering of public garden near Firestone Plaza

This artist’s rendering shows the anticipated landscape of a public garden being constructed as a green roof covering a portion of Firestone Library between Firestone Plaza and Nassau Street. The garden will be named in honor of Betsey Stockton.

The recommendations were made by the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Committee on Naming, a committee of faculty, students, staff and alumni that is chaired by history professor Angela Creager. In seeking to “recognize individuals who would bring a more diverse presence to the campus,” the trustees asked the CPUC in September 2017 to establish such a committee to advise the trustees about honorific naming for spaces on campus that are referred to the committee by the trustees.

Last year the Naming Committee recommended naming Morrison Hall and Arthur Lewis Auditorium. A reception to celebrate the dedication of Lewis Auditorium, named for Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Sir Arthur Lewis (1915-1991), will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, in Robertson Hall. The University dedicated Morrison Hall, in honor of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, during a ceremony last November.

This year the trustees asked the committee to propose a name for a garden that is being constructed as a green roof covering a portion of Firestone Library, noting that the garden is in a location readily visible to the town. In referring the East Pyne arch, the trustees recognized its central location, noting that early in students’ time at Princeton, this is the first arch they pass through when they leave the chapel after Opening Exercises, and as they approach graduation, it is the first arch they pass through when they leave the chapel after the Baccalaureate service.

Betsey Stockton

This portrait (c. 1865) shows Betsey Stockton, who was born into slavery in Princeton. She was freed later in her life, becoming a missionary and then serving the Princeton community as a founder of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

Betsey Stockton

Stockton’s early years on the Princeton campus and her extraordinary impact on the Princeton community and beyond were recognized in the findings that were made public last fall by the Princeton and Slavery Project, a sweeping endeavor by Princeton scholars and students to explore the ties of early University trustees, presidents, faculty and students to the institution of slavery.

Betsey Stockton was born into slavery around 1798 in Princeton and given by her owner, Robert Stockton, to his daughter when she married the Rev. Ashbel Green, who became president of the college in 1812. Green freed Stockton several years later, and in 1822 she traveled to Hawaii as a missionary, where she established a school for native Hawaiian children.

In 1828 she relocated to Philadelphia and established a school for African American children. In 1833 she returned to Princeton, where she helped found and for almost 30 years taught in the sole Princeton public school for African American children. In 1840 she played a leading role in founding what is now Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and led its Sunday school.

An essay prepared in connection with the Princeton and Slavery Project reports that when she died in 1865, “her funeral brought together a considerable crowd of both races” and that then-President John Maclean Jr. conducted the service.

In recommending the garden be named for her, the Naming Committee said that “given the many lives she nurtured over the course of her courageous life, we believe it is fitting that she be commemorated in a garden that we hope will be a place of beauty and reflection for both town and gown. We believe it is also fitting that this garden be associated with the library in whose archives so many of the discoveries of the Princeton and Slavery Project were made.”

Students walking through East Pyne arch

A view from the East Pyne courtyard through the building’s eastern arch. The arch will be named in honor of James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson.

Jimmy Johnson

Johnson arrived in Princeton in 1839 and worked as a janitor until 1843, when he was recognized by a student who alerted his previous owner, who had him tried as a runaway slave. Following the trial, a local woman (a great-granddaughter of John Witherspoon and a granddaughter of Samuel Stanhope Smith, both Princeton presidents) paid about $500 for his freedom, and students of the college took up a collection that raised $100 to help him start a business. He opened a used clothing and furniture store on Witherspoon Street and obtained the right to sell snacks on campus.

According to an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “For some of the white students who encountered him, Johnson left a lasting impression as a font of humor and wisdom. … For many African Americans in Princeton, Johnson’s persistence and entrepreneurship served as a model for the development of businesses and social activities that provided them some measure of dignity and economic success…”

In recommending the arch be named for Johnson, the Naming Committee said “we believe his story should be brought to the attention of future generations of Princetonians by associating his name with an arch that looks out on the places where he befriended students and sold his wares, but also one that looks out at the statue of John Witherspoon, one of the first nine Princeton presidents, all of whom were slaveholders at one point in their lives. Johnson’s experiences with Princeton students, both being turned into authorities as a fugitive slave and being befriended and defended, reflect the complex history on our campus with African Americans and with the institution of slavery.”       

A photo exhibit about Johnson, sponsored by the Campus Iconography Committee, will be on display beginning the week of April 30 in the Frist Campus Center, with an opening ceremony scheduled for May 1. The exhibit will be free and open to the public.   

Jimmy Johnson selling fruits in front of Nassau Hall in 1881

James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson was a fugitive slave from Maryland who worked on the Princeton campus for more than 60 years, first as a janitor and then as a vendor of fruits, candies and other snacks that he sold from a wheelbarrow. He died in 1902.