Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70


Carl Fields

Office of Communications

June 6, 2007:
When 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 out.

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. P

Lange '70Gregg 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.