Okay: So who owns Einstein? Maybe Hebrew University, through its zealous protection of its copyright of the great scientist’s name and image, owns a substantial portion of the legend that now remains of the man. Maybe the greater Princeton business community, by virtue of the Chamber of Commerce and its cooperating members applying the name “Einstein’s Alley” to their efforts, own a piece of Einstein.
And maybe the people of the John Witherspoon neighborhood — the longstanding black community just north of Princeton’s Palmer Square — own a little piece of Einstein, as well. That’s the premise, broadly speaking, of the new book from the Rutgers University Press entitled “Einstein on Race and Racism.” Despite Einstein’s love-hate attitude toward the established Princeton (“an atmosphere which could not be better or more harmonious,” he once wrote, but also “a ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts”), this new book contends that Einstein, the Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany, found true kindred spirits in the black residents still shackled by segregation and economic disadvantage just on the other side of town.
The authors, Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, who will appear at the Princeton Public Library on Sunday, September 18, at 2 p.m., dedicate their book “to the people of Witherspoon Street, yesterday and today.”
That’s an eye opening beginning to an eye-opening book. To fully appreciate it (if you are part of today’s mainstream Princeton) you have to roll with a few rhetorical punches. First you need to know that the precious little town in which we today celebrate so much multi-culturalism has not always been considered a rainbow of good will.
Jerome, a journalist who also wrote “The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist,” and Taylor, a librarian with the New York Public Library and the author of articles on early African-American New York, describe Princeton University up until the 1960s as the town’s “first fortress of segregation and racism.”
The authors document the ordeal of the young Bruce Wright (who later became the controversial New York City judge known as “cut ‘em loose, Bruce” for his allegedly soft treatment of criminals), a native of Princeton who was accepted with a full scholarship at Princeton University in 1936. But when he showed up, and the administrators realized he was black, his acceptance was rescinded. The bad news was delivered by the revered dean, Radcliffe Heermance, quoted by Wright in his memoirs as saying, “We did not know you were colored when the scholarship was arranged.”
In other words, right in the backyard of his newfound home, Einstein could find plenty of racism to ponder.
What’s surprising, say the authors, is that no one else to date has bothered to chronicle the great scientist’s views on those subjects. “More than 100 biographies and monographs about Albert Einstein have been published, yet not one of them mentions the name Paul Robeson, let alone Einstein’s friendship with him . . . Nowhere in all the ocean of published Einsteiniana . . . will one find even an islet of information about Einstein’s visits and ties to the people in Princeton’s African American community around the street called Witherspoon.”
“One explanation for this historical amnesia is that Einstein’s biographers and others who shape our official memories felt that some of his ‘controversial’ friends, such as Robeson . . . might somehow tarnish Einstein as an American icon. . .
“Yet, despite Einstein’s clear intention to make his politics public — especially his anti-lynching and other anti-racist activities — the history-molders have seemed embarrassed to do so. Or nervous. ‘I had to think about my Board,’ a museum curator (who doesn’t want his name used even today) stated, while explaining his omission of some of the scientist’s political statements from the major exhibition celebrating Einstein’s 100th birthday in 1979.”
Maybe. On the other hand, some of those curators and biographers might have had their hands and heads full trying to show and explain matters such as, well, the theory of relativity. (You want to know what E=MC2 means? Well give me a couple of years or a couple of beers and I’ll tell you.)
But Jerome and Taylor come to their mission with a different point of view. At one point in their research they assemble a group of longtime residents of the Witherspoon neighborhood and elicit their memories of Einstein. “He’d walk down Witherspoon Street mostly every day — as children we would run out — our parents told us he was famous,” recalled Eric Craig.
A more romantic view of Einstein’s presence was offered by another neighborhood resident, Rod Pannell: “He used to stand on the corner of Jackson and John streets. . . Sometimes he’d stand on that corner for quite a while, pondering the universe. He might have been thinking about the quantum theory of something like that. . . He was almost like a part of the community.”
Almost. For some other perspective on the Witherspoon community we can turn to the recently published book by Jack Washington, “The Long Journey Home,” previously discussed in this space (January 19, 2005). In my reading of that book, I lamented the fact that it put forth vast reams of information about the community without attempting to highlight some of the more dramatic moments. I wanted to hear the author’s point of view. Now, faced with a book with a very distinct viewpoint, I appreciated Washington’s straightforward presentation of the historical record. I checked his 433-page book: Not one mention of Einstein.
Nothing’s ever as black or white as we might remember it. Despite the portrayal of Princeton in the 1940s and 1950s as virtually a Jim Crow town, the authors of “Einstein on Race and Racism” show glimpses of that rainbow to which most Princetonians today subscribe. They tell the story of Harry Morton, an 11-year-old African American child at the time of Einstein’s death in 1955 and described then as Einstein’s “most constant friend.” The boy, it appears, would visit with Einstein frequently, joining him on his walks and even visiting him at his home. But Morton lived on Battle Road, a short distance from Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer.
An African-American in 1955 living on upscale Battle Road? It turns out that Morton, who died in 1992, was the son of a woman who worked as a live-in domestic for the director of the Institute for Advanced Study. So that young Harry could stay close to his mother, but also live in a household with children his own age, a family on Battle Road took him in for about four years.
Another shining light of multiculturalism is McCarter Theater. Somehow, despite its affiliation with the racist Princeton University, McCarter was able to invite such black luminaries as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. (When Anderson first came in 1937, the Nassau Inn was still “whites only,” according to Jerome and Taylor, and so Einstein invited her to stay at his house, and stayed there on her subsequent visits to town.)
McCarter also hosted Paul Robeson, by far the most controversial performing artist of the time. If this book’s attempt to make Einstein a part of the working class Witherspoon community appears a little contrived, that is not the case with its portrayal of the mutual respect felt by Einstein and Robeson. Einstein was an exile from his homeland, Nazi Germany; Robeson was about to become an exile from his homeland, the America of the red-baiting 1950s.
I have argued in this space that both Einstein and Robeson deserve a study center in town that would preserve the memories of these remarkable men and provide a place for visitors to consider these parts of Princeton history. After reading “Einstein on Race and Racism,” I realize that the two centers could easily fit under one roof.
Who owns Einstein? Maybe we all do.