Most everyone in Princeton knows Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe. It’s the little place next to the parking garage that specializes in Buffalo wings. On Super Bowl Sunday it totally sold out of its signature product and put up a “closed” sign on the door.
Not so many people in Princeton remember the predecessor to Chuck’s — Rosso’s Cafe. From pretty much the day that Prohibition ended in 1933 until the day that the founder’s son, Henry Rosso, sold the place in 1980, Rosso’s was one of just two or three true workingman’s bars in Princeton.
It was also one of the few places in town where blacks and whites hung out together. The oldtimers of both races would refer to it every so often — a mark of distinction, a point of pride. Henry Rosso didn’t drink much, but one night he got in his cups a little and began reminiscing about racial balance at his bar and compared it to Princeton of the 1930s and ‘40s. Back then the white kids swam in a segregated section of Carnegie Lake. One summer day, he recalled, he was swimming alone and began floundering in water over his head. Another kid came by — a black kid — and jumped into the restricted water to pull Rosso to safety.
The boy who saved him was by then a senior citizen and a regular at Rosso’s. He was there the night the story was told. “Do you remember that, Taylor?” Henry asked. “You could have left me to die, and nobody would have blamed you.” Rosso broke into tears as he told the story.
Taylor, whose last name I have forgotten, paused for a moment. “Henry, I just don’t remember it. I just don’t remember.”
That was 40 years ago or so. By then most vestiges of Jim Crow Princeton had ended or were fading into oblivion. Walking into Rosso’s as a 20-something in search of a cheap beer, a hamburger, and a television tuned to the baseball game, I found nothing remarkable in the racial mix of the Cheers-like clientele.
But just in the last month or so I have learned a lot more about Princeton in the 1930s and ‘40s. My mentor is an 80-something-year-old retired vascular surgeon named Robert J. Rivers Jr., who grew up in the black community during that era, became one of the first black undergraduates at Princeton University, went to Harvard Medical School, and later joined another black alumnus to become the first blacks on the Princeton University board of trustees.
Bob Rivers shares his story in a compelling memoir in the February issue of the Princeton Echo, a sister publication of U.S. 1. Despite all Rivers’s ultimate success, his recollections of Princeton — and Princeton University — in the Jim Crow era is not an entirely pretty picture.
I will share some of Rivers’s story, but first some background. Over the years U.S. 1 has printed a number of stories about “urban insertions” — post-modern residences sprouting up on sites where older and smaller traditional houses once stood. In 2008 we did a story on an urban insertion on Quarry Street, across the street from the home of Jim Floyd Jr., my classmate at Princeton, Class of 1969.
A few months ago Floyd noticed that another house in his neighborhood, at 21 Green Street, was boarded up and for sale — priced for the value of the land but not the structure on it. Floyd also had received an E-mail from Bob Rivers, a homeowner across the street from that property. Floyd shared with Rivers a 1914 photo from the Princeton Historical Society showing a very similar house in front of which were assembled a group of 30 people or so, with Booker T. Washington, then president of Tuskeegie Institute and the leading black spokesman of the day, sitting front and center.
The house about to be torn down may also have some historical significance — a point to appreciate given the current proposal to give historic designation to the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. (The proposal will be discussed at a town meeting Monday, February 22, at the municipal building at 400 Witherspoon Street.)
But my classmate Floyd, a psychologist who could have or should have been a journalist given his uncanny ability to connect dots that most of us never even see, introduced another dimension to this story. A few years ago Bob Rivers had given a graduation address to a group of black seniors at Princeton. Much of it had to do with Rivers’ childhood on Green Street, in the shadow of Princeton University and the central business district.
When I hear someone call for “historic designation” I first wonder what the history actually is. Sometimes the answer is just that the site being discussed is simply old. Other times there are some elements of historical significance involved. Rivers’s story mentions Paul Robeson, of course, and includes several other historic points.
I was amazed to discover, for example, that Princeton’s public school system was segregated until 1948. As Rivers writes, “I had entered Princeton High School from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, then located on Quarry Street. It was not integrated until 1948, but we felt that the school was the equal of the white school. I did not feel I was behind in any way.”
In 1949 Rivers boldly applied for admission to only one college: Princeton. By then a few Princeton undergraduates had recognized the unfairness of the college’s admission policies. “Princeton’s comfortable Southern social traditions were interrupted by World War II,” Rivers wrote. “Our nation and the university were forced to re-examine fundamental human values. Frank Broderick, Princeton Class of 1943 [and the editor of the Daily Princetonian], 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.”
Broderick (a predecessor of mine in the editor’s role at the student newspaper, I am now proud to say), prompted a campus-wide controversy. Amazingly the Undergraduate Council voted against admitting blacks. A significant minority of the faculty voted against black undergraduates.
Another young man from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood weighed in. In a letter to the Daily Princetonian that was printed on the front page, Andrew Hatcher introduced himself, Rivers wrote, “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.”
Rivers noted that Hatcher “did not benefit from Princeton’s academic excellence, but his talent was appreciated by others. He became a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, and Andrew Hatcher was President Kennedy’s first official African-American appointment when he became associate White House press secretary.”
Bob Rivers is now living in Williamsburg, Virginia, but he and his wife, Ruth, plan to return to the family home on Green Street. You can find out more about Rivers’ story in the February issue of the Princeton Echo (available in news boxes on Nassau Street, as well as online at www.mercerspace.com/features/growing-up-in-a-neighborhood-where-history-matters-2/ ). I am hoping to learn a little more by inviting Bob and Ruth out to dinner when they return to town.
Dinner will not be at Rosso’s, but it might be at one of the tonier restaurants in town. The good news is that Rivers won’t be turned away, as he would have been back in the 1930s or ‘40s in Princeton. Now we just have to hope we can get a reservation on a busy night. But that’s another story.