Did you know about the slave auction held on the Princeton campus? That a runaway slave working as a janitor was outed by a student who recognized him? That members of a three-generation slave family were separated when their owner, president of the university, died? If you are interested in the history of our country and would like your children to know more than the schools have taught, I recommend that you go to slavery.princeton.edu. This impressive website includes some 800 pages of the massive archives unearthed by Martha Sandweiss, a history professor at the university whose five-year, campus-wide project culminated in a theatrical performance I attended on Sunday, November 19, at McCarter Theater.
The university goes back to the 1700s and slavery was rampant on campus. The president of the university owned slaves, students came with their own slaves, segregated. The project discovered and printed facsimiles in the original typeface of actual newspaper ads of the time from Princeton papers advertising slaves for sale: ”four year old boy,” “ten year old, strong, can be a waiter or other helper.”
Several established black playwrights were invited to read through the archives, select actual histories of individual slaves and slavery here, asked to let their artistic imaginations take over and create short plays on the subject. Amazing revelations: One play dealt with a campus statue of John Witherspoon, signer of Declaration of Independence and once president of the university and pastor of the local Presbyterian church, who owned slaves. So a contemporary student wants to destroy his statue on campus and he comes to life to explain his “case.” Another dealt with the separation of family members who had to be sold after the death of the university president.
It was a privilege to be there. And to be part of a discussion on November 20 at the Princeton Public Library attended by black, white, Asian, and other members of the community to discuss what the plays left us with and where this project should go from here. I hope this was only the beginning of these plays. I can see a great future for them enhanced and fleshed out — and taken way beyond Princeton, New Jersey.
My consciousness was certainly raised. I hope you will check the website and increase your own.
Editor’s note: U.S. 1’ s November 15 issue contained a preview by arts editor Dan Aubrey of the events presented as part of the Princeton & Slavery Project. That story is also available in our digital archives at www.princetoninfo.com. The November 15 print edition also included an excerpt of the play described above, “The Torch,” involving the statue of John Witherspoon. The playwright, Nathan Alan Davis of New York, asked that the excerpt not be posted online.