What began as a scholarly investigation into Princeton University’s connection to American slavery will become a very public discussion when the Princeton & Slavery Project launches a series of public events that include a symposium, theater, film, lectures, and art. Main events run Thursday, November 16, through Monday, November 20. Another event is set for December.
The series’ catalyst was a four year project led by Princeton history professor Martha A. Sandweiss and involving three dozen undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars to explore Princeton’s connection to slavery.
“On our campus — where the Continental Congress met, where the patriots won a victory against the British — human beings were enslaved,” Sandweiss recently told Princeton Alumni Weekly. “That’s the story of American liberty and freedom. Slavery was a part of it, and that’s true on our campus also. We are deeply and quintessentially American in that respect.”
Sandweiss also talked about Princeton’s antebellum history and its deep ties to slavery that the magazine said “shaped a Northern school long known for its affinity with the South.”
The project seemingly follows similar research projects at other universities and national attention to the American monuments and symbols representing slavery.
Yet there is a difference. The Princeton project grew from a small scholarly investigation started four years ago and slowly expanded through the university and community. Participants include McCarter Theater, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton Public Library, the Princeton-based Not In Our Town Princeton, and the Arts Council of Princeton.
The project also follows a discussion begun in 2015 when the Princeton University student-formed Black Justice League took over the university president’s office to call attention to campus issues related to race and justice.
One was the legacy of former Princeton University president, New Jersey governor, and United States president Woodrow Wilson. While known as a progressive, the Virginia-raised Wilson harbored racist sentiments, segregated both the state and federal governments, discouraged nonwhites from attending Princeton, and wrote critically about the “ignorant” black voters during Reconstruction.
The Princeton & Slavery Project’s current series of public events starts Thursday, November 16, with a talk by contemporary American artist Titus Kaphar. The 40-year-old Connecticut-based artist — represented in prominent American museum collections — was commissioned by the Princeton University Art Museum to create a slavery-referencing work on the university campus. The new work temporarily placed in front of the historic Maclean House memorializes the slaves owned and sold there by 18th-century university president Samuel Finley.
A plaque further describes the work, “Impressions of Liberty,” as “presenting a monumental bust of Finley carved into a block of wood as an inversion, a sculptural absence. Framed against this hollow form are portraits of an African American man, woman, and child.”
Kaphar’s talk begins at McCosh Hall, Room 10, at 5:30 p.m., continues with a tour of the related PUAM exhibition “Making History Visible: Of American Myths and National Heroes,” also featuring work by Kaphar, and concludes with a walk to the site of the new sculpture at the Maclean House.
The already sold out Princeton & Slavery Symposium, scheduled for Friday and Saturday, November 17 and 18, at Richardson Auditorium, features scholarly discussions related to Princeton’s engagement with slavery. Presenters include project director Sandweiss; Ruth Simmons, Brown University; Leslie Harris, Northwestern University; Eric Foner, Columbia University; and Danielle Allen, Harvard University.
Celebrated American writer, former Princeton University faculty member, and Noble Laureate Toni Morrison will deliver the keynote address. United States Poet Laureate and university faculty member Tracey Smith will introduce her.
“The Princeton & Slavery Plays” are seven specially-commissioned short plays informed by the Princeton research and created by innovative playwrights Nathan Alan Davis, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Dipika Guha, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Regina Taylor, and Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and resident playwright.
The free readings will be held at McCarter Theater on Saturday, November 18, at 4 p.m. and on Sunday, November 19, at 1 and 4:30 p.m. Tickets are required and can be obtained through the McCarter Ticket Office, 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
“Facing Slavery: Princeton Family Stories,” a documentary film by Melvin McCray, is scheduled for showings at the Princeton Garden Theater on Friday, November 17, 2 p.m., and on Sunday, November 19, at 11 a.m.
The film uses interviews with Princeton alumni descended from slave holders, enslaved people, and both, to explore “the continuing resonance of personal stories about slavery in contemporary American life.” McCray, a former Princeton student and is an award winning professional journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, will discuss the work after the Friday screening.
Admission is by free tickets obtained through the Princeton University Ticketing Office. The Garden Theater is located at 160 Nassau Street. “The Princeton & Slavery Plays”: A Post-Show Community Conversation” is set for the Princeton Public Library, Monday, November 20, at 7 p.m. Facilitated by members of Not in Our Town Princeton the session is designed to promote discussion and reflection regarding the new plays.
Also at the Princeton Public Library is the “Princeton & Slavery Exhibit,” on view November 17 through December 15. Using historic materials from the Princeton University Archives and the Historical Society of Princeton, the exhibit illuminates both the university and community’s connection to slavery as an ingrained practice. www.princetonlibrary.org.
Community sessions also include the Wednesday, December 13, Arts Council of Princeton’s Community Stage presentation “Autobiographical Storytelling: Princeton, Slavery, and Me.” Princeton University Professor Brian Herrera’s workshop course is designed to use the raw materials of the recent research to remake it in a variety of storytelling modes.
The program is free, but advance registration is recommended. Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. For more information: 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
The Princeton & Slavery Project website provides information about the project, will stream symposium, and has stories and essays related to the investigation: slavery.princeton.edu