Five months after the release of sweeping research into its deep historical connections with slavery, Princeton University announced today that it would name two prominent spaces in honor of enslaved people who lived or worked on its campus.
Both spaces will be the first such commemorations on a campus dotted with statues and other physical markers honoring slaveholders, a university spokesman confirmed.
A publicly accessible garden between the university’s main library and the main commercial street of the town of Princeton will be named for Betsey Stockton, an enslaved woman born around 1798 who worked in the home one of Princeton’s early presidents, became a missionary in what is now Hawaii and later helped found the town of Princeton’s only public school for African-American children.
An arch that students pass through at ceremonial occasions, including graduation, will be named for James Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave from Maryland who worked as a janitor and vendor on campus for 60 years and in 1843 successfully defended himself against an extradition trial after a Princeton student identified him as a runaway.
Princeton’s decision is the latest turn in the ongoing debate over how universities should reckon with their often buried racist histories, whether by adding new memorials or removing honors to former slave owners and white supremacists like John C. Calhoun, whose name was removed from a residential college at Yale last year.
At Princeton, the commemorations of Stockton and Johnson were recommended by a university committee on naming, which was created in the wake of intense national debate in 2015 over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton president who, as president of the United States, had presided over the segregation of the federal workforce.
The university declined to remove Wilson’s name from its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as some students, who at one point occupied the university president’s office, and outside critics had called for. Instead, it has begun adding honors for a diverse group of people, including the novelist Toni Morrison and the West Indian economist Arthur Lewis, two longtime Princeton faculty members (both Nobel laureates) for whom spaces were renamed last year.
Martha Sandweiss, the Princeton history professor who led the slavery research project (which began before the Wilson outcry, and was undertaken independently of the administration), said it was “thrilling” that the names of Stockton and Johnson, currently little-known on campus, would become part of Princeton’s “common DNA.”
“We can have one conversation about what to do with sites named for people connected for slaveholding,” said Sandweiss, who was not a member of the naming committee. “But a positive way to move forward is to also think about who and what is not represented, and how to make Princeton a richer commemorative environment.”