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Princeton Confronts Slave-Owning Past

New Jersey

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 11/28/2017, 4:36 p.m.
For more than a century and a half, Princeton University neither acknowledged nor..

For more than a century and a half, Princeton University neither acknowledged nor investigated its historical ties to slavery, despite the fact that the first nine presidents of the school owned slaves at some point in their lives. This month, that changes. Students, faculty and anyone else walking past Princeton’s Maclean House will lock eyes with an object ― a sculptural relief, to be exact ― depicting the face of Samuel Finley, the fifth president of Princeton, along with the faces of the man, woman and child he possessed as slaves. According to the Huffington Post, the work is part of the Princeton & Slavery Project, an initiative launched by history professor Martha A. Sandweiss in 2012. The ongoing research project focuses on the slave-holding practices of Princeton’s founding trustees and faculty members, taking into account how the university (and New Jersey at large) profited from and grew out of slave labor, a practice that was not abolished in the state until 1865. “I was ignorant. I was curious,” Sandweiss said of her desire to dive into Princeton’s ties to slavery. “Since Princeton was founded in 1746, I knew there would be a story. Every institution was implicated, but nobody had investigated it.” Sandweiss, previously a museum curator and director, launched an undergraduate research seminar on the subject of slavery at Princeton in 2012, examining how the university’s paradoxical embrace of liberty and servitude echoed the contradictions that have always marred early American values. Over the next few years, students and faculty collaborated to piece together a dark history of the school their predecessors had failed to reckon with. The initiative has uncovered stories of women like Betsey Stockton, a former slave of former university President Ashbel Green who went on to become a prominent educator, and Moses Tyler Pyne, who was one of Princeton’s most generous benefactors and whose family owned a sugar trade business reliant on the slave economy. Thanks to her experience in the art world, Sandweiss realized early on that when strict historical inquiry fell short of producing a full story, her team could turn, at times, to other forms of creative expression to fill in the blanks. History is tethered to documents and dates, but art, she felt, offers space to imagine, extract and interpret. “I really understand what the boundaries of history are,” Sandweiss said. “I live and die by footnotes. That means that I can’t imagine what’s inside people’s heads unless they left me a record. I can’t invent dialogue unless people left their own words for me to find. I thought it would be interesting to work with creative artists that aren’t bound by the same rules that I am.”