Princeton Investigates its Roots in Slavery

Princeton University is investigating its early history and participation in slavery through the Princeton & Slavery Project. The university joins others, including Brown and Georgetown Universities, in acknowledging their past ties to slavery. Princeton was founded by Presbyterian pastors in 1646, the height of the Great Awakening in the United States. Its founders were involved in the political turmoil that presaged the American Revolution. According to University lore, the two sycamore trees that still stand outside of the MacLeon House were planted by fifth president Samuel Finlay to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. But despite this birth in virtue and revolutionary ideals, research recently uncovered newspaper advertisements for a 1766 slave auction at the MacLeon House.

The five-year project was conducted under the guidance of Martha Sandweiss, Professor of History at Princeton, who led a team of student researchers to dig into the college’s early student records. They found that at the height of the Antebellum Era, up to two-thirds of the student body was composed of wealthy Southern white men, giving the college strong ties to the slaveholding South. In addition, though no evidence was found that the university itself owned slaves, the first nine of its presidents did and slaves lived on campus until at least 1823. 

The Princeton & Slavery Project’s website officially launched Monday, November 6, with slave stories, primary source documents, interactive maps, and other resources for visitors to explore. A symposium on November 17-18, featuring a keynote speech by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize Winner Toni Morrison, celebrated the launch. Princeton will also debut seven new plays based on materials uncovered during the research. Events are being streamed live for those unable to attend. See the symposium’s website for a schedule and webcast details.

Lucy Davis is the Digital Media Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. She studies public history at Rutgers University, Camden.