The Witherspoon-Jackson neigh­borhood is experiencing dramatic changes. Home to many working class and African American families dating back to the late 18th century, the neighborhood has been subject to development forces over the years.

In the 1930’s, several streets and many homes were eliminated to make room for Palmer Square and the new Nassau Inn. In the 1950’s, the houses on Jackson Street were eliminated and the street was replaced by what is now called Paul Robeson Place. More recently old houses are being snapped up by people looking for relative bargains in the town’s escalating real estate market.

Green Street, the one-way street that runs from John Street to Witherspoon, is the first residential street you encounter when you enter the neighborhood from the central business district. Two of the original houses on the street have already been torn down and replacement structures are under construction. Another potential tear-down is at 20 Green St. In the early 20th century it had served as a rooming house, on occasion providing accommodations for African Americans visiting Princeton University but unable to stay at the still segregated hotels.

Now in obvious disrepair, with yellow warning tape draped across the wraparound porch, and the site of a recent criminal assault, the house sits on a large lot that backs up to Paul Robeson Place. Across the street are new townhouses that sell in the $2 million range. The property at 20 Green St. is listed at $825,000, and the listing states plainly: “this property is being sold for the land.”

In the wake of all these changes, a proposal has been made to designate the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood an historic district, with limitations set on the alterations that can be made to certain houses — including the birthplace of Paul Robeson — and other properties within the district. (See photo and caption, above right.)

The historic preservation proposal speaks to the physical structures within the district. The essay that follows, written by a man who grew up in the house at 21 Green St., directly across the street from the house that is about to be razed, sheds light on some of the people who forged that community and those who opened the gates of Princeton University to African-American undergraduates.

By Robert J. Rivers Jr.

Princeton is the place where I was born; the place I grew up. Princeton University was a Southern school with strong Southern social preferences. It just happened to be above the Mason-Dixon Line. Important defining events took place at this university in the 1940s during and after World War II, and the resulting changes significantly and profoundly altered the course of history for African-American students at Princeton University. James Baldwin said that “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us,” and this essay is a small, but important, part of what I carry within me. It is what I see when I look back to those years shortly before I became a Princeton undergraduate.

These events are framed by a deep and strong family history. Ancestral generations, and a probable slave master, are buried a few miles from here. My grandfather planted the original elm trees you see lining Washington Road as you drive into Princeton. Aunts and an uncle moving with the great migration began arriving at Princeton’s McCosh Infirmary in 1918, and they gave many, many years of loyal respected service.

Our family home was and still is at 21 Green St. Our house dates back to the early 19th century. The deed shows it was purchased in 1844 from the son of the university president, James Green. The buyer was a free black woman.

My father worked for 43 years serving Princeton as a Tiger Inn servant and university dormitory janitor.

My loving mother became a live-in maid for 10 years for the family of a Princeton professor, Professor Lewis F. Moody of the engineering department. He lived at 146 Hodge Road, where George F. Kennan, the diplomat, would later live. People write about Kennan working in his fourth floor study in the tower of the house. That room, above he maid’s quarters, was my play room.

My mother died in 2007 at the age of 97, after seeing four grandchildren graduate from this university. My brother, Len, served Princeton as a varsity football coach and head varsity baseball coach. My family has many very personal stories to tell about the highs and lows at Princeton University, but for now my focus will be on those important defining events in the 1940s.

In 1940, when I lived with my mother in the professor’s house, this university would not have been able to identify a single African-American who ever received a baccalaureate degree. John Chavis became the first enrolled African American in 1792. Princeton’s total for 200 years? One undergraduate, but he did not graduate.

The following is a quotation from the Daily Princetonian in 1942:

“While 13 million Negro Americans look for signs of their admission to a rightful place in American democracy, Princeton continues its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies.”

— Frank Broderick ‘43

Princeton’s comfortable Southern social traditions were interrupted by World War II. Our nation and the university were forced to re-examine fundamental human values. Frank Broderick, from New York City, Princeton Class of 1943, challenged the humanity of Princeton University by calling attention to Princeton, white supremacy, and Nazi racism in the context of a war to protect democratic values. War disrupted business as usual, and the voices for social justice were growing louder. The voice of the campus was the Princetonian, and Frank Broderick was the editor.

In 1942, Broderick and his co-editors published three very courageous editorials entitled “White Supremacy at Princeton.” Prior to printing the editorials, Broderick interviewed Walter White, the NAACP executive director, and Paul Robeson. The editorials attacked the university’s social and intellectual hypocrisy, and the campus erupted with very emotional conflicting opinions.

A huge crowd attended a forum, and a panel debated “Should Negroes be admitted to Princeton?” The African-American press ran front-page headlines. The Undergraduate Council voted against admitting Negro students, and a minority but significant number of the faculty agreed with the council. Letters to the Prince opposed African-American students on campus, three to one.

Princeton president Harold W. Dodds informed the board of trustees about the matter, but no action was taken and no clear sense of direction emerged. In 1942 the university’s priorities did not include admitting African-Americans.

During the controversy, a 19-year-old young man from Princeton’s black community also submitted a letter to the Prince that was printed on the front page. Andrew Hatcher introduced himself as “a son of Old Nassau, a Negro youth whose choice of a college was decidedly affected by racial barriers.” His heartfelt moral appeal asked Princeton to make the right decision by deciding to admit Negro students.

Andrew Hatcher did not benefit from Princeton’s academic excellence, but his talent was appreciated by others. He became a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy during his campaign to become president, and Andrew Hatcher was President Kennedy’s first official African-American appointment when he became associate White House press secretary.

Frank Broderick’s undergraduate years were interrupted by the war. When he came back to Princeton after the war he was still deeply committed to social justice, and he became the student director of Princeton Summer Camp in 1946. The camp, in Blairstown in northern New Jersey, was staffed by Princeton students with support from faculty and administration.

Although the camp for boys had been in operation for many years, African-American youngsters always had been excluded. Frank Broderick appealed to his university advisers to allow a small group of black youngsters from town to attend the camp as a “social experiment,” and the advisers agreed. I happened to be one of the eight youngsters who arrived at the camp that sunny day in August. The camp’s African-American chef kept an eye on the situation, and anyone who seriously anticipated trouble must have been relieved and surprised.

The “experiment” benefited all campers, and it resulted in a very positive learning experience for Princeton students and Princeton’s administration. The experience also became a defining moment for a 14-year-old African American. I began to think seriously about personal possibilities at Princeton University.

During his life after Princeton, Frank Broderick served as director of the Peace Corps in Ghana, and later he became the first chancellor of the University of Massachusetts. The camp’s chef, George Reeves, also was a highly respected community leader. His son-in-law in later years became the mayor of Princeton Township, and Mr. Reeves’ grandson, James Floyd Jr., graduated from Princeton in 1969 and received an Association of Black Princeton Alumni Service Award in 2003 (in addition to an Alumni Council Award for Service in 1998).

Princeton’s rigid position against African-American admissions was forced to change in 1945, and the force for change came not from within but from the U.S. Navy. During the war, in order to increase the number of commissioned officers, federally funded V-12 college training programs were placed in colleges and universities across the country.

Four highly qualified African-American students were assigned to the program at Princeton. Princeton’s admission officer was not a significant factor in the selection of participants.

I was about to enter Princeton High School when they arrived, and the entire African-American community was very excited. Three of the students — Arthur Wilson, James Ward, and Melvin Murchison — are remembered with pride by older members of today’s African-American community. Melvin Murchison did not graduate from Princeton, but he remained long enough to become Princeton’s first African-American varsity football player. Arthur “Pete” Wilson was captain of the varsity basketball team for two seasons, and our community was very impressed when he appeared in an exhibition game against a local African-American team in the gym of “our school” — Witherspoon School for Colored Children. Jim Ward eventually married the daughter of a local family, and he has repeatedly described how important the African-American community was in helping him deal with the university’s very different social climate.

Twenty years later, Carl Fields also recognized the value of community support, and he developed a program to introduce Princeton’s students to families in the African-American community. The program served as a “home away from home,” and it improved the social experience of Princeton’s African-American students. The Third World Center at Prospect and Olden avenues is now named in honor of Carl Fields.

The years immediately following World War II became an important chapter in the history of African-American education at Princeton University. The three students remaining in the V-12 Navy Program graduated, and 1947 marked the first time that African-American undergraduates received baccalaureate degrees from Princeton University. John Howard received his degree first, on Feb. 5, 1947, and Howard went on to enjoy a rewarding career as an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles.

Pete Wilson, the Princeton varsity basketball captain, received his degree a few months later on June 9. He eventually became a U.S. marshal in Illinois. James Ward received his degree Oct. 1, and Ward went on to become legal counsel and investigator for the Texas Commission on Human Rights.

I contacted Mel Murchison’s widow a few years ago to learn more about his life after Princeton. He majored in chemistry at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Later he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in metallurgical engineering, and his career as an engineer eventually took him to the U.S. space program in California. Murchison participated in the development of the booster for Apollo 11, which successfully orbited the moon. He died in 1993, and his obituary remembered Princeton University. Princeton should remember Mel Murchison.

The university’s firm position against racial integration began to soften after the war. Some of those returning white GIs who had fought beside black comrades saw an even greater need for social justice, and they established the Liberal Union in 1946. This student organization invited Walter White, the NAACP’s executive director, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other speakers to the campus. I have never forgotten the scene where Princeton students taunted and threw snowballs at the NAACP executive director.

The first indication from Princeton expressing any interest in admitting African-American students came in the spring of 1947. Princeton’s dean of students indicated that Princeton was evaluating black students for possible admission, and the following fall Joseph Ralph Moss, or Pete as I knew him, became the first African-American undergraduate to be admitted by Princeton’s admission process since John Chavis in the 18th century. Joseph Moss received his degree in 1951. Moss also came from Princeton’s African-American community, and his graduation was a very significant milestone for the university and the African-American community.

Two years later three more African-American students appeared on Princeton’s campus. In 1949 I filled out an application for one college: Princeton University. I had entered Princeton High School from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, then located on Quarry Street. It was not integrated until 1948, but we felt that the school was the equal of the white school. I did not feel I was behind in any way when I entered Princeton High. I was not No. 1 in my graduating class, but I was near the top and was one of several students chosen to speak at the graduation ceremony at McCarter Theatre.

Fortunately, and with divine help, I was accepted by Princeton. Two other African-American students also accepted Princeton’s offer. Grady Smith was an extraordinary young man. He was born on a sharecropper farm in Alabama, and he migrated to New Jersey with his family in 1939 to live in the tenement district of Jersey City. Ten years later, he entered Princeton with a four-year scholarship that paid all expenses. Royce Vaughn, from Cleveland, Ohio, had been accepted by many schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. He chose Princeton.

I have been asked many times, “Why Princeton?” Particularly when there appeared to be so little university commitment. My Princeton education actually began in the community long before I became a Princeton undergraduate. Unpleasant social encounters resulting from white privileges and preferences became a boot camp for survival. The enriching part of my education came at Witherspoon School for Colored Children — an excellent school made excellent by excellent teachers and a nurturing environment.

In our neighborhood we had a great role model and hero: Paul Robeson, who grew up in the early 1900s just around the corner from me. We believed he had invented the forward pass in football (though we eventually learned that was not true). Paul’s older brother, William, was rejected by Prince­ton but went to Lincoln University and Penn Medical School and became a physician.

And the motivating experience I enjoyed at Princeton Summer Camp was also very important. But the times I spent cutting beans and dusting furniture in the professor’s house were also valuable experiences (the discipline to do it right, and on time). The experiences I had as a youngster working at the Prospect Avenue clubs also added to my Princeton training: taking care of the coal furnace at Dial Lodge on Prospect Avenue before I went to school in the morning; or working with my brother at Tiger Inn, serving the turkey a la king before the football games; or working as a bartender when I was still in high school.

I was not attracted to Princeton because of life in the eating clubs, but the experience was part of my Princeton education. After I became a Princeton student I was insulted without apology by the bicker process [which determines what students are accepted into the clubs], and I rarely returned to Prospect Avenue even after I graduated. In fact, the traditional Princeton eating clubs offered very little social comfort for most of Princeton’s early African-American undergraduates.

In 1949 I added these experiences to my dreams, and I chose Princeton. The challenge was certainly exciting, but it was more about changing times, and increasing optimism about access to opportunities for African-Americans. And it was about pride. Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, and Dr. Charles Drew, who discovered new ways of storing and processing blood for transfusions and managed two of the largest blood banks during World War II, were some of my heroes, and their individual excellence stood tall against the racist rhetoric about black inferiority.

And the standards for acceptable legal and social behavior finally were beginning to change. The social reality of two separate worlds still existed, and I wanted to be well prepared for opportunities in both worlds. Princeton had barely opened the door, but I saw a chance to benefit from Princeton’s academic excellence. That, for me, was the primary attraction. The social experience, although sometimes unpleasant, also would prove to be a valuable learning experience.

When the three of us arrived on the campus in 1949, things were very different. We joined a freshman class of approximately 700 young men, and the class, without us, was essentially all white. Most came from prep schools, and most were either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. No African-American had ever held a faculty position at Princeton, and there were none in 1949. And there were no African-American administrators or coaches for the athletic teams. Exclusion and conformity were important social values, and the sensibilities of an African-American student — too few to be visible — were rarely considered by administration or classmates.

By the time I graduated in 1953, much of the joy we shared as freshmen had disappeared. A few days after completing his freshman year, Grady Smith attended a picnic with former high school classmates, and the joyful gathering became a shocking human tragedy. Grady drowned in the Passaic River. I attended the funeral with great pain and sadness. Over a thousand people from all walks of life came to his funeral, including the governor of New Jersey. The governor recalled meeting Grady when he was elected Boys State governor. The governor and everyone present knew that we had lost a great future leader. The pain, joy, and enormous frustration revealed by Grady Smith’s life still cloud my vision when I look back.

Royce Vaughn attended Princeton for four years, but he received his baccalaureate degree from another institution. He enjoyed a very successful, fulfilling life as an artist and community organizer. Royce gained recognition for his California Collector’s Series, and he was CEO of Omni Business League in San Francisco. He was a loyal member of our class, and we remained close friends until his death last year.

If it had been possible in 1953, when I graduated, to look forward into the future and see how Princeton would affect my life, I never would have believed it. In 1953 the struggle was not over. I have said before that I could not sing “to the best old place of all,” [the chorus to “Going Back to Nassau Hall”]. But more than 60 years later, I count my blessings because I have been richly rewarded by unpredictable opportunities — and Princeton has changed.

I was already interested in medicine when I entered college. A neighbor on my street had a relative who visited Princeton’s black neighborhood every summer and was a medical doctor. He was also a friend of my father and he became the role model for my interest in medicine. I even studied Latin in high school because I thought it was required to write prescriptions. As an undergraduate I prepared for medicine by majoring in biology.

When I applied for admission to a medical school in 1953 most black medical doctors in the United States were receiving their medical education in two black medical schools. The other 70 medical schools were still offering limited access to or actively excluding African Americans. Many professionally qualified black physicians were still denied hospital privileges. The American Medical Society in 1953 still allowed their local organizations to exclude black physicians from membership.

After four years at Princeton I wanted to move further north to get away from the unpleasant racist static so prevalent in the southern social culture. I was fortunate to have a choice among several northern acceptances and I chose the University of Rochester. What happened next was one of a series of unexpected events that shaped my future.

As a Princeton student I had very little interest in the idea of “social networking with the right people,” which appeared to be so important then. I was even less interested after an unpleasant episode involving Princeton’s eating clubs. In a totally unexpected way, however, my life’s path was changed by a Princeton connection — a person I had never met.

After the matching process for medical schools had been completed, I was contacted by E. Lang Makrauer, a Boston lawyer and member of the Princeton Class of 1923. He offered to fly me to Boston for an interview by the Harvard Medical School dean of admissions, and other faculty and students. It was the first time I had ever flown on an airplane.

I knew that Harvard had an excellent academic reputation, but it was the people I met who convinced me that this was the best academic and social environment for my journey. I thoroughly enjoyed another excellent learning experience that focused my career interests on surgery and an academic environment. And Boston is where I met my wife, Ruth, a registered nurse. Ruth and I moved to Rochester to complete my training in vascular surgery and enjoy a surgical career that included private practice, teaching, and clinical research in an academic environment.

Involvement in community organizations also remained high on my agenda. Before retiring I served the medical school as associate dean and professor of clinical surgery. In 1969 I was appointed to the board of trustees at Princeton.

Ruth and I have four children. Wendy is a pediatrician who went to Brown, Yale Medical School, and Harvard for a masters in public health. She’s with Princeton Nassau Pediatrics now. Our oldest son, Michael, graduated from Princeton, Class of ‘81, and went to Cornell for his MD and to University of Iowa for his certification in retinal eye surgery. Scott majored in architecture at Princeton, Class of ‘83, and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Bob, the youngest, is Princeton ‘86 with a masters in urban planning from George Washington and a law degree from Tulane. He is now executive director of the New Orleans City Planning Commission.

I must look back with humble respect to celebrate the lives of President Robert Goheen ‘40, Dean Carl Fields (the first black administrator in the Ivy League, who was hired by Goheen), and Frank Broderick ‘43. On the day I was born, no African American or woman had ever received a baccalaureate degree from Princeton University, and we were not included in thoughts about “Princeton in the nation’s service.” The courage and human understanding of these three giants affected my life and continues to affect the lives of current undergraduates. And the quality of a Princeton education has been enriched for all students.

Thousands of African Americans have graduated from Princeton University since those defining events in the 1940s. The campus today reflects Princeton’s new vision — and the triumph after struggle is what I see as I interact with these graduates.

My generation has been called the silent generation, but students today are joining the global generation, and there are so many needs, so many challenges, so many opportunities. James Baldwin also reminds us that “history is present in all that we do.”

Thank you, and God bless.

The essay above has been adapted from a talk delivered to a group of African-American seniors about to graduate from Princeton University.