This story was originally published in the May 2017 Princeton Echo.
If you walk up Witherspoon Street from around Valley Road to Nassau Street you really are walking up. And at the very top of that incline, where Witherspoon meets Nassau, is Princeton University’s FitzRandolph Gate. For years the gate was closed every day of the year except commencement, the alumni P-rade, and visits from distinguished guests. Since 1970, acknowledging that the closed gates were not a welcome sign to the neighbors in town, the university opened the gates permanently.
But even then more work was needed to bring the university closer to the community, particularly to the minority community living at the bottom of the hill, in the Witherspoon-Jackson area, which had been a segregated area in the Jim Crow days of Princeton.
Kathryn Watterson, a journalist who taught writing at the university from 1987 to 2003, reached out to the community when she suggested that her students stroll down Witherspoon Street to visit to gather material on various anti-poverty programs for their essays. In 1999, seeking advice on whom her students might interview, Hank Pannell, whom was active in the community and for whom the learning center at Witherspoon and Clay streets is named, suggested a more ambitious project: “Your poverty course sounds just wonderful,” he told Watterson. “But what we really want is an oral history of our community.”
That oral history comes to fruition this month with the Princeton University Press’s publication of Watterson’s “I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton,” a 376-page volume of the recollections of more than 50 current or former residents of the Witherspoon Jackson area. The work was timely: Roughly half of those interviewed by the students have since died. As Pannell told Watterson back in 1999: “If it doesn’t happen now, if we don’t get their stories now, it’s going to be too late.”
As it turned out Pannell could not have picked a more prepared person for the task. Watterson writes in her introduction that she, like most white people, had “grown up in a sea of whiteness, oblivious to the depth of racist assaults against black people in America.”
But Watterson had eyes wide open. Her father was a hobo who later became a medical doctor, practicing alternative medicine at a time when most people dismissed it as quackery. Her mother was a secretary and — like her father — an open-minded person. As a child Watterson engaged in hands-on work of all kinds. She first noticed the stark face of segregation in the summer of 1964. As she writes:
“Crossing through Mississippi on my way to Florida as a young bride, blinders had been ripped off my eyes. It was the ‘Whites,’ capital W, and the ‘coloreds,’ small c, signs over water fountains, plus the headline, ‘Mixers Missing’ about the disappearance, and ultimately the deaths, of three civil rights workers, that first shocked me. . . When I got to Florida, I joined the NAACP, and began tutoring teenagers from the segregated black high school even before I got my first job as a newspaper reporter. At that time, it was illegal for my students and their taxpaying parents to cross the train tracks that separated them after 9 p.m. It was illegal for them to use public beaches or swim in the ocean. The police arrested the father of one of my students for driving across the tracks at 9:30 p.m. to pick up his daughter. They beat him up and threw him in jail. What I learned in those tense, volatile years changed me forever.”
The African American community in Princeton may not have suffered such dramatic attacks, but it endured its share of insults. Watterson quotes James Baldwin’s memoir, “Notes of a Native Son,” in which the novelist writes about working at a defense plant near Princeton in the 1940s and on multiple occasions being refused service at Renwick’s diner, a popular Nassau Street hangout for undergraduates.
To add to the insults, even highly accomplished Witherspoon-Jackson residents have seldom been given their full due. “Most of the contributions of Princeton’s African Americans have not been recorded or accounted for in white newspapers or history books, yet their labor fueled the growth, maintenance, and economic success of the town and the university,” writes Watterson. “As did blacks in similarly segregated communities all over this country, generations of Witherspoon residents, no matter how bright or how educated, worked to exhaustion for paltry wages. Within the neighborhood, adults traded goods and services to sustain life for themselves and their children. Together in communion, they created an island of ingenuity in an ocean of pervasive, invasive, and persistent racial discrimination.”
From Princeton Watterson moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where she continues to teach writing courses with an emphasis on race, class, and gender.
As former Princeton professor Cornel West writes in the new book’s foreword: “This historic book now allows all of us to enter the fascinating world of black Princeton — to learn of its gallant efforts to forge meaning, preserve families and communities, sustain love, endure sorrows, and contribute to the making of modern-day Princeton. Kathryn Watterson — a highly acclaimed writer, Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania professor, and community activist — has performed a monumental service in laying bare the rich humanity of black Princetonians.
Watterson will discuss “I Hear My People Singing” at three upcoming events:
Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
Sunday, May 21, at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Marketfair.
Friday, June 2, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., Friend Center Convocation Room, a Princeton University Reunions panel featuring Watterson and former students and alumni involved with the Witherspoon Oral History Project that began in 1999. A wine and cheese reception follows from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Free and open to the public.