I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton

I Hear My People Singing by Kathryn Watterson shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

In the summer of 1999, Kathryn Watterson spoke with residents from the Witherspoon neighborhood in Princeton to talk about volunteer opportunities for students in one of her writing seminars. One of the men, Henry “Hank” Pannell, said, “Your poverty course sounds wonderful, but what we really want is an oral history of our community before it’s too late.” Below is an excerpt from one of Watterson’s interviews with Pannell in 2000.

(p. 67 – 70)

I guess everybody my age remembers Einstein from when we were kids. He used to give us nickels. And he used to talk to everybody in our community. I didn’t know as a kid that he was Einstein. Who, Einstein? But I realize now that he came in that community just to get away and to talk to people who would treat him as a regular guy. . . .

You know, there were such great people. We all grew up together. And it wasn’t just all black kids. There was the Servis family, the Cavanaugh family, the Toto family—we were all family. They were part of our crew, our little gang, our club. We used to all be together. They used to come to my house. We were at their houses. I remember my mother or grandmother got sick, their parents were right there. The same thing when Mrs. Cavanaugh got sick—my mother and grandmother were right there.

I wouldn’t trade one second of my childhood. I have so many fond memories of growing up here. . . . I really didn’t know anything about racism. I knew that we couldn’t go into like the Balt, the big cafeteria up on Nassau Street right where Hinkson’s and Burger King are, and Veidt’s, and places like that, you couldn’t go in. But we didn’t want to go no way. We had to go upstairs in the Garden Theatre, but we liked it upstairs. On Nassau Street, there was a little store called Cleve’s, and we used to go there, but we were treated like—you know. We knew we weren’t welcome in that store. I remember several incidents—one where he said, “You niggers, get out of here.”  So we bought our candy at a little store right around the corner—at Mr. Ball’s.

Mrs. Doris Burrell, who opened a hair salon in Princeton in 1944, spoke with Watterson’s student, Lauren Miller, in October 2000. Excerpts from that interview appear below.

(p. 266 – 267)

The fireworks started when it was time for our first child, Sondra, to start school in September of 1946. My husband went to segregated schools here [in Princeton], but I didn’t. So we talked it over, and I said, “No. This is ridiculous. . . . What right do they have that they can ask us to send our tax money up there? We live in Princeton, we’re paying taxes for our child’s education, and they’re supposed to educate her.” We decided she wasn’t going to school up on Quarry Street. I had nothing against the principal there or against blacks. It wasn’t that. It was just morally wrong. That’s all. So, we decided we were going to enroll our child at Valley Road School, where she was supposed to go. And that’s what we did. I went down, and . . . the principal was wonderful. It was almost like she was glad to see us. I thought that she was going to give us trouble, but she didn’t. She registered our daughter and made sure I had everything right. She had a little smile on her face like she was happy. And, so that was all done. . . .

There was a black woman who came to see me who worked as a maid at this very, very wealthy white woman’s house—one of the wealthiest white families in town. So she came and said, “Doris, I want to tell you . . . I think you’re making a mistake in sending your child down here to school. Because the woman I work for, she had a dinner party last night and they talked about this situation. [They said,] ‘Who does she think she is sending her child down to the Valley Road School? She thinks her daughter is going to go there, but she’s not.’  And she told her maid, because she knew she came to my hair salon, to tell me the same thing. So her maid said, ‘I don’t think you better let your child go to that school because you really don’t know what they’ll do to you.’”

I said, “You just go back and you tell them that I said, ‘Come hell or high water, our child is going to that school. I don’t care what it costs. We will take them to court for the rest of my life.’”  . . . Everybody was upset . . . I began to wonder about our human race. God makes birds of all kinds and animals and they all live their lives together.

Joseph Moore became Assistant Dean of Students at Princeton University in 1968, as part of President Robert Goheen’s attempts to diversify the campus. At the time Goheen reached out to him, Moore was leading an intensive program for black students in Trenton. His memories of that program appear below.

(p. 280)

Actually, when I graduated from Central State, I went to work for the Job Corps. I recognized it was a time that I had really seriously made my own decision—I couldn’t continue to live my mother’s dream. That was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program. And we were taking kids from all over the country. It was in Edison, New Jersey, in the old Camp Kilmer. It was a military base that was built for returning GIs coming home from the Second World War, which they turned into a Job Corps center, where they gave kids vocational training experiences, all kinds of stuff—carpentry, plumbing, electrical stuff, construction, engineering types of things—as a way to put them back in the workforce and make them, I guess, dues-paying members of society. I was a group leader. I had sixty kids from all over the country. So, anyway, I did that for about a year and a half. From there, I went to Central High in Trenton and was recruited to create a school within a school using Outward Bound techniques.

Essentially what I did was create a program that went seven days a week, twenty-four-seven. We were not only in class seven days a week, but we were out every weekend, whether it be mountain climbing, canoeing, hiking, spelunking—you name it—all the kinds of stuff that Outward Bound was created for. It was an attempt to urbanize the Outward Bound concept. And so, I brought that concept to Trenton High. I had a staff of teachers who taught, and it also required the teachers to go out on weekends with us. And basically it was designed as another alternative to traditional education that was being offered in the urban setting.

We got raving reviews for our work and the program. We had kids who went on to college. I was pretty adamant about the fact that it wasn’t going to become a generalist program. If you climb a mountain, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful in urban life. But it does mean that it may give you enough character and enough strength to make some things not happen that would ordinarily happen.

Kathryn Watterson is a writer whose award-winning books include Women in Prison (Doubleday) and Not by the Sword (Simon & Schuster). She’s written for magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where she lives and drums.