Putting the Ghosts of Princeton’s Racial Past Onstage

Putting the Ghosts of Princeton’s Racial Past Onstage


Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, a Princeton graduate whose plays include “An Octoroon” and “Neighbors,” said he was inspired by Stockton’s travels to Hawaii, a place where American racial categories were “essentially incomprehensible.” He said he was also moved by her commitment to education for everyone — in contrast to Princeton itself, which didn’t graduate its first black undergraduates until 1947.

“It was really important to me that the impact of these findings not be reduced to the same old conversation about the ‘black’ and ‘white’ of our country’s history,” he said in an email, referring to the research project, “but instead, were underlined as implicating any- and everybody on this campus — in this town, even.”

Under the Liberty Trees

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Emily Mann’s play, “Under the Liberty Trees,” is based on a 1766 newspaper ad for a slave auction in front of the building that housed the president of Princeton.

The first nine presidents of Princeton owned slaves, many of them during their tenures there. In the 18th century, prospective students had to present themselves to the university president for examination, so first person an applicant encountered at Princeton may have been an enslaved person who answered the door at the at the president’s house on Nassau Street.

Ms. Mann’s play, “Under the Liberty Trees,” is based on a 1766 newspaper advertisement for a slave auction in front of the house, when the property of Samuel Finley, Princeton’s fifth president, was sold after his death. The “liberty trees” in front, according to campus lore, had been planted a few months earlier to celebrate the repeal of the hated Stamp Act.

Ms. Mann, whose plays include “Having Our Say” (based on the memoir by two centenarian African-American sisters, the Delanys), said the project’s research had reshaped her mental geography.

“I see this town completely differently now,” she said. “Princeton is such a microcosm of race in America. So much more has happened here than people realize.”

Freedom on Trial

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The playwright Regina Taylor was inspired by newspaper articles about James Collins Johnson, a janitor at Princeton who was arrested in 1843 and put on trial after a white student identified him as a fugitive slave.

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Princeton University Archives

During a visit to the archives, the playwrights were shown materials highlighting the range of what researchers had uncovered, from early land records to documents relating to a local free African-American who himself owned slaves.

But what struck Regina Taylor hardest were newspaper articles about James Collins Johnson, a janitor at Princeton who was arrested in 1843 and put on trial after a white student identified him as a fugitive slave.

“Here was an African-American man who escapes slavery, names himself and believes that he was a free man, but then finds that he was not able to become a free man as he chooses, according to the Constitution of the United States,” Ms. Taylor said.

Ms. Taylor’s play, “James Johnson: Princeton and the Constitution,” uses beat-boxing and overlapping intergenerational voices to tell Johnson’s irony-rich story. At trial, he contested the identification. Ultimately, a local white woman purchased his freedom for today’s equivalent of well over $10,000 — money that Johnson had to pay back. Johnson continued to work as a campus vendor for decades, and was buried in 1902 under a headstone, paid for by Princeton alumni, calling him “the students’ friend.”

Ms. Taylor, who will direct a revival of her gospel musical “Crowns” at the McCarter next spring, connects the injustice of Johnson’s debt with the school-to-prison pipeline today.

“Ava DuVernay’s film ‘13th’ lays it out,” she said. “How we’re still paying off the debt of our forefathers, the obstacles we still face to being a free person with full ownership of self.”

Talking Back to Statues

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In Nathan Alan Davis’s play “The Torch,” a modern-day student talks back to this statue of John Witherspoon, an early Princeton president who signed the Declaration of Independence and also owned slaves.

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Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, Nathan Alan Davis (“Nat Turner in Jerusalem”) toured the campus with Martha Sandweiss, the history professor who led the research project. One stop was an imposing statue of John Witherspoon, an early Princeton president and signer of the Declaration of Independence, which was erected in 2001.

Mr. Davis had been thinking about the continuing national controversies over monuments and naming, and had followed the debate at Princeton in 2015 over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. “When I saw the statue and learned that Witherspoon owned slaves, I thought, ‘Here we go,’” he said.

“The Torch” features a conversation between Witherspoon’s statue and a blowtorch-wielding African-American student named Jasmine, who quite literally holds his feet to the fire. Like a number of the other plays, it takes off from history but is very much in the present tense, connecting the legacy of slavery with contemporary issues like policing (introduced via an African-American officer who intervenes in Jasmine’s interrogation of the statue).

“Often with narratives about slavery, people say, ‘Oh, this terrible thing happened, it’s too bad, but thank God we’re not doing that anymore,’” Mr. Davis said. “But I don’t want to let anybody off the proverbial hook. We can’t simply look at slavery as an episode we have overcome. It’s still present.”

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