“Unpleasant social encounters resulting from white privileges and preferences became a boot camp for survival,” said an African American, Robert J. Rivers, who grew up in Princeton, In 1953 he was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Princeton University. Many would say that “unpleasant social encounters” never happen today, but I’ll bet most of those deniers are white.
Rivers credits the desegregation pioneers, including Frank Broderick, Class of ’43 and editor of the Princetonian, who attacked the social and emotional hypocrisy of fighting for “democracy” without admitting black students.
Andrew Hatcher, who grew up in Princeton, was refused admission, and later became President Kennedy’s associate press secretary.
Dean Carl Fields (after whom the Fields Center is named) who set up ‘home away from home’ families for black students.
George Reeves, camp cook at Blairstown and grandfather of Jim Floyd, who graduated from Princeton in 1969. In the picture, he is shown with graduating PHS seniors Sam Nelson, Juan Polanco, and Jacklyn Adebayo, who received Unity Awards from Not in Our Town last month. (Floyd was so impressed by their accomplishments that he offered an additional gift toward their books at college.)
The speaker, Rivers, was one of three black students in a class of 700 in September, 1949. His account of the segregation and desegregation at this university, delivered at the Pan African Graduation in 2008, is an eye-opener. (This year’s event is Sunday, June 2 and I learned about this speech from a Facebook post from the Center for African American Studies.)
He concluded his speech in 2008 with appreciative words: But 55 years later, I count my blessings because I have been richly rewarded by unpredictable opportunities – and Princeton has changed.
Yet 55 years later, remnants of past attitudes emerge, as documented in Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni. Whites still have privileges that minorities do not.
On Commencement Eve, Not in Our Town will host Continuing Conversations on Race at Princeton Public Library. That’s Monday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m. In a discussion entitled Tongue Tied? Rehearse What to Say, we will talk about how to have a meaningful dialogue with people who have differing views about race and white privilege. You are invited.