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Power to the People: Princeton’s Black Activism Movement

ABC was a place where we could go and it was us. We did have a kindred spirit. I mean because it was 98 black students, all of us knew each other. And even guys that you didn’t hang out with, at some point in time you might be in their dorm room.
Ralph Austin ’73

In 2015,  Brandon A. Holt ’15 conducted interviews with black activists from Association of Black Collegians (ABC) and other organizations at Princeton. The interviews, which include alumni from the classes of 1969-1981, address student participation in demonstrations, hate crimes on campus, and black solidarity. The transcripts of the Brandon D. Holt Collection of Oral History Interviews on Black Student Activism at Princeton are available freely online and provide an insider’s look into black student life.

Princeton’s black students experienced the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement as a reality of daily life, not just as stories they saw on the news. From low numbers of African American students to discrimination on campus, the black college experience at Princeton University had its share of adversity. During these tumultuous years, black Princetonians united across national, class, and gender lines to fight for inclusion and civil rights on campus as well as worldwide.

Photo from 1970 Bric-a-Brac.

Of the 1,202 students accepted into the Princeton Class of 1967, only ten were black. As a result of increased pressure from desegregation efforts in the South, Princeton developed policies to more fully integrate black students, who had only first been admitted to Princeton during World War II. In 1963, President Goheen announced that although Princeton would not institute a quota, the university would actively seek applications from blacks. This shift towards active recruitment and ultimately affirmative action was occurring in all Ivy League institutions. Admission, however, did not not always result in attendance, and more importantly, admittance did not necessarily signify inclusion.

In addition to the absence of students of color on campus, there was a strong “WASP” campus culture and no black administrators. To counteract this problem, the university hired Carl A. Fields in 1964 to serve as the assistant director of the Bureau of Student Aid. As a black administrator, Carl A. Fields became black students’ greatest ally. Brett Henry ’69 states that Fields talked to students about everything from what was expected of them to where they could get haircuts.

Other efforts to integrate students of color into campus culture included a two-to-three-week program for entering freshmen and pairing students with black host families. Although a significant percentage of the earlier classes of black students came from impoverished households, there were some who came from wealthy families; however, these differences did not diminish the sense of African American solidarity on campus. As Ralph Austin ’73 said, “every brother may not be a brother but he got the potential to be a brother;” therefore, blacks still needed to make an effort to, at the very least, acknowledge each other.

Tonna Gilbert ’73. Photo from 1970 Bric-a-Brac.

The presence of black students created some tension on campus. According to Austin, “people were looking at you like well, you only got in here because you’re black. And that really irked us because we had to pass the same test they had to pass. They may have looked at our credentials and gave us a break, but when we got there we had to do the same thing they did.” Other confrontations commanded the attention of the administration, like the incidents in Rockefeller Suite and Brown Hall and the protests against the proposal to host a Shockley-Innis debate.

Although the administration was helpful in integrating black students into the campus,  changes in the curriculum and student affairs were largely the result of an organized and unified black student body. One of the most prominent student organizations was ABC. In collaboration with Fields, ABC was instrumental in advocating a black studies program at the university and contributed to the hiring of Henry and Cecilia Drewery to teach African American studies courses.

The Association of Black Collegians, 1968. Photo from the 1969 Bric-a-Brac.

Black student activism also addressed the larger question of the condition of black people worldwide, and Princeton’s investments in companies that supported apartheid in South Africa in particular. Because they viewed the University’s response as too passive, black students took over the New South administration building in 1969 to draw attention to their cause. Austin recalls the rationale behind the event as follows:

We just couldn’t be going to a school and living off the blood money from apartheid. And it still took them 10 years after that before they divested that money, but we did that and then we ended up going before the board of trustees, and I think all of us had roles to say in testifying in why we did what we did. Because they had threatened to throw us out of school, but we got past that.

There was also some collaboration across racial lines, as one of the closest allies of the ABC was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and one example of SDS collaboration was during the New South takeover. Austin says, “they ran interference for us outside because we wouldn’t let them in the building when we took over the building, but they stood outside so if the police came, they would have to deal with them first.”

Students occupying the New South administration building in 1969 posted these “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” signs on the windows. Photo from the 1969 Bric-a-Brac. See another photo from this protest here.

As the presence of other minority groups increased, African Americans began to collaborate with other students of color. The Third World Center opened in 1971 and offered cultural events, tutoring, and a place to socialize. Natalie Byfield ’81 explains: “The Third World Center basically saved me and allowed me to survive that moment in my life. Through the Third World Center, I met other students, and met other students of color, who could help me to manage the feelings of alienation.”

Holt’s interviews were conducted as part of the research he conducted in preparing his senior thesis, “Power in Resistance: A History of Black Student Protest at Princeton, 1967-1978.” Readers on the Princeton network may access Holt’s thesis here.

To learn more about African Americans on the Princeton campus, see our previous post.



Brandon D. Holt Collection of Oral History Interviews on Black Student Activism at Princeton (AC426)

Holt, Brandon D. “Power in Resistance: A History of Black Student Protest at Princeton, 1967-1978.”

Daily Princetonian

Additional Resources:

Maynard, Barksdale. “New South Gets Liberated.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 19, 2014.

Origins of Princeton University’s Third World Center” (video)


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