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What Archival Silence Conceals—and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni

Archival silences distort the past, shaping our current and future self-understanding, so preserving Princeton’s history sometimes means attempting to correct the work of our predecessors. My struggle to bring 19th and early 20th-century African American graduate alumni to light illustrates one way white supremacy of that era continues to influence us today. It also supports the argument that archives are not neutral, so researchers and archival staff must pay close attention to the ways archival work reflects the values of those who did the preserving and discarding.

In our Graduate Alumni Records collection, I found files for Irwin William Langston Roundtree, George Shippen Stark, and Leonard Zechariah Johnson, African Americans previously known to have received masters degrees from Princeton. Contents were sparse. Stark’s and Johnson’s consisted primarily of the evidence that they had paid fees and earned course credit. Roundtree’s file had no information about the classes he took, but included an obituary that indicated he was a longtime resident of Trenton.

(Click to enlarge.) Academic record of Leonard Zachariah Johnson, graduate class of 1904. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).

The Historical Subject Files also contain records related to African Americans on campus. These revealed another graduate student in the 1870s, Thomas McCants Stewart, though correspondence from a previous University Archivist, Earle Coleman, evinced skepticism about Stewart’s status. He cited Woodrow Wilson’s claims that Princeton had never admitted black students, but in a later letter Coleman indicated surprise over discovering Stewart’s name listed in the 1878 Catalogue of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) as a resident graduate student.

T. McCants Stewart. (Image in the public domain.) I was unable to locate photographs of any of our African American alumni of this era in our collections.

Another memo by Bob Durkee ’69 referred to an incident when a handful of Southern students threatened to withdraw because College president James McCosh allowed an African American man to attend his lectures. Durkee cited The Mirror: A History of the Class of 1878 and thought the African American had been Stewart, pointing out that The Mirror referred to the African American as a “negro Seminole,” and “Seminole” was a popular slang term for a student from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). (Stewart, like Roundtree, Stark, and Johnson, was also a PTS student.) However, The Mirror didn’t name him. I later found an account naming the student as one of five African American seminarians attending James McCosh’s classes that year, Daniel Culp.

I tried searching for all these names in the Papers of Princeton database, yielding no useful leads. I also searched for the term “Seminole” and found an editorial that seemed to have racial implications: a student named “W.” complained about a “hirsute ‘Seminole’” using the College library in 1877. Finally, I searched for “negro” and found an 1868 story in the newly-digitized Nassau Literary Review about students threatening to withdraw over McCosh allowing an African American man to attend chapel services.

Not finding much in the University Archives, I turned to Early American Newspapers. A search for “Roundtree” and “Princeton” in the Trenton Evening Times revealed an interview with Roundtree about his educational history, from being born enslaved in Georgia through his lifetime fight for an education, including studying under a professor named “Ormand” at Princeton University for three years to earn his masters. A well-known figure in Trenton for decades, dozens of articles mentioned him and his political activism. If this region was so familiar with him, I wondered, why were the sources skeptical of the existence of African American alumni?

Clipping from the Trenton Evening Times.

A search of our finding aids for “Ormand” was a dead end, but The Princeton Graduate School: A History indicated that Alexander Ormond had been prominent in establishing graduate education at Princeton. I went back to Stark and Johnson’s transcripts and noted Ormond’s signature next to all of Johnson’s listed classes. Stark’s list of courses sent me to the Catalogues, where I found Ormond listed as the instructor for each one. I read Ormond’s faculty file, but no evidence remained of his work with African Americans.

At this point, I knew Princeton had a faculty member with several African American graduate students when Wilson was either a professor or president of Princeton, and controversies had also brewed during Wilson’s time as an undergraduate over McCosh’s integrated classrooms. Wilson’s claim that there had never been any African American students at Princeton was unsupportable, and this was something it was difficult to imagine he did not know. In particular, his oft-cited exchange with a student at Virginia Theological Seminary seemed to cry out for reinterpretation. I began to wonder to myself, “Why are we all just taking Wilson’s word for it?”

Sara Logue, Assistant University Archivist for Public Services, had emailed me some months prior about a reference to excluding “Seminoles” from the alumni directory in the Office of the Secretary and Treasurer records, not being sure what this meant. I now realized that Charles McAlpin, Secretary of Princeton University, had been writing to defend his intentional exclusion of graduate alumni from previous alumni directories on the basis of their not being real Princetonians.

I did further research on McCosh, Ormond, and Stewart, the results of which you can read on the Princeton and Slavery website (see links to the individual essays below). Because evidence suggests that Wilson’s claims were deceptive about race in historical admissions and that Princeton’s administration actively participated in altering its own narrative, I might have been an unwitting participant in perpetuating myths constructed by past institutional racism had I cited Wilson to dismiss references to African American graduates of Princeton in this era.

After Martha Sandweiss, the Director of the Princeton and Slavery Project, read my initial drafts, she dug into newspaper databases a bit more. She sent me a handful of other names of possible African American alumni she found in a 1902 article in the Augusta Chronicle. Though the Graduate Alumni Files did not contain information on all of them, I did not trust these records to give a complete story. Andrew Denny had a file that said he was presumed dead, but nothing more. There were no files on the others. I checked the Board of Trustees minutes. If Princeton had awarded degrees to these men, they should be listed there.

Some turned out to have received honorary degrees, but the minutes listed Archibald Denny (not Andrew), a graduate of Lincoln University, as having earned an A.M. by examination in 1891. Because the Board of Trustees minutes indicated Denny was a graduate of a historically black university (HBCU), oft-repeated claims about Roundtree being the first African American graduate of Princeton were thus inaccurate. It is safe to assume that the Denny listed there was the same Andrew Denny who was a resident of Princeton at the time; he is listed by that name in the General Catalogue of Princeton University published in 1908 after Trustee Moses Taylor Pyne protested McAlpin’s exclusionary practices.

Image from the Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Vol. 7, Board of Trustees Records (AC120).

James Monroe Boger, also listed in the Board of Trustees minutes and the General Catalogue as having earned his A.M. by examination in 1893, had no alumni file. His undergraduate institution, listed as Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University), is likewise an HBCU.

Image from the Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Vol. 7, Board of Trustees Records (AC120).

Despite all our efforts, some alumni will likely remain lost to time. The best we can do is to suggest that those looking for their records can check the Board of Trustees minutes for degrees conferred, though not all students would have received degrees and thus will not necessarily be listed. Historical institutional racism continues to shape the stories available to us about Princeton and Princetonians. Princeton University educated more black men than it was willing to acknowledge prior to World War II, and due to the actions of those who came before us, we will probably never know all of their names. Confirming that we do not know, however, is a step we can take. We can at a minimum correct a narrative of institutional history that insisted African Americans were never in Princeton’s classrooms prior to World War II. We can now assert with confidence that they were.


Early American Newspapers Database

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton

General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107)

Office of the Vice President and Secretary Records (AC190)

Papers of Princeton Database

For further reading:

Armstrong, April. “Erased Pasts and Altered Legacies: Princeton’s First African American Students.”

Armstrong, April. “James McCosh and Princeton’s First Integrated Classrooms.”

Armstrong, April. “Reverend I. W. L. Roundtree.”

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