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Debating Race at Princeton in the 1940s, Part I: Francis L. Broderick ’43

This is the first post in a two-part series examining Princeton University’s debates over admitting African Americans in the 1940s, which began in earnest partly due to the dedication of one undergraduate in the Class of 1943, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick.

By April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Francis Lyons (“Frank”) Broderick, Class of 1943. Photo from 1943 Nassau Herald.

At first glance, Francis Lyons “Frank” Broderick ’43 looks like a typical mid-century Princetonian, not someone you’d expect to be at the center of a movement to upend his own institution’s admissions policies. His father was president of the East River Savings Bank in New York City, and the family lived on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. Broderick attended Phillips Academy and had two older brothers who both attended Princeton as well. What may have set him somewhat apart from many of his classmates is that he listed himself as Catholic and an Independent Democrat in the Nassau Herald at a time when the majority of Princeton undergraduates were Protestant and Republican. He was also the first student to graduate from Princeton’s then-fledgling interdisciplinary Program in American Civilization, and wrote in the preface to his senior thesis that English professor Willard Thorp *26’s edited two-volume set, American Issues, inspired him to look more closely at race in the United States.

Willard Thorp *26, ca. 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box 120.

Thorp, who directed the Program in American Civilization at Princeton, had edited American Issues with two Columbia University professors. At the time of its publication in 1941, Harold T. Pinkett reviewed American Issues in The Journal of Negro History, praising it for its care in presenting African American experiences and writers “as vital currents in the stream of American life” and the editorial summary of Reconstruction for avoiding “the racial bias which has distorted so many accounts of this era.” Along with a handful of others, Thorp was known for his consistent work combating racial prejudice within his own institution as well, something noted in an African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, in 1947. Thus, in spite of the power of Princeton’s traditions, Broderick also had other influences on campus.

Paul Robeson, ca. 1942. Princeton Playgoers, Inc. Records (AC315), Box 3.

During the fall of 1942, while at work on his thesis, Broderick sought out African American thinkers like Paul Robeson and A. Philip Randolph and read Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. “They Too Sing America” reflected a deliberate effort to engage with African American history and diverse voices within the black community, going so far as to flag the only source in his bibliography not written by an African American under a header, “by a white author.” It was within this period that Broderick took on his own community.

That semester, as chairman of the Daily Princetonian, Broderick authored a series of front-page editorials entitled, “White Supremacy at Princeton.” These editorials were a year in the making for Broderick, who had discussed the possibility with the rest of the Prince‘s staff in 1941, asking if they collectively had the courage to take this stand. Together, they agreed they did.

In the first editorial, Broderick noted that with the United States fighting a global war for democracy, in the nation there were “13,000,000 Negroes who are still fighting for the full measure of justice which our Constitution guarantees to all citizens of our country,” pointing out the inferior schools, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in housing and unions that African Americans suffered. Broderick’s second editorial chastised the University because it was the only college in the north with a racially restrictive admissions policy, and in the context of the war, this meant Princeton in “its principle of white supremacy and, in an institution devoted to the free pursuit of truth, implicitly perpetuates a racial theory more characteristic of our enemies than of an American university.”

Whig-Clio held a debate on the question, “Should Negroes be admitted to Princeton?” on October 1, 1943, with Broderick and C. Powell Whitehead ’43 arguing the case that they should. They employed the arguments used in the editorials–that Princeton should be true to the principles that the nation was fighting for around the world. Lemuel C. Hutchins ’43, President of the Princeton Senate, argued for the negative, saying it would be impractical because “the Negro undergraduate at Princeton would necessarily be excluded” from extracurricular activities and therefore not receive a full Princeton education. Wallace J. Williamson ’43, also arguing for the negative, stated “that the Negro had particular educational problems that could best be solved in more and better Negro institutions of learning, rather than by admitting Negroes to Princeton.”

After the debate, the Daily Princetonian again put the issue on the front page of its October 3, 1942 issue. This third editorial summarized and then disposed of arguments against admitting African American students. On October 5, the first students in the Navy’s V-12 training program arrived on campus, with four black students among their ranks. At the war’s end, three African American V-12 students were admitted into the undergraduate program and would become Princeton’s first black recipients of an undergraduate degree.

The editorials and these new students set off a firestorm that changed some students’ minds and forced the issue onto the radar of the Board of Trustees. Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, made no public comment in response. However, Charles Edison, New Jersey’s governor and chair of the Princeton University Board of Trustees, weighed in with his support. “I think it would be a wise step for Princeton to admit Negroes into the University,” he said as quoted in the Chicago Defender. “Although a private institution, Princeton has obligations due to its conspicuous position in American democracy.” When the trustees met October 22, 1942, Dodds brought up the question of admitting African Americans, but the board took no action on it. In the midst of all of these discussions, the Undergraduate Council voted seven to six that African Americans should be admitted to the Graduate School immediately and to the College as soon as the undergraduate body was “properly oriented.”

Meanwhile, Broderick had more than one platform. He used his position as the “On the Campus” editor for the Princeton Alumni Weekly to report on the controversy and sparked new debates in the publication’s letters to the editor. In the October 9, 1942 issue, Broderick wrote, “The most surprising thing about the campaign was not the opposition it aroused (which was actually much less than anticipated), but rather the support the editorial series evoked…from a respectable segment of students and faculty.” He followed up on October 23 with a note that the issue “did not die after the week’s editorials had been completed.”

Though detractors wrote in to the PAW, many who wrote letters agreed with Broderick. Arthur Shumate, Class of 1929, kicked off the alumni discussion in the October 30, 1942 issue: “If Broderick is really keen on mixing ’em up, he might well be acceptable as a transfer student at one of the better-known negro colleges.” De Witt Stern, Class of 1932, replied on November 13, saying that Sumate lacked “the real Christian spirit” of a “real Princetonian.” Stern’s was the first of many letters supporting Broderick and his arguments, so many that Thomas Riggs, Class of 1894, accused the PAW of suppressing dissent in a letter appearing in the December 4 issue. (The PAW denied this, and printed several letters from alumni who disapproved of Broderick.)

Broderick finished his degree under Princeton’s accelerated wartime program at the end of that semester and soon began his service in the Army Air Force in the Central Pacific theater. He later finished the PhD in history he began at Princeton at Harvard University, but he didn’t forget Princeton’s problems. In 1946, he ended the Princeton Summer Camp’s whites-only policy and successfully integrated the program during his first summer as its director. An African American campers from that summer, Robert Rivers, was one of three African Americans admitted to the Class of 1953. Rivers later said that attending the integrated camp had been “a defining moment. … I began to think seriously about personal possibilities at Princeton University.”

Princeton Summer Camp, 1940s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP188, Image No. 5088.

Broderick went on to a successful career as a teacher, historian, and university administrator, authoring a biography of W.E.B. DuBois which was an expanded version of his senior thesis. He also served as director of the Peace Corps in Ghana for two years. In 1968, he told the Boston Globe that he became interested in the plight of African Americans while an undergraduate at Princeton, and after his appointment as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, he intended to change its demographics, too. “We’re going to have to recruit actively in all parts of the community for black students” in spite of predicted protest from alumni.

At 69, Broderick succumbed to cancer. His activism at Princeton remained a significant part of his legacy. The New York Times wrote in his obituary in 1992, “Mr. Broderick helped to lead the movement…to reverse Princeton’s unofficial ban on admitting black undergraduates.” Broderick’s role in the conversation about race at Princeton might have been foreshadowed by something he wrote in his application essay in 1938: “I hope that tolerance and a broader outlook on life will be among the advantages that Princeton courses will offer.”

The second installment of this series will show how faculty and students continued the push to end white supremacy at Princeton throughout the 1940s.


Broderick, Francis Lyons. “They Too Sing America: A History of Negro Leadership Since 1895.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 1943.

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Chicago Defender

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Office of the Vice President and Secretary Records (AC190)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

Undergraduate Academic Files 1921-2016 (AC198)

For further reading:

Armstrong, April C. “African Americans and Princeton University.”

Armstrong, April C. “Integrating Princeton University: Robert Joseph Rivers ’53.”

Armstrong, April C. “‘Princeton University Does Not Discriminate…’: African American Exclusion at Princeton.”

Broderick, Francis Lyons. “Commencement Talk,” University of Massachusetts at Boston, June 12, 1969.

Duckett, Alfred A. “Princeton Students Lose Double-V Fight But Color Bar Fight Goes On.” Chicago Defender, March 27, 1943.

Klein, Dan. “Ahead of His Time.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 20, 1995.

Rivers, Robert J., Jr. “Sankofa: Looking Back as We Move Forward.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, July 16, 2008.

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