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The Problem with “Firsts,” Part I: Archival Silence and Black Students at Princeton University

This is the first in a two-part series about archival silence and the “first” Black Princetonians. The second post in this series will consider Black staff.

People often ask us about the “first” person to do something in a given demographic. I previously wrote about the difficulty with determining who the “first” Jewish student was—and had to follow up with an update that there were several Jewish students before the one others had identified as the first, including one a half a century earlier than those sources claimed. Here, I want to examine the problem of “firsts” through the history of Black students at Princeton.

Recently, I answered a relatively common reference email, and one we’re getting more often these days: When did Princeton first admit Black students? Unfortunately, we can’t really answer such questions conclusively. As with the questions about Jewish students, there are problems of definition. Further, there are known record gaps when it comes to Black students at Princeton.

There is evidence that two men of African descent studied at Princeton without earning degrees for two years starting in 1774, when John Witherspoon tutored John Quamino (sometimes spelled Quamine) and Bristol Yamma before they went to Africa for missionary work. In the 1790s, a formerly enslaved man named John Chavis studied religion at Princeton prior to becoming a Presbyterian minister. But none of these men appear to have taken the classes offered in their time and it does not appear that Princeton considered them students.

James McCosh allowed several African American students from nearby Princeton Theological Seminary (a separate institution) to audit courses or attend chapel starting in the 1860s. Their presence in the classroom was highly controversial, but they were not considered to be students at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896). There were a handful of Black graduate students from the 1870s-1900s, but there was no standardized admissions process, and their professors, not Princeton itself, were responsible for admitting them. Later, administrators questioned whether these students could even be included in the alumni directory, since they only received graduate degrees.

Clipping from the Trenton Evening Times.

Bruce Wright was admitted to the Class of 1939, but Princeton rescinded his offer of admission when Wright came to enroll for classes and his race was visible. World War II brought African American undergraduates to Princeton through the military’s programs on campus, but it was the military, not Princeton itself, that was responsible for that. Simeon Moss *49 may be the first Black student to have been admitted through the institutional admissions process, but we may later find that he was not. His brother, Joseph Ralph Moss ’51, may have been the first African American to be admitted as an undergraduate during peacetime.

John LeRoy Howard ’47. Photo from 1947 Nassau Herald.

You may have read that John Leroy Howard, Arthur Jewell Wilson, James Everett Ward, and Melvin Murchison, Jr. were Princeton University’s first Black undergraduates when they arrived with the Navy in 1945. Records in the University Archives certainly assert this unambiguously, and I myself have said this with confidence on more than one occasion. Yet this, too, is misleading, if perhaps not strictly incorrect.

Records of Princeton’s military programs are not complete—something I have known for years—and yet I had not made the connection between these incomplete records and a possible erasure of Black students until recently, when I read an article in the July 31, 1943 issue of the Chicago Defender that announced Charles Hall’s completion of the Army Exchange Officers School at Princeton, “which normally does not admit Negroes.” There are no records I was able to locate related to Hall in the University Archives, but this does not mean he was not here. Hall was quickly forgotten because of the four men who arrived in 1945, and Hall would not have been enrolled as a Princeton undergraduate, but instead as an Army officer in a special program, although that distinction would have not made a great deal of practical difference in his experience in classrooms or living in a dormitory.

Our institutional amnesia about Hall is likely due to a combination of the values of our predecessors, the realities of incomplete documentation of students in military programs, and sparse records of Princeton University itself during World War II. Records of many students in military programs no longer exist, and this is not based on race. Still, we can assume that if it were important to Princeton to record that Hall in some way disrupted tradition, there would have been more effort to preserve the memory of his presence. What we know about Princeton of the 1940s would suggest, however, that most Princetonians would have seen Hall as an anomaly, and not a trailblazer, and Princeton would have expected to return to its exclusionary practices after the war.

With incomplete documentation alongside questions of who would fall under the category of “admitted” or as a “student,” we will remain unable to provide clear answers about who the first Black student admitted to Princeton was. Yet incomplete documentation leading to potential erasure is just one of the problems with “firsts.” In the next post in this two-part series, I will examine how records of Black staff members at Princeton illustrate other complications, and I will offer some reflections on why the language of “firsts” itself can be a way of inadvertently reinforcing the oppressive system of white patriarchy.


At Princeton University.” Chicago Defender 31 July 1943: 6.

Admissions Office Records (AC152)

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey

General Catalogue of Princeton University 1746-1906. Princeton: Princeton University, 1908.

Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Looking Back: Reflections of Black Alumni at Princeton” (1996)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104)

For further reading:

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

Armstrong, April C. “Dear Mr. Mudd: Who Was Princeton’s First Jewish Student?

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

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

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

Armstrong, April C. “An Update on the Earliest Records of Jewish Students at Princeton.”


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