Scholars explore Princeton University’s historic links to slavery for art, academia

Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Scholars at Princeton University are researching that university’s historic relationship to slavery for a series of academic and artistic events to debut in the fall.

The Princeton and Slavery Project has been quietly brewing for a couple years as history professor Martha Sandweiss — with a group of undergrad and graduate students — has been poring through historic documents to investigate the university’s ties to the institute of slavery.

Princeton was founded in 1746, as the College of New Jersey. Many American institutes that go back that far — academic and otherwise — will have some connection to slavery, if you look hard enough.

Sandweiss looked.

“The one thing that makes our campus different than the other Colonial campuses is that we had quite a bit more Southern students — more than Yale, more than Harvard, more than Columbia,” said Sandweiss. “That deeply shaped the types of conversations that took place on our campus.”

Sandweiss’ Princeton and Slavery Project began well before the campus dustup of 2015, when many students called for for  Woodrow’s Wilson name to be removed from Princeton’s school of public affairs because of is record of racism. Wilson served as president of the college before his election as U.S. president.

She does not yet want to share what stories she and her students have found; they are saving those for the rollout of a website, academic symposium, art installation, and theatrical performances planned for the fall.

Sandweiss partnered with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre to commission seven nationally recognized playwrights — including Regina Taylor, MacArthur genius Brandon Jacob-Jenkins, and McCarter’s own award-winning director Emily Mann — to write short plays inspired by primary-source documents depicting of slavery at Princeton.

“Historians and playwrights to a certain degree have the same ambition: They want to help us understand who we are, and how we got that way,” said Sandweiss. “But we play by different rules.”

The playwrights, selected based on their interest in documentary theater, were given carte blanche to create whatever they wanted.

“The hope is there will be a kernel from this research and a kernel from Princeton in all of these plays,” said McCarter’s literary director Emilia LaPenta.

The plays will be performed as dramatic readings in November. First drafts are due in March.

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