At Princeton, Titus Kaphar Reckons with the University’s History of Slavery

Artsy Editorial
Nov 14, 2017 9:33PM

Titus Kaphar stands next to his commission for Princeton University, Impressions of Liberty (2017). Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.

In July of 1766, an advertisement announcing the sale of the estate of the late Samuel Finley, the fifth president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), appeared in the Philadelphia Journal. On campus that August, the noted Presbyterian theologian’s personal property would be auctioned off: household furnishings, livestock, a light wagon and, to the astonishment of the Northern university’s community, “two negro women, a negro man, and three negro children.”

Last week, some 250 years later, Princeton unveiled Impressions of Liberty (2017), a public sculpture by the African-American artist Titus Kaphar that the Ivy League university commissioned to confront its shameful past. Kaphar describes the two-ton sculpture of Finley, an inverted bust carved into a block of sycamore wood and coated in graphite, as “a monument to the memory of the enslaved.” Etched into a layer of glass that has been placed over the dark recess created by Finley’s inverted head is a family of three finely dressed black figures.

The family is meant to represent not only the people that Finley enslaved during his tenure, but also the many other chattel slaves held by professors and the families of students since the university’s founding. Hovering within Finley’s silhouette, the black man, woman, and girl hold each other, the frightened expressions on their faces typical of those who were made to stand on auction blocks before them, unable to manifest their own destinies. At night, the sculpture, which is a part of Kaphar’s ongoing “Monumental Inversions” series, glows in the dark, illuminating the ugly fact of this country’s original sin.

“I really like the poetry of the inversion of a bust,” explains Kaphar, who has spent his career examining the enslavement of black people by America’s founding fathers. The layering of the black figures over Finley’s bust is intended to create a visual phenomenon, he says. When the light hits the artwork’s black space, it creates a dimensional impression of the enslaved family floating in their master’s likeness. “The object itself is a kind of lighthouse,” the artist says. “What happens is your eyes are wrestling with the foreground and background—and to me that struggle, between the three black figures that are on top of the glass and the inverted bust of Finley, is the piece.”

Titus Kaphar, Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal, 2017. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


The work comes at a time when universities across the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown (the latter where I studied), are reckoning with their own connections to slavery, and amid a heated national conversation about the country’s hundreds of Confederate monuments. Princeton is one of few universities, however, to enlist a contemporary artist to create a monument that challenges the myths we tell about the founding of America. (Brown University has a striking memorial by the artist Martin Puryear.)

In this post-Charlottesville moment, Kaphar sees Impressions of Liberty as a means to wade into this debate. “I’m trying to begin a conversation about public sculpture and monuments, and the ways they impact our psyches,” he says. He believes the current discourse is binary and lacking in nuance. “My proposal, the new line of thinking I am trying to insert into the narrative and dialogue, is that rather than just taking these things down, we can engage contemporary artists to make work that actually pushes back against these public monuments.”

His commissioned sculpture is a part of the Ivy League institution’s “The Princeton and Slavery Project,” a research initiative started four years ago by Martha A. Sandweiss, a professor of history at the university, to investigate Princeton’s historical ties to the institution of slavery. Since 2013, Sandweiss and a team of historians, archivists, and students have been examining the university’s records and publishing their findings, including hundreds of articles and primary sources dating back to the university’s founding.

“We are an 18th-century institution,” says Sandweiss, “and much like all 18th-century institutions founded in British North America, we do have a connection to slavery—and I think it behooves us to understand exactly what that was. Princeton University, founded in 1746, exemplifies the central paradox at the heart of American history. From the very start, liberty and slavery were intertwined.”

Titus Kaphar
Shifting the Gaze, 2017
Jack Shainman Gallery

In the decades between the American Revolution and the American Civil War, according to Sandweiss and her colleagues’ research, the number of students attending Princeton from the South peaked at 66 percent. (By comparison, at Harvard and Yale, the number of students coming from the South was considerably lower.) Many of these students were from slaveholding families, resulting in a campus culture that was sympathetic to the enslavement of blacks.

In the 1830s and ’40s, for instance, the local black community near Princeton was subject to racial acts of terror led by its students. The Princeton & Slavery Project website features one account penned by a student, John Witherspoon Woods, who in 1835 wrote to his mother that 60 of his fellow students nearly lynched an abolitionist. Another tells the 1953 story of two alumni who describe in detail some anatomy students stealing a body from a local black cemetery.

Despite this continuing racism, and the fact that Finley and the school’s first nine presidents enslaved black people, Sandweiss and her team found that the school’s last instance of slavery came in 1840, when a math professor owned a black slave. Nonetheless, as the southern states started to secede in 1861, 44 percent of Princeton’s student body were still from slave states. “Those students withdrew,” says Sandweiss, “and went home to prepare to fight their roommates.”

“Don’t let’s shoot each other,” wrote Henry A. Stinnecke, a southern student, to his classmate and friend Winfield S. Purviance of Pennsylvania in an 1861 Princeton autograph book. “Though your deadly foe in public life, I am in private life your friend.”

With Impressions of Liberty and the wider Princeton and Slavery Project, the university hopes to capture some of this complex history. “Slavery is complicated,” says Kaphar. “But at the end of the day, in a country that holds liberty as its highest value, our early leaders enslaved people.” Impressions adds one more story to Kaphar’s larger body of work that includes Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014), a portrait of Thomas Jefferson that is drawn back to reveal an image of a nude, enslaved black woman. The picture takes aim at the idea that our founding fathers should be absolved of having enslaved people.

“One of the things we were very drawn to in Titus’s work is that it is inherently layered but also inherently slippery,” explains Princeton University Art Museum (PUAM) director, James Christen Steward. “It seems to me the very slipperiness of the work allows us to bring our own meanings to it that are conditioned by the moment of looking. What we are getting at is the idea that there is no fixed narrative of slavery, and there’s no fixed narrative of American history.” Steward believes the public work disrupts the past, making something that looks static, like a historical monument, “look dangerous and unpredictable.”

Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Titus Kaphar, Monumental Inversions: George Washington, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

To further contextualize Kaphar’s sculpture, the PUAM has mounted “Making History Visible: Of American Myths and National Heroes,” a group exhibition of historic and contemporary works by artists including Alexander Hesler, Elizabeth Catlett, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker. The show explores the ways in which artists have addressed slavery in order to explore the making of American identity.

The show also features five additional works by Kaphar, including Monumental Inversion: George Washington (2016), made out of wood, blown glass, and steel. It shows Washington in negative relief atop a charred horse that evokes an abject body, depicting him as both an American revolutionary and a slave master. The exhibition ties Kaphar’s art to images of President Lincoln and the revolutionary period, powerfully bringing this history into our present, showing how, as Sandweiss notes, “people on our campus are dealing with these issues everyday in very personal ways, in addition to structural and institutional ways.”

Kapahar’s Impressions sits on the front lawn of Maclean House, a small yellow residence near Princeton’s main gates on Nassau Street, the university’s main drag. The building is now the alumni house, but it was once the home to former Princeton presidents and the black people they held in bondage. The house is framed by large sycamore trees that Finley planted, which, according to campus lore, are called “Liberty Trees,” as they were intended to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act of 1765, a levy the British sought to impose on its American colony.

Just a year later, in August of 1766, six of at least seven black slaves owned by the university’s fifth president were sold beneath those very liberty trees. Looking up at the trees from where Kaphar’s monument stands, you notice, past the colorful leaves, the top of steel armatures. Some time after Finley planted them, the trees became diseased. “They are now unable to support their own weight,” Kaphar tells me. Like his sculpture, the steel coils rooted inside the sycamore trees scaffold a tragic impression of liberty.

Artsy Editorial

A previous version of this article incorrectly dated the 1861 message in the Princeton autograph book as being from 1961.