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.”