By Pam Hersh
According to author Thomas Wolfe, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Once you have left the town where you were brought up, attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail.
Princeton native Leighton Newlin has been living the antithesis of this sentiment, for he has had no desire to relive some of those youthful memories. During the 27 years he lived outside of Princeton (to go to college and then work in Boston and New York), he was unsure he even could call Princeton his “home” — and unsure he ever wanted to go back.
Sure, he was born in Princeton 67 years ago, went to school in Princeton, had friends and relatives in Princeton. But there was much about growing up in Princeton for the African-American resident that was off-putting. Only recently has Princeton in his heart and mind become his “home,” not just a place of residence.
And Mr. Newlin, a parent of two children and grandparent of four, is living in his grandparents’ Birch Avenue home, next to the house where he grew up. He is eager to tell his story of how his birthplace became his home, thanks to recent social and political changes in Princeton.
”For years I would go places and tell people I met that I was from Princeton,” he said. “The usual response would be something to the extent that I was from a great place and how fortunate I was to be from there. I would always nod my head… but in the back of my mind I would be thinking that the Princeton most people see is not the real Princeton. In America, oftentimes you hear that black people live ‘on the other side of the (railroad) tracks,’ and it happens to be true. There are railroad tracks in Princeton too, you just don’t see them… But black folks know and have always felt, that the (dividing line) railroad tracks were there.”
As a kid, Mr. Newlin was denied counter seating at two Nassau Street luncheonettes (The Balt and Renwick’s) and denied access to a white friend’s swim club.
When he returned to Princeton in 1996 to be close to his aging parents, “things were better in Princeton, but still not clicking for me as far as feeling a sense of belonging in the community… For most of my adult life, I never have been 100 percent comfortable here, I never have felt like I fully belonged,” said Mr. Newlin, reiterating to me what he had written in an Oct. 5 letter to the editor.
Mr. Newlin had a lot going for him in town where he was surrounded by friends and family. He found a good job at a community education center in Trenton, working on education and vocational training initiatives for prisoners re-entering society — people who were trying to go home again.
He became a volunteer Princeton community activist in the area of affordable housing, educational enrichment, and property tax fairness.
Nevertheless, he never jettisoned his personal feeling that “people of color were viewed as second-class citizens in Princeton.” Only recently, he said has the town embraced the two major initiatives responsible for bringing Mr. Newlin home again.
”The changes I see in the current makeup of the consolidated police department are the most telling aspect of the town’s willingness to be inclusive and diverse,” he said. “Under a consolidated Princeton, our police department — led by a capable chief — has assembled and can boast the most diverse group of law enforcement officers I believe, anywhere in the state of New Jersey.”
The passing of the ordinance that made the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood a historic district was also a “giant step for humankind by the municipality toward acknowledging both recollection of its history and in some sense reparation for the deeds of its past,” he said. When the Princeton Council unanimously passed the historic district ordinance on April 11,, 2016, Mr. Newlin said he cried. “I cried for my grandparents and all the people that lived in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood that worked to build the infrastructure of a town they never got to fully enjoy or, for that matter, feel part of.”
Princeton is more diverse, more open, more fair-minded, more welcoming, and more American, according to Mr. Newlin, who continues his work with the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association to preserve the neighborhood and the principles of diversity and inclusion.
The neighborhood — “a melting pot of American values,” according to Mr. Newlin — is the most ethnically and economically diverse in Princeton and perhaps in all of central New Jersey. Leighton Newlin feels he has come home — not again, but at last.
LOOSE ENDS: Leighton Newlin reflects on what Princeton means to him
By Pam Hersh