By Anthony Stoeckert
In 2013, Martha Sandweiss, history professor at Princeton University, taught a class about Princeton’s history with slavery, which she thought would be one-time thing.
“I had recently moved to Princeton, I was curious, I was ignorant [as to] what might the story be about Princeton and its engagement with the historical institution of slavery,” Sandweiss says. “Lots of other schools had done these studies but when I got to Princeton I discovered no one was really looking into that here.”
Sandweiss and her undergrad students studied materials at Princeton’s archives with archivist Daniel Linke. During that research she saw the beginnings of a bigger story. With help from the university’s humanities council, the endeavor grew from a one-time class to a comprehensive resource known as The Princeton and Slavery Project.
Sandweiss says the core of the project is a website containing the equivalent of 800 pages of historical stories written by Princeton students, undergrad and graduate, and professional colleagues. It also contains videos, maps and other information. Also available on the site are about 350 primary source documents.
“I think it will be a really rich resource for teachers and students moving forward, and we hope the website will continue to grow as other people contribute documents and stories of their own,” Sandweiss says.
The website launched Nov. 6, and coinciding with the project is a series of events with the project’s community partners, including performances of short plays about Princeton’s history with slavery at McCarter Theatre, Nov. 19.
Sandweiss says that early on in the project, she realized community partners would add an impact and create a broader conversation because other outlets can explore Princeton’s history with slavery in ways historians cannot.
“History lies at the core of this project, but historians have rules,” Sandweiss says. “We cannot speculate about things, we cannot assert things for which we do not have evidence. We live and die by our footnotes. Creative artists engage the past in a different way, they can engage their artistic imaginations, they can imagine what people said or imagine what people were thinking.”
She says Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director, immediately supported the theater’s involvement with the project, and decided to commission playwrights to write short plays based on the historical documents.
Mann herself wrote a play, “Under the Liberty Trees,” which was inspired by a 1766 sale notice for slaves sold by Samuel Finley, then-president of the university (then known as The College of New Jersey.
Dipika Guha’s “Elizabeth” is about the American Colonization Society, a group that supported slaves who wanted to return to Africa, and helped found the nation of Liberia in the early part of the 19th century. The short play examines the society’s efforts from several points of view such as slave traders, both American and African, a wealthy Philadelphia African American businessman who debates lending a ship to the society, and a young Princeton minister dealing with a spiritual crisis.
“The play is completely true,” Guha says. “The only voice that I made up was the African slave trader’s voice, I couldn’t find primary source material but I did read about that and people like that. Everyone else’s point of view has been collected from primary source material — from letters, from the Colonization Society and from their annual minutes.”
Guha is a New York-based playwright who got involved with the project after she participated in a residency at the theater. She says writing a short play on such a big topic was a challenge.
“The process is exactly the same as writing a longer play, only you’re trying to distill your ambitions down to 10 minutes,” she says. “It has been challenging and this play has gone through [a lot of] drafts. The process of reading and finding your way into a point of view and then finding a structure that will support that point of view was identical, for me, whether the play is full length or 10 minutes.”
She also says she’s considering writing a full-length play on the subject.
“There’s an interesting way to tell it, to share it with people, that challenge is exciting,” she says. “I fell in love with the characters and I would love to find a way to expand it.”
Other playwrights whose plays will be read during the weekend include Nathan Alan Davis; Jackie Sibblies Drury; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Kwame Kwei-Armah; and Regina Taylor.
Anna Morton, literary manager for the project, says the playwrights spent about a year working on their plays.
“They were given an overview of the research and what their findings were so far,” Morton says. “And they were shown and introduced to certain documents from all of the archives the scholars had found that might help to be jumping-off points to help inspire them about what they wanted to write.”
The playwrights also toured the university and the Princeton area to see the locations related to their research.
Guha’s “Elizabeth” is one of two plays written about the Colonization Society. Another story being told in two plays is that of James Johnson, an escaped slave who arrived at Princeton and worked at the campus. He was recognized by a student who lived near the plantation Johnson worked at and turned in Johnson, who was sent back to the plantation in Maryland.
“It’s amazing what we don’t know and what they’ve been able to uncover and then taking it a step forward with the playwrights and what they’ve been able to imagine from what’s been uncovered,” Morton says. “I think it’s going to be a special event for the community to have this research made available and see these plays and learn all these things that we don’t know even though we’ve lived here for so long.”
Other events tied to the website’s opening is keynote address by Toni Morrison. There also will be a screening of a documentary featuring interviews with Princeton graduates who are descendants of slaves and slaveholder. Both Morrison’s talk and the documentary screening are sold out.
The Princeton University Art Museum is installing a sculpture in front of Maclean House by artist Titus Kaphar. The museum’s galleries will showcase works by Kahar.
The Princeton Library is hosting an exhibit drawing from historical documents to show how deeply slavery was ingrained in Princeton well into the 19th century. The library also will host a screening of the acclaimed film, “I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin and Race in America” featuring a discussion with Ruha Benjamin, assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. On Nov. 20, the library will host a post-show conversation on the Princeton and Slavery Plays with Not in Our Town Princeton.
On Nov. 28, the library will screen four films by undergraduate student filmmakers that explore resonance of family stories about slavery, based on research from the project. The screenings will be followed by a discussion with the student filmmakers.
Public performances of the Princeton and Slavery plays will take place at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Nov. 19, 1 p.m., 4:30 p.m. A post-show panel discussion will take place after the 1 p.m. performance. Tickets are free and must be reserved at www.mccarter.org.
By Anthony Stoeckert