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Community demands renaming of John Witherspoon Middle School

A petition demanding that Princeton school district officials rename the John Witherspoon Middle School for someone else in lieu of Witherspoon, who was a former president of Princeton University and a slave owner, has gained more than 850 signatures since it began circulating July 6.

The petition states that “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake, John Witherspoon.”

“This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and the district’s racially diverse student body,” the petition stated.

The petition also stated that the Princeton Public Schools “has issued multiple statements claiming to counter racism for the sake of all Black employees, students in the district and the rest of the community.”

A letter to the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education, signed by a group calling themselves the Alumni of Princeton Public Schools, stated that “the fact that John Witherspoon owned slaves is well established and inescapable.”

Witherspoon sat on a committee that examined abolishing slavery in New Jersey as early as 1790, but he and the committee voted against immediate action on the grounds that slavery was already dying out, the letter said.

Although Witherspoon, who was a Presbyterian minister, sought to educate enslaved and free Black men, he showed no desire to free the slaves that he taught or owned, the letter said. Many other contemporary theologians of Witherspoon’s time championed abolishing slavery, but he did not, it said.

While Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a founding father of the United States, “he oppressed and tyrannized Black lives in Princeton and throughout the state during his lifetime,” the letter said.

“Therefore, Witherspoon’s name should not be celebrated, nor should it represent the diverse body of Princeton’s one and only middle school,” the letter writers said.

In response, the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education issued a statement thanking the petitioners and noting that its Policy Committee will make a recommendation to the full school board regarding a process to rename the middle school in the next few weeks “with an opportunity for public input.”

The John Witherspoon Middle School on Walnut Lane is not the first school in the Princeton school district to bear Witherspoon’s name.

The John Witherspoon Middle School is a successor to the former Witherspoon Street School on Quarry Street. Like the present day middle school, the Witherspoon Street School served students in grades 6-8 in the former Princeton Borough public school district. It closed in the late 1960s, when the Walnut Lane school opened.

The former Witherspoon Street School was located on Quarry Street in the historically Black Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The building, which was constructed in 1909, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Historic Places.

“The Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children, located at 35 Quarry St., was historically used as a school building to house approximately 200 African American students, teachers and administrators from both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township,” the National Register of Historic Places nomination form said.

The school educated Black children through the eighth grade, until the Princeton Borough school district was integrated in 1948. At that point, the Witherspoon Street School became the grades 6-8 junior high school.

The Witherspoon Street School on Quarry Street traces its history to the 1830s, when former slave and Christian missionary Betsey Stockton began a school for Princeton’s Black children, according to the nomination form.

The school that Stockton founded was on the west side of Witherspoon Street, south of Mount Pisgah AME Church. A new school building, also called the Witherspoon Street School, was built in 1872 on the corner of Maclean and Witherspoon streets. It is still standing and has been converted into residential use.

In addition to demanding that school district officials rename the middle school, the letter writers made two additional requests – to expand the district’s curriculum to include more courses discussing racism in Princeton’s past and present, and to include dialogue on racially-discriminatory public policy and behavior in the United States in core classes in the schools.

The Princeton Public School alumni suggested offering a History of Princeton course as an elective in the middle school. The electives offered at the middle school emphasize the arts, such as drama and orchestra, and 3D programming, “yet all of these electives do not center around racial discourse,” they wrote.

Dialogue on racially-discriminatory public policy and behavior could be incorporated into core classes such as the mandatory civics class for eighth grade students, they wrote. It would be an opportunity to introduce discussions of race at an early age, and also establish greater knowledge of Princeton and the country’s racial history before students enter high school.

“We as alumni believe that creating and sustaining an effective curriculum for future generations will help to counter racism at the local level,” they wrote.

School district officials said the district is committed to combating systemic racism and acknowledged that the schools are not immune to it. Adapting its spaces and curriculum to welcome a diverse community is essential for every student to thrive and achieve their greatest potential, officials wrote.

“As the events of the past months point out so clearly, much work remains to be done,” school district officials wrote.

The district has pursued significant changes in its curriculum and culture in pursuit of equity, following an equity audit in the district in 2018, school district officials said. Those changes range from adoption of restorative justice principles and practices to educating the staff on implicit bias and cultural responsiveness.

“The school board will soon consider expanding our racial literacy curriculum this coming school year to include an additional, online course – initially for Princeton High School students and staff, but with the hope that in the longer term, it will be available to all Princeton Public Schools employees and community members,” they wrote.

School district officials said that over the next few months, “we will be communicating specific plans to the community as to the next steps in our efforts to make meaningful progress – symbolic and substantive – related to anti-racism in the Princeton Public Schools.”

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