Princeton residents who want to weigh in on renaming the John Witherspoon Middle School can do so at the Princeton school board’s Policy Committee meeting, set for 8 a.m. July 23.
The meeting, which will run from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., will be held virtually. A link to the Zoom meeting is available on the school district’s website at www.princetonk12.org. Email comments can be sent to the school board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
School district officials said they would like to hear from parents, staff, students and the community, and then consider their next steps. School board policy, adopted in 2007, does not permit school buildings to be named for individuals. The middle school was built in 1965.
The discussion to rename the middle school on Walnut Lane is being driven by a petition – signed by more than 1,000 people – that has been circulating since July 6. Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence, and was a former president of Princeton University and a slave owner. He was a Presbyterian minister.
The petition states that “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for the 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 study body,” the petition stated.
The petition also stated that the Princeton Pubic 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 school board, signed by a group calling themselves the Alumni of Princeton Public Schools, stated that although Witherspoon sought to educate enslaved and free Black men, he showed no desire to free the slaves that he taught or owned. Many other contemporary theologians of Witherspoon’s time championed abolishing slavery, but he did not, the letter said.
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 Witherpoon 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.
The former Witherspoon Street School was located at 35 Quarry St., 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 National Register of Historic Places.
The Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children 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 National Register for Historic Places 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.
Witherspoon Street is named for John Witherspoon.