Princeton Public Schools officials have agreed to change the name of the John Witherspoon Middle School, five weeks after a Princeton High School alumnus began circulating an online petition seeking the name change.
The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted to drop John Witherspoon from the grades 6-8 middle school on Walnut Lane at its Aug. 11 meeting. The school will be known as the Princeton Unified Middle School until a new name can be selected by June 30, 2021.
The school board resolution to rename the school states that “we will not erase history but invite our students, our educators and our community to join us in choosing intentionally who and how we honor and lift up as an inspirational figure or figures for our middle school.”
The move to rename the middle school was triggered by a petition that has been signed by more than 1,500 people since it was launched July 6 by alumnus Geoffrey Allen.
Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and was the sixth president of Princeton University. Witherspoon owned slaves, and that was the impetus for the petition and name change.
The petition states that “in the midst 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 student body,” the petition states.
School board member Jessica Deutsch acknowledged earlier that the drive to change the school’s name was related to the petition, but school district officials also have raised the issue “in the context of racial justice.”
The school board resolution stated that it was “grateful” for the alumni who created and circulated the petition requesting the removal of Witherspoon’s name from the school,”as well as other steps to address racism and inequity in our schools.”
The resolution also stated that “we wish to acknowledge our history – including the pain, injustice and complexity of our community’s racial history – and move forward with healing, compassion and respect.”
The resolution calls on Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso to work with school district administrators and staff, as well as community members, to develop a plan to use the removal of John Witherspoon’s name as a teachable moment and to include “discussion of possible new names as a means of educating and engaging our students and community.”
It also asks Galasso to develop a plan for the school district that includes “specific and actionable steps that address racism in our schools.” The language was suggested by school board member Brian McDonald, who said that changing the name is not enough.
School board member Michelle Tuck-Ponder said that taking Witherspoon’s name off the school is a “feel-good thing,” but until the underlying culture is addressed, “I don’t have any confidence that it will do anything at all.”
In response to Allen’s petition, the school board’s Policy Committee and Equity Committee each met and listened to comments from Princeton residents plus school district teachers and staff regarding the proposal.
Most of the comments were supportive of the name change, but some residents pushed back on it.
Benito Gonzalez, who teaches social studies at the middle school, said this is a chance for the district to name the school for someone from a historically under-represented community, such as Blacks or the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community.
It is a chance to choose a name that more accurately represents where society is now, and ultimately “where we want society to be,” Gonzalez said at the Policy Committee’s July 23 meeting.
The school’s present name was chosen “at a specific moment in time because it represented something to the people of Princeton at that time,” said Kim Marks, co-president of the John Witherspoon Middle School PTO. The building was constructed in 1965 as an elementary school.
“The current residents (in 2020) are entitled to highlight a different character, quality, value (or) piece of their history if they choose, and that choice will be in itself historic,” Marks said at the Equity Committee meeting.
But Princeton resident Liam Allen Dalgleish, who also spoke at the Equity Committee meeting, said he was “opposed to this at every level. Who are we to do what we are doing? It does no one any good to re-write history.
“If we go around changing history so we feel more comfortable with it, the only thing we accomplish is make ourselves (feel) free of guilt of whatever is associated with it. There is a lot of guilt with slave traffic and slave ownership,” Dalgleish said. Slave trafficking and slave ownership are not the same thing, he pointed out.
“Are you interested in exploring the intellectual ramifications of this, or do you want to just please people?” Dalgleish said.
Princeton resident Rod Montgomery asked the Policy Committee whether the most important thing about John Witherspoon is whether he owned slaves and did not favor abolition.
“I’m not sure it reflects the nuances (of the historical figure),” Montgomery said.
The John Witherspoon Middle School on Walnut Lane is not the first school building 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 1960s.
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 State Register of Historic Places and the National 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 about 200 Black 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 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.