True to their word, Princeton public school district officials are creating a committee to consider a new name for the former John Witherspoon Middle School – now known as the Princeton Unified Middle School.
The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education agreed to change the name of the John Witherspoon Middle School at its Aug. 11 meeting, five weeks after a Princeton High School alumnus began circulating a petition seeking the name change.
At the school board’s direction, Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso is putting together a broad-based community planning committee to help rename the middle school on Walnut Lane.
School board members Betsey Baglio and Deb Bronfeld will be the board’s liaisons to the committee, Galasso said at the school board’s Aug. 25 meeting.
“(The committee) will develop a program where we not only engage the community, but at the board’s direction, make it a learning opportunity for the youngsters,” Galasso said.
The school has been temporarily named the Princeton Unified Middle School. Officials want to choose a permanent name by June 30, 2021.
The school board resolution to rename the middle school, adopted at its Aug. 11 meeting, 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 Princeton High School 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.
The school board’s Aug. 11 resolution states that it is “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 in equity in our schools.”
The resolution also states 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 former 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 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 1965, when the Walnut Lane school opened.
The Witherspoon Street School – which was originally called the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children – was located at 35 Quarry St. 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 building was historically used as a school building to house about 200 Black students, teachers and administrators from both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, according to the the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
The school educated 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.