Princeton residents can choose from 10 options to rename Witherspoon school

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Should the former John Witherspoon Middle School be renamed the Elizabeth Stockton Middle School?

How about the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation Middle School, the Shirley Satterfield Middle School or just plain old Princeton Community School?

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Those are among the 10 names being batted around in a quest to rename the grades 6-8 middle school on Walnut Lane.

The former John Witherspoon Middle School has been known as the Princeton Unified Middle School since August 2020.

Princeton residents – whether or not they have students enrolled in the district – may weigh in on the selection of a new name for the school, thanks to a community survey being distributed by the Princeton Public Schools on its website at princetonk12.org.

The deadline to vote is April 1.

Among the other names in the running are the Albert Einstein Middle School, the John Lewis Middle School, the Michelle Obama Middle School, the Paul Robeson Middle School, the Ruth Bader Ginsberg Middle School and the Walnut Lane Middle School.

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education will announce the new name of the middle school in May, based on the results of voting by Princeton Unified Middle School students and community members.

The move to rename the middle school was triggered by a petition signed by more than 1,500 people that circulated last summer.

Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration on Independence and the sixth president of Princeton University. But he also owned slaves, and that was the impetus for the petition and the movement for the name change.

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

“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.

This is not the first time that renaming the school was raised, but the current effort to rename it grew out of the petition that was circulated by Princeton High School alumnus Geoffrey Allen. School district officials also raised the issue in the context of racial justice.

Allen, who said he did not know much about Witherspoon until he began to research and learn more about the man, said Witherspoon’s history belongs in a museum. Witherspoon does not deserve to have a school named after him.

But there is more to the story, as the John Witherspoon Middle School came to its name in a roundabout way.

Shirley Satterfield, whose roots in Princeton extend several generations and who is familiar with the history of the historically Black Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, traced the history of the school and how it received its name.

Elizabeth Stockton was a former slave and Christian missionary who later gained her freedom, Satterfield said. She started the first school in Princeton to teach Black children by day and Black adults at night, beginning in the 1830s.

The school that Stockton founded was on the west side of Witherspoon Street, south of Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church.

In 1872, a new school building for Black children was built on the corner of Witherspoon Street and Maclean Street. It was called the Witherspoon Street School, Satterfield said.

In 1909, another new school was built at 35 Quarry St. Its historic name was the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children.

While the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children taught Black children through eighth grade, White children attended the Nassau Street School at 185 Nassau St.

When the public school district was integrated in 1948, the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children on Quarry Street became the grades 6-8 junior high school. The name carried over – with a slight modification – to the new school on Walnut Lane when it opened in 1965.

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