Should the Princeton Unified Middle School keep its name, or should it be known as the Walnut Lane Middle School, the Princeton Community Middle School, the Princeton Public Middle School or just the plain old Princeton Middle School?
Princeton residents will get a chance to weigh in on a new name for the grades 6-8 middle school at the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education’s May 25 meeting. A Zoom link to the meeting, which starts at 7:30 p.m., will be available at www.princetonk12.org
The school board will discuss the potential names and allow for public comment, after Princeton Unified Middle School Principal Jason Burr presents those names.
A vote on a new name for the school is set for the school board’s June 15 meeting.
The move to rename the school – which had been known as the John Witherspoon Middle School – grew out of a petition signed by more than 1,000 people that circulated last summer. The petition called for the name change because John Witherspoon was a slave owner.
Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and was a former president of The College of New Jersey, which was Princeton University’s historic name until it was changed in 1896. He was also a Presbyterian minister.
The petition stated that “in the midst of the ongoing support for 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 stated.
The school board voted in August 2020 to drop the name and substituted Princeton Unified Middle School until a new name could be chosen for the middle school. The goal was to choose a new name by June 30, 2021.
School district officials encouraged students and community members to help identify potential new names, school board President Beth Behrend said at the school board’s May 4 meeting.
Middle school and high school students were encouraged to study and participate.
Students recommended both individual names and generic names, Behrend said. The individual names ranged from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to educator and former slave Betsey Stockton, Princeton community historian Shirley Satterfield, as well as Albert Einstein, actor Paul Robeson and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who graduated from Princeton University.
The results of polls of students and community members revealed that most respondents believed the school’s name should not honor one person. The school’s values are embodied by the students, teachers and administrators who learn and work at the school, rather than the achievements of any one person, school district officials said.
It was also recommended that the middle school should highlight historical figures and Princetonians who had been considered as namesakes for the school, through the naming of hallways or building wings for them.
A marker should be placed on the school grounds, noting the former name of the John Witherspoon Middle School and the work done to re-examine this name.
Finally, it was recommended that a permanent historical exhibit should be displayed in the Learning Commons that highlights the contributions of Betsey Stockton and other early history of the Witherspoon School.
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.
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 state and 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 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.