After months of discussion and study, Princeton school district officials have settled on Princeton Middle School as the new name for the grades 6-8 school formerly known as the John Witherspoon Middle School.
The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education voted 7-1 on the new name at its June 15 meeting. School board member Dan Dart, who favored naming it the Princeton Community Middle School, cast the lone dissenting vote. School board member Michele Tuck Ponder was absent.
The choice of a generic name, however, drew sharp criticism from some meeting attendees who sought to name it for a person.
The vote capped a nearly year-long effort to rename the school on Walnut Lane. A Princeton High School graduate launched an online petition to remove John Witherspoon’s name from the school because he was a slave owner. Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the sixth president of Princeton University.
School district officials appointed a committee to find a new name for the school, which was temporarily named the Princeton Unified Middle School. Students were involved in studying the issue and suggesting possible names for the school.
The students suggested naming it for individuals such as former slave and educator Betsey Stockton, Princeton community historian Shirley Satterfield, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and actor Paul Robeson, who grew up in Princeton.
The June 15 resolution to change the name to Princeton Middle School stated that persons whose names had been considered in the renaming process could be honored by using their names in the hallways and public spaces at the middle school.
Princeton Unified Middle School Principal Jason Burr recommended against naming the school for a person and suggested choosing a generic name at the school board’s May 25 meeting, based on polling results.
Polls of students in grades 5-9, as well as middle school staff, showed a preference for a generic name. Princeton Middle School was the students’ top choice and Princeton Community Middle School was the staff’s top choice.
A community poll conducted in April drew more than 2,400 responses. The online community poll revealed that 28.2% of respondents wanted a non-specific – or generic – name. Respondents also could choose to name the school for a person.
Of the suggested names listed in the community poll, naming the school for Shirley Satterfield – a Princeton native and the historian of the historically Black Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood – was the preference of 19.3% of poll-takers. Albert Einstein was favored by 16.5% and Paul Robeson was the choice of 12.5%. Satterfield and Robeson are Black.
At the school board’s June 15 meeting, school board members Jean Durbin and Betsy Baglio said they would defer to the students’ choice of Princeton Middle School. The middle school is across the street from Princeton High School, so this would foster a connection between them, Baglio said.
School board member Dafna Kendal agreed, and said that Princeton Middle School is the most “common sense” school name. The students like the name, and they took the task of choosing a name “very seriously,” she said.
But choosing a generic name, instead of naming it for a person, generated criticism from several meeting attendees when the meeting was opened for public comment.
Dawn Collins, who is Shirley Satterfield’s daughter and a 1983 graduate of the former John Witherspoon Middle School, questioned why the board decided on a generic name and not to name it for Satterfield. She pointed out that Satterfield was the top choice among potential “person” names.
“The school board should understand how it feels to the Black citizens of Princeton whose input, civic engagement and will seems to be so easily dismissed and put aside by a school board that seems to lack diversity and inflicts the exact same harm and trauma that the renaming sought to cure,” Collins said.
It is disappointing, and to set aside the votes of the residents is to undermine the process, Collins said. It is offensive, but the dismissal of the votes is a “local manifestation of what we see at the national (level),” she said.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso clarified that it was not a vote by the community, but a poll conducted by Burr, the middle school principal. A generic, non-person-specific name was the choice of about 30% of the respondents, he said.
School board president Beth Behrend said Burr made a detailed presentation at the school board’s May 25 meeting, which can be viewed online on the school district’s Youtube channel.
Resident Hinda Winawer asked why some of the persons that the middle school students studied as possible nominees for a name change had not been considered. The students made videos about the individual they studied.
“I don’t know why we didn’t go with a ‘just’ human. It does feel a little bit like Princeton is white-washing history, like the rest of the country does. I’m really very disappointed, especially (after) all of the progress made under Barry Galasso and (former Superintendent of Schools) Steve Cochrane,” Winawer said.
The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, said there were some “wise and moral decisions” that could have been made before voting to give the school a generic name – “what we has a community were trying to do in removing the name of John Witherspoon, based on what it reflects.
“It seems quite logical and morally consistent that (we) want to replace that name with one that leads us in a different direction,” Mjumbe said, lobbying to name the school for Satterfield. She would bring together “all of our history,” he said.
Jennifer Cohan said Black residents have been ignored historically and into the present. She said she worked with a Black mother and son to start the petition to change the name of the school.
By giving the school a generic name, the white majority school board “(is) not listening to Black Princeton residents,” she said. One of the nine school board members is Black.
Cohan said the story of how the name change occurred – through the online petition started by Princeton High School graduate Geoffrey Allen and a multiracial group – should be included in all teaching materials in the district.
The school on Walnut Lane is not the first school in the Princeton school district to bear Witherspoon’s name. Several school buildings – on Witherspoon Street and Quarry Street – included “Witherspoon” in their name.
The Witherspoon Street School, which was built in 1872 and stood on the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean streets, taught Black students. It grew out of a school for Black residents, founded in the 1830s by former slave and educator Betsey Stockton.
The school moved to 35 Quarry St. in 1909, when it was known as the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children. It became the grades 6-8 junior high school and was renamed the Witherspoon Street School following integration of the school district in 1948.