Number 30 on Quarry Street is a small white house with dark, blue shutters. It is thin and tall, as if it were built to stand shoulder to shoulder with twin houses on a crowded street. But it stands alone, with tidy gardens on both sides. A pine wreath hangs from a hook that is duct-taped to the front door. From what I can see from the porch, the interior is dark and full of books.
I knock on the door on a Saturday afternoon just as the sun is beginning to set, and after a long wait, Shirley Satterfield opens the front door. The first day I came to her house three weeks ago she had poked her head through the narrow gap of the doorway and said, “I’m trying to keep the history alive. It’s being destroyed. Call me on my landline.” Today, she waves me into her living room. The house smells of soap and old perfume.
Her outfit suggests that she is halfway ready for tomorrow’s service—she’s wearing worn slippers, loose jeans and a complete set of Sunday morning jewelry: gold bangles, gold earrings, gold necklace.
Satterfield perches on the edge of the couch in her dimly lit front parlor. She folds her hands in her lap and sits with her knees together, the habit of a lifetime of skirts in pews. Her black hair, tinged with silver, falls in a gentle curve that ends just below her ears. She speaks slow and clear, and minutes often pass before she realizes that she has answered one question with a series of ten stories or more. She has many stories, she tells me.
Satterfield believes in the power of stories (“I tell the real story; our history is too important to water it down,” she says,) and this belief is evident within moments of entering her home. Her front parlor feels like a tiny museum, filled wall-to-wall with remnants of Princeton’s past: the portrait of four black women on the wall, an old Corona typewriter with even the Z key dust-free, a daguerreotype of two fiery-eyed men and women, a black and white photograph of the Imperial Champions celebrating their baseball victory, a rotary phone.
Satterfield, who is 77 and the last member of her family’s six generations in Princeton, is the self-appointed historian of the town’s 20th historic district. Ask anyone who has lived here for more than ten years about Princeton’s African American community and they’ll point you to 30, Quarry Street. Nobody seems to mind that a legion of PhD’s lives just up the road: Satterfield tells a story you can’t find anywhere else. I am told this repeatedly.
The history of Princeton—the one memorialized in portraits on the university walls—leaves little room for African American faces. The statues and plaques of Princeton University and the town beyond its gates tell a story so magical that it often feels like fairy-tale: founding fathers and tragic authors, noble men and Nobel Prizes. The gargoyles that cling to gutters overhead are dark and twisted, but their story dazzles with a practiced gleam.
The story Satterfield preserves is less sterile, but it fills in the gaps. It’s the story of her community, invisible from the steps of Nassau Hall but present nonetheless. Princeton is built on their past. “We know about Einstein, we know about the college,” Satterfield tells me, waving her hand. “But there’s a whole rich history from Wiggins Street down to Birch Avenue.”
The records go as far back as 1794, when the university’s sixth president, John Witherspoon, died, leaving two slaves in his will. He gave each a value of one hundred dollars.
“That’s how we came here,” she says, explaining that these slaves were the first documented African Americans in Princeton. While early university alumni such as James Madison and Aaron Burr went on to become presidents and sign the constitution, their slaves were founding fathers in their own right, of the neighborhood that’s now known as Witherspoon-Jackson, Princeton’s 20th historic district.
The community was baptized in fire. In the university’s early days, both slaves and students worshipped in the Nassau Presbyterian Church, although the slaves were restricted to the upper gallery. (As a historian later observed, they were farther from the pulpit but “closer to God.”) When the church burned down in its second fire, the white parishioners moved their services to the Princeton Theological Seminary. The slaves, left on their own, founded the First Presbyterian Church of Color in Princeton in 1840. These days, it’s called the Witherspoon Church. It sits just down the block from Satterfield’s house, a white clapboard building with a single front door. Across the street is the Princeton Cemetery, (New England’s “Westminster Abbey), where white icons like Aaron Burr and Grover Cleveland are buried. Segregation endured beyond death: the slaves were interred separately, in the “colored” section.
The division of Nassau Presbyterian was the first of many episodes that pushed the African American community away from Nassau Street and the university. This partitioning of the community gained speed in the early 1900’s and continued to accelerate when the post-war employment boom stimulated housing development. Effectively expelled from Nassau Street, the African Americans built an independent community three blocks to the north. “We were entrepreneurs because Nassau Street didn’t welcome us,” Satterfield says. “So we had everything in this community. There were grocery stores, candy stores, ice cream parlors, beauty parlors, barber shops…”
The sanctuary founded by these early slaves soon became a destination for African Americans from the South. The grandfather of Terry McEwen, Trenton’s Business Administrator, came from Tennessee to Princeton, where he bought a house on Green Street and converted it into a station of the Underground Railroad. Leighton Newlin, an activist in the town, tells the story of his grandfather, Clarence “Fox” Madden, who rode his plantation master’s horse too hard and fled North to avoid “the whipping of his life.” It was, for many, a refuge.
The neighborhood has many local heroes. In her private museum, Satterfield shows me an old sepia-toned picture of Jimmy Johnson, “our first African American entrepreneur.”
“He left Baltimore with five dollars and showed up in Trenton with five cents,” she says. In the 1840’s, Johnson would roam around campus with a wheelbarrow, selling peanuts, candy and fruit to the white male students. In the photo, Jimmy stands proudly with one hand on his wheelbarrow and the other in his vest pocket, a crooked boater hat perched atop his head.
Another, Anthony Simmons, was “what you would call a rich colored man.” His confectionery shop and oyster bar were some of the few African-American-owned businesses on Nassau Street.
But Witherspoon-Jackson’s most beloved hero is Paul Robeson, the famous Rutgers football star, international bass singer, actor and civil rights activist. He was born on Green Street. He wrote, of Witherspoon-Jackson:
There was the honest joy of laughter in these homes, folk-wit and story, hearty appetites for life as for the nourishing greens and black-eyed peas and cornmeal bread they shared with me.
Beyond the boundaries of Birch and Wiggins, though, Princeton was as racist as any Southern town. “Princeton was spiritually located in Dixie,” Robeson wrote. Most of the student body and faculty came “from below the Mason-Dixon Line, and along with these sons of the Bourbons came the most rigid social and economic patterns of White Supremacy.”
Satterfield discovered Princeton’s racial division in grade school. As a young girl, she attended the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children right across the street from her house. “I use colored because we were colored then,” she clarifies. “I was born colored.”
In 1948, New Jersey integrated its public schools, and Princeton implemented the first step of its so-called “Princeton Plan,” which grouped students by age increments rather than race. One June 21, 1964, the New York Times applauded the union of the “highly intelligent, articulate, attractive, aware” whites with the inhabitants of the “Negro ghetto… a modest but brave echo of the values, ways and aspirations of the whites they have served for generations.”
When Satterfield entered the 3rd grade in the same year, she was switched from the Witherspoon Street School to the Nassau Street School near the university.
“I lost my history too, when they integrated the schools,” she says. “When I went to that school across the street, the teachers were telling us who we were and to be proud of ourselves… But when they integrated the schools and I went to Nassau Street, that all went through the window. We were trying to assimilate with where we were rather than to know that we were strong black people—well, we weren’t black then,” she corrects herself. “We were Negro. Strong Negro people… but we lost that… Still, the white and black kids got along fine until we got to the high school and they started calling us the n-word.” Satterfield laughs; she wants her story to merit recognition, not pity.
Satterfield left for college in 1959 when Black Power was in, and returned home with her best attempt at an afro. When her parents saw the new look, they insisted that she not go to church. “They were shocked,” she said. “It wasn’t ‘in our family’ to have hair like that.” It was unfashionable to be black.
Meanwhile, the Witherspoon community walked three blocks in the morning to keep the university stoves burning and the tables clean. Slavery was long abolished, but the African American community still served the university without enjoying any of its benefits.
“This community took care of everything that had to be done at the university other than being professors,” Satterfield says. “And they still do.” Newlin’s grandfather helped build Firestone Library. Satterfield’s family worked in the university’s eating clubs.
“I remember my uncle, I remember my mother Arnie in her white apron… leaving home and going to work on [Prospect] Avenue,” Satterfield says. “They were waiters, they were cooks, they took care of the dorms, they took care of the buildings.”
The only thing they couldn’t do was study. “A lot of us are soured about how the university treated us,” Satterfield says. Her uncles were rejected from Princeton, so they attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania instead. At one time, Satterfield says, Lincoln was known as the “Black Princeton.” Thurgood Marshall, Langston Hughes and Kwame Nkrumah studied there.
Throughout her life, Satterfield always returned to the church at the corner of Witherspoon and Quarry Street. It was the nucleus of the community—it hosted meetings for chapters of the Elk Club, the Masons and the American Legion, all established by African American men. Robeson recalls in his autobiography the hymns they sang there:
Songs of love and longing, songs of trials and triumphs, deep-flowing rivers and rollicking brooks, hymn-song and ragtime ballad, gospels and blues, and the healing comfort to be found in the illimitable sorrow of the spirituals. (Here I Stand, 23)
Everyone in Satterfield’s family attended on Sunday mornings. And when they passed, Satterfield’s mother and uncle were laid to rest in the colored section of the cemetery across the street.
When Satterfield left Princeton for college, she thought it was for good. “Never say never,” she often says. She returned home years later so that her daughters could attend school in Princeton. She was determined to give the kids of Princeton the support that she never received.
Satterfield became a guidance counselor at Princeton High School, where she paired students with summer engineering programs and tours of Middlebury college. She became a deacon at Witherspoon Presbyterian. And when she started working at the Princeton Historical society in 1990, she realized that she was the only non-white person on the board.
Many say she arrived just in time. The town needed a hero. As early as 1979, Princeton was gentrifying. To justify the demolition of “unsightly tenements” in the area, the Alumni Weekly wrote, “The world moves, and Progress strides determinedly forward—even through such supposedly out of the way places as the once quiet little country village of Princeton” (Town Topics).
Princeton may have integrated its schools, but the forces that originally pushed the African American community away from Nassau Street continued, in the form of rising prices and expensive developments. Satterfield’s community—and the history she vowed to protect—was beginning to disappear.
Six years ago, the residents of Witherspoon-Jackson suffered another blow. In 2010, the Princeton city council performed an overdue “tax-revenue neutral” property tax revaluation. Because the value of larger properties elsewhere in Princeton had depressed, the value of Witherspoon-Jackson properties—attractively close to the town center—skyrocketed. Overnight, some families saw their property taxes increase by as much as 400%, according to Newlin. Witherspoon-Jackson became prime property.
In an effort to ease the fiscal burden on Witherspoon-Jackson families, the town council decreased overall spending by consolidating the Princeton Borough with the Township and reducing the police force. Still, admits Jo Butler, a Princeton city Councilwoman, “it’s very difficult to protect a group without providing something for everyone. There is the marketplace. It’s hard to have a real impact.”
The following year, local litigator Bruce Afran pressed a lawsuit against Princeton University, contesting the tax-exempt status of university properties that were not for academic use. As the case gained momentum over five years, Afran pivoted, challenging the entire university’s tax-exempt status.
Three days before the scheduled litigation, the university settled to pay $2,200 in relief to almost nine hundred eligible homeowners in Princeton, according to the Wall Street Journal. Newlin told me this is still not enough.
Newlin, who chairs Princeton’s Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, and who has butted heads with Butler on various development projects during his career as the Housing Authority chair, calls the 2010 revaluation “slanted and very suspect.”
Newlin met with me at a cafe on Witherspoon in early December. A third-generation African American in Princeton, he has sleepy green eyes and a white beard. He sips black coffee thoughtfully and speaks with a gentle Southern lilt that he inherited from his grandfather.
“Many folks think this is a liberal town… But that does not manifest itself when you look at what’s going on in the town. There is no effort here to continue to help people of color stay in their homes,” he says. “You have what on the surface appears to be a very liberal town. But the undercurrents are of racial intolerance and bigotry.”
Regardless of its undercurrents, the revaluation has forced out many Witherspoon-Jackson residents. This is most evident on Sunday mornings: nowadays, only three of the families in the Witherspoon Church are “rooted in Princeton,” Satterfield says. The rest commute from nearby towns like Lawrenceville and Pennington, then drive home when the service concludes.
The shops and restaurants along Nassau Street and Witherspoon have become more expensive to accommodate some university students and the wealthier residents that are moving into town. Today, Labyrinth Books stands in the place of Anthony Simmons’ oyster bar. Two shops down, Landau’s boasts Authentic Austrian Loden Coats and Scottish Harris Tweed Sport Jackets. (Its “possum sweaters are extraordinary. Einstein Mini-Museum in the back!”) In the Starbucks next door, a man sits hunched over his laptop, his face glowing blue.
Witherspoon’s asphalt is smooth and new. The city has paved over the trolley tracks that used to connect Princeton with Trenton. If you were to pull up the asphalt, Satterfield promises, the tracks would still be there. Below the Rolex store, storefronts promise four dollar lattes, twenty-five dollar haircuts, a bouquet, a bottle of wine.
At the Witherspoon intersection, Wiggins Street (formerly nicknamed “African Alley”) becomes Paul Robeson Place. It’s home to the new Residences at Palmer Square, a self-contained cluster of nearly identical upscale homes and apartments. For $2.8 million and up, they offer ten foot ceilings and hardwood floors. The entire development is raised one story above street-level, sitting atop a private parking garage. It is not a neighborhood built to accommodate outsiders.
On a dark December afternoon, the Residences were silent but for the sound of a child practicing piano. The lonely music, muffled by double-paned windows, only added to the emptiness. It was a far cry from Robeson’s songs of “deep-flowing rivers and rollicking brooks.”
Farther down Witherspoon, even the cemetery has succumbed to market pressures. Over the past fifteen years, burial prices have nearly tripled. A single plot in the historical section costs $5,500. And that doesn’t include the $1,500 interment cost.
From the street, the Witherspoon Church looks like it did two hundred years ago: a white clapboard façade with a single steeple. If the building had a face, it would be smiling.
The church community, however, looks different with each passing year. On a blustery November morning, the church’s latest guest Reverend steps to the podium for a sermon on change. “We are in a moment of transition,” he says, “and these are the moments when we must come to God.” He talks about icy sidewalks, the changing of seasons and the implications of the Presidential election.
His message is, perhaps, doubly appropriate. From the back row, Witherspoon’s congregation looks like a crowd of hunched shoulders and graying hair. The average church-goer is 60 or 70, says McEwen. The community is growing older. Where the church will be in twenty years is anyone’s guess.
Depending on who you ask, visions of the future range from bleak to cautiously optimistic.
Newlin can see the day in the near future when the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood will be full of tour busses, and not a person of color in sight. “In twenty to thirty years, if you see someone black, it will be in a taxi, to take you from Princeton Junction to the college,” he says.
McEwen hopes for a “rainbow” community, with bi-annual block parties like the ones they had when he was a kid. Butler wonders how the town council will balance Princeton’s developmental needs with the community’s resistance to change.
Throughout the upheaval, Satterfield remains committed to her community. She wants to eventually convert her house into a museum. “It is a 501c3 [already], but I don’t know if I can stand having people walk through every two minutes,” she says.
Satterfield treasures the story of the early slaves and Jimmy Johnson and Paul Robeson, but she is determined to remember the past, not recreate it. The community “will never remain the same,” she says. She just wants “people to respect and get along.”
On a blustery Sunday in November, Satterfield performs in Witherspoon Presbyterian Church’s Verse Speaking Choir. The six women stand at the front of the sanctuary with salmon-colored shawls draped across their shoulders. They recite prayers with theatrical gusto and impeccable diction, addressing a God that appears to be sitting somewhere in the upper alcove.
Standing before the congregation, Satterfield smiles as she prays. Amidst the empty pews and graying hair, she is proof that, while the story she tells may be hidden, it is still very much alive.