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Heritage Tour Plaques Come to Princeton
Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society is delighted to announce the arrival of twenty-nine Heritage Tour plaques in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton’s 20th Historic District! Since the early 19th century, Princeton’s original African American residents occupied this segregated district as a proud, self-sufficient and self-sustaining community.
The history of these twenty-nine locations in and around the neighborhood was prepared by Ms. Shirley A. Satterfield, Princeton’s Historian of African American life. The following is an account, in Ms. Satterfield’s own words, about the history of African Americans in Princeton and the way we celebrate them today.
The African American community has been a vital presence in Princeton since the late Seventeenth Century. Many residents were slaves who worked on large farms and in homes as domestic and agricultural servants. Many were slaves to the early presidents and trustees of The College of New Jersey (Princeton University).
By the 1700s there were free colored residents who were descendants of slaves and, in later years, many had migrated to Princeton from the South to find employment.
The increasing wealth in the community together with the university’s growth created a high demand for labor and service positions that were generously offered to the colored residents. These families were relegated to the area of town that is now the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The neighborhood spans from Jackson Street to Birch Avenue with the perimeters being Witherspoon Street and John Street.
Because Princeton was a Jim Crow town, the colored population was not welcomed in certain stores, to eat at restaurants, or to attend social establishments on Nassau Street. There were many businesses and establishments owned by the residents in the areas from Nassau Street to Birch Avenue. Yes, even though the residents were not welcomed in many establishments, they had businesses on Nassau, Hulfish, and Spring Street.
By the early 1900’s, there was an extremely active colored business community: florists, barber shops, beauty salons, candy stores, ice cream parlors, restaurants, clothing stores, and taxi service in addition to carpenters, teachers, lawyers, and physicians. This community was self-contained, and many homes were built by carpenters and laborers who lived in the area. Through the years of racial separation, red lining, urban renewal, gentrification, municipal neglect, and high taxes had a detrimental effect on many lives and businesses.
The first establishments in the Witherspoon-Jackson community were the four churches. Other than the Elk’s Lodge on Birch Avenue, our four churches are the only establishments still serving this community.
To commemorate the churches, schools, establishments, organizations, and the many businesses that supported the residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, and the rest of Princeton, we honor and respect all African American owned businesses that have existed in Princeton since the 1800s. The 29 Heritage Plaques are merely representative of the many additional establishments that have existed, and the businesses included in the tour give recognition to individuals who, in addition to their economic and social contributions, were instrumental in addressing racial concerns in the community.
Four of these plaques, each representing one of the neighborhood’s four churches, have been installed since 2019; you may have noticed them on a walk around the neighborhood! However, the effort to design, manufacture, and install a series of historical metal plaques throughout the neighborhood began much earlier in spring of 2017 when Shirley approached J. Robert Hillier with an idea to mark historic sites with memorial plaques in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and surrounding area.
The plaque was then designed in-house by Studio Hillier, with WJHCS advising. The logo is based on an initial concept sketch by J. Robert Hillier. Each plaque is sponsored by an individual, family, or organization, and the sponsors’ names are printed at the bottom of each plaque. We are so excited that this vision shared by the WJHCS Board of Trustees is finally being realized.
These plaques will allow anyone living in or visiting Princeton to take a self-guided walking tour of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and learn the story of these places and the African American residents who populated them.
Another program that will be enabled by the installation of these plaques is a self-guided audio listening tour through this website, with Shirley Satterfield as your personal tour guide!
The plaques will be revealed during an outdoor event in June 2021. Stay tuned for announcements! (Subscribe so you don’t miss it!) We will visit each stop on the Heritage Tour, unveil each plaque, and have brief remarks and acknowledgements. We hope you will be able to join us for this special outdoor WJHCS event!
WJHCS Board of Trustees
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Links to our partner organizations' events pages:
Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church
Historical Society of Princeton
WJHCS Trustees Accomplishments and Honors:
Honoree: Leighton Newlin
Date: January 5, 2022
Elected: Princeton Councilmember
Honoree: Rev. Gregory Smith
Award: Ordination and Installation as Pastor
Date: November 20, 2021
Awarded By: Second Calvary Baptist Church, Hopewell, NJ
Honoree: Shirley Satterfield
Award: Community Engagement Award
Date: November 17, 2021
Awarded By: Princeton University and Pace Center for Civic Engagement
Honoree: Shirley Satterfield
Award: Liz Erickson Impact Award
Date: October 28, 2021
Awarded By: NonProfit Connection
Honoree: Bob Hillier, FAIA
Award: Reginald F. Lewis Community Service Award for Excellence in Business
Date: February 12, 2021
Awarded By: First Baptist Church of Princeton
Honoree: Shirley A. Satterfield
Award: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award
Date: January 16, 2021
Awarded By: New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)
Honoree: Rev. David McAlpin
Award: Recognition Celebration
Date: January 30, 2021
Awarded By: Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church