Written by
Gwen McNamara, Communications Specialist
June 10, 2022

As part of a week of appreciation organized by the Office of the Vice President of Campus Life, more than 25 members of the Princeton University community took part in a walking tour to learn more about the history of the African American experience in the town of Princeton on June 9. Led by Fern and Larry Spruill, whose families have lived and worked in Princeton for generations, the tour began at Morrison Hall on campus and followed the Albert E. Hinds Memorial Walking Tour, which includes stops along the Heritage Tour of Princeton’s historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. 

Interspersing historical facts and personal experiences, the pair guided participants out of Fitzrandolph Gate to key spots such as Palmer Square, whose construction along Nassau Street in 1937 called for demolition of much of the historic Black neighborhood and the relocation of its residents, the Witherspoon Street School, which became the first integrated lower school in Princeton in 1948, and all four of the communities' churches - the First Baptist Church, the Morning Star Church of God in Christ, Mt. Pisgah AME Church, and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.

Throughout the tour, the Spruills painted a detailed picture of the larger systemic factors that have impacted the African American community, from land use decisions to shifts in education, and illuminated the significant roles that particular individuals and places of community played in supporting and nurturing generations of families. Fern Spruill expressed hope at the end of the tour that efforts like this one can not only open people's eyes to community history, but also build bridges and connections to support young people and address ongoing challenges. 

"There was a time when you didn't go across this avenue," said Fern Spruill pointing to the divide of Nassau Street between the town and Princeton's campus. "It isn't a big old billboard saying do not come, but it's a sense that you feel. You know it when you get there. ... I do this to let people know where we were. That was then, and this is now. There are no two ways about it, there are still things going on now, but I'm hoping to be a part of let's get things done." 

Participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to explore more deeply the history of the local community and reflect on its connections to the greater University community. "I think it's important while I'm here to learn and understand more about the continuation of the history of Black folks in Princeton," said Daniel Heath with the Princeton Theological Seminary. 

Micaela Ortiz, associate director, alumni engagement and experiential learning with the Center for Career Development, shared similar sentiments. "I've done similar things on campus, like the invisible Princeton self-guided tours and virtual programs at the Princeton University Library, but all of them have been oriented on-campus in their context," she said. "I felt it was important to get out of my own orange bubble. I've walked and parked along a lot of these streets but I didn't know the history of the town. It's about working on my own blind spot. I want to understand more about the people and places in our community."

"What resonates with me is what little agency members of the Black community often had in the decisions made," said Pam Cohen, associate director of career advising with the Center for Career Development. "The community had to do what they needed to do to survive. It makes you think about what you have today."

For folks on the tour who live in the town of Princeton, the tour offered a chance to expand their connections to their own community. 

"I live in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood," said Caroline Perkins, program coordinator with Outdoor Action. "I've heard about bits and pieces of Princeton's history and am fascinated by it. Today I hope to fill in some of the gaps to learn more about the history of the neighborhood I live in."

"I grew up in Princeton," added Judith Oakley, associate director information technology with University Health Services. "I love this experience. It's really filling in the blanks for me."

This fall, Fern Spruill will join the Pace Center as one of two community partners-in-residence, which work closely with Pace Center staff, students, and campus and community partners, to support and strengthen relationships, elevate community knowledge, and develop resources around campus-community partnerships. She has served as a board member on the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education and as a council member of the Princeton Civil Rights Commission. She and her husband Larry also developed and ran a youth mentorship program called Committed and Faithful Princetonians, which is now part of the Princeton YMCA. Larry Spruill works as the area coordinator for Housing and Real Estate Services in University Services.