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Photo Exhibit Adds to the Dialogue on Slavery and American Universities

A photography exhibition on James Collins Johnson is part of a greater initiative at Princeton to investigate and give visibility to the university’s ties to slavery.

“James C. Johnson and a young man” (1890) (courtesy Princeton University Archives)

Many American universities, like the country, have economic and historic links to slavery. Only recently has this heritage been given critical attention on campuses. Archaeology students at Clemson University are surveying sites where enslaved people lived and worked, while Rutgers named its college apartments after Sojourner Truth (once owned by the family of the university’s first president). Two Georgetown University buildings named for slaveholders were renamed, and descendants from slaves sold to fund the school were offered legacy admissions (although there is still a demand for further restitutions).

James C. Johnson (1861) (courtesy Princeton University Archives)

This history can be uncomfortable to unearth, but it demands visibility. One of the most recent, large-scale initiatives was the Princeton and Slavery project, a multi-year investigation led by Professor of History Martha Sandweiss. It revealed that a slave sale took place on campus in 1766, and that Princeton’s first nine presidents owned slaves. Significantly, New Jersey was one of the last northern states to end slavery.

Part of this project was delving into the biography of James Collins Johnson, a prominent figure on campus for 60 years. He escaped from a Maryland plantation in 1839, working at Princeton as a janitor. The job was hard and humiliating, and his task of emptying latrine buckets got him the nickname “Jim Stink.” Then in 1843, a student recognized him and reported Johnson as a runaway slave. He was tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and convicted that August. He was about to be returned to Maryland when a white woman named Theodosia Prevost paid $500 for his freedom (about $10,000 today). Johnson would spend years paying off this debt, including as the sole licensed snack vendor on campus.

A small photography exhibition now in the Frist Campus Center shows Johnson with his cart from which he sold peanuts, lemonade, apples, candy, and other concessions. In other images he’s posed in a studio. The show was sponsored by the Campus Iconography Committee, dedicated to highlighting lesser known school histories.

“The exhibit photos themselves include both snapshots and formal studio portraits — which were not taken on campus — and span from 1861 (if not earlier) through the 1890s, as such representing a significant portion of the time that Johnson spent working on and around Princeton’s campus,” Abby Klionsky, project specialist in the Office of the Executive Vice President, told Hyperallergic.

Johnson was eventually able to bring his wife Phillis and son Thomas to Princeton. When he died on July 22, 1902, he was interred in Princeton Cemetery beneath a tombstone with the epitaph: “the students [sic] friend.”

“His constant presence on campus, his jovial manner and regular attendance at Princeton sporting events, along with his colorful, unusual outfits (he was, for example, often dressed in golf britches) caused students to see him as a mascot and good luck emblem,” writes Lolita Buckner Inniss, professor at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, for the Princeton and Slavery project. “His financial standing and his role at the college also made Johnson a key member of the black community in Princeton at a time when many of the town’s blacks lived in poor housing and struggled for daily existence in low wage jobs.”

The Princeton and Slavery project also contributed research to a series of plays, one of which was on Johnson’s life, as explored in the video below:

This April, Princeton announced it would name a publicly accessible garden for Betsey Stockton, who was owned by a university president and as a free woman set up the first school for black children in the area, and an arch for Johnson. The structure overlooks the statue of Princeton President John Witherspoon, a slaveholder.

“The CPUC Committee on Naming recommended that the arch be named after James Collins Johnson, a fugitive slave who worked on campus for more than 60 years and whose interactions with the Princeton students — being both betrayed and befriended — reflect the complex history of our campus with African Americans and with the institution of slavery,” said Angela Creager, chair of the Committee on Naming and Thomas M. Siebel professor in the history of science. She added, “Johnson’s story brings into sharp relief the ambiguous relationship of the university and its students to slavery, and we hope that the newly named arch will keep important recent work of the Princeton and Slavery project in sight for our community and campus visitors.”

“James C. Johnson with goods for sale” (1881) (courtesy Princeton University Archive)
“James C. Johnson on Cannon Green” (1890s) (courtesy Princeton University Archives)

The photography exhibition on the life of James Johnson is on view through the fall of 2018 in Princeton University’s Frist Campus Center (Frist Lane, Princeton, New Jersey).

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