A vivid history of life in Princeton, New Jersey, told through the voices of its African American residents
I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.
Drawn from an oral history collaboration with residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Princeton undergraduates, and their professor, Kathryn Watterson, neighbors speak candidly about Jim Crow segregation, the consequences of school integration, World Wars I and II, and the struggles for equal opportunities and civil rights. Despite three centuries of legal and economic obstacles, African American residents have created a flourishing, ethical, and humane neighborhood in which to raise their children, care for the sick and elderly, worship, stand their ground, and celebrate life. Abundantly filled with photographs, I Hear My People Singing personalizes the injustices faced by generations of black Princetonians—including the famed Paul Robeson—and highlights the community’s remarkable achievements. The introductions to each chapter provide historical context, as does the book’s foreword by noted scholar, theologian, and activist Cornel West.
An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.
Kathryn Watterson is a writer whose award-winning books include Women in Prison (Doubleday) and Not by the Sword (Simon & Schuster). She’s written for magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where she lives and drums.
"An extraordinary and most necessary book, I Hear My People Singing recasts American history as a whole by presenting in their own words the full lives of black Princetonians, lives forged within the utterly everyday Americanness of enslavement, segregation, and insult. This book is so very welcome, now that we are facing up to the realities of white supremacy in even so admirable a place as Princeton. Thank you, Kathryn Watterson, for letting us hear from these Princetonians so long behind the veil."--Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People
"Kathryn Watterson has devoted her entire life as a writer to issues of justice. From the American prison system to women’s rights and the stories of people of color, few writers in this country have captured the humanity and heroism of the disenfranchised like Watterson. I Hear My People Singing stands alone in its telling of stories untold, stories essential to understanding the unwritten history of America. At this moment in time, this beautiful book is essential reading."--Emily Mann, Artistic Director, McCarter Theatre
"This is a beautifully conceived and executed book, one of real significance. The continuity of challenges that black Princetonians face, including the mixed blessings of desegregation, despite significant assaults of racism, resonates so well with our current struggles throughout the United States."--Wilbert H. Ahern, University of Minnesota, Morris
Table of Contents:
Foreword by Cornel West xi
Introduction: “The North’s Most Southern Town” 1
1 Our Grandmother Came from Africa as a Little Girl 31
2 I Grew Up Hugged to the Hearts of My People 52
3 School Integration: A Big Loss for Black Children 76
4 The University: A Place to Labor, Not to Study 106
5 Every Day, You Work to Survive 138
6 A Neighborhood under Siege 171
7 Fighting for Our Country in Every War 194
8 Racism Poisons Our Whole Nation 221
9 Standing Strong and Moving Through 252
10 Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow 285
Meet the Residents: Speakers’ Biographies 307
Permissions and notes on the photographs 349
Author’s Note 359