Princeton Confronts Its Slave-Owning Past With An ‘Anti-Monument’

Princeton Confronts Its Slave-Owning Past With An ‘Anti-Monument’

Priscilla Frank for Mutual Art - 28 November 2017

Titus Kaphar’s work for the Princeton & Slavery Project tells a story of buried history.

For over a century and a half, Princeton University neither acknowledged nor investigated its historical ties to slavery, despite the fact that the first nine presidents of the school owned slaves at some point in their lives.

This month, that changes. Students, faculty and anyone else walking past Princeton’s Maclean House will lock eyes with an object ― a sculptural relief, to be exact ― depicting the face of Samuel Finley, the fifth president of Princeton, along with the faces of the man, woman and child he possessed as slaves.

The work is part of the Princeton & Slavery Project, an initiative launched by history professor Martha A. Sandweiss in 2012. The ongoing research project focuses on the slave-holding practices of Princeton’s founding trustees and faculty members, taking into account how the university (and New Jersey at large) profited from and grew out of slave labor, a practice that was not abolished in the state until 1865.

“I was ignorant. I was curious,” Sandweiss told HuffPost of her desire to dive into Princeton’s ties to slavery. “Since Princeton was founded in 1746, I knew there would be a story. Every institution was implicated, but nobody had investigated it.”

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Titus Kaphar with “Impressions of Liberty.”