Learning about history through relationships

By Ruth Stevens

   Jessica Lautin
Princeton NJ -- As a freshman reporting for The Daily Princetonian in the spring of 2000, Jessica Lautin was assigned to write a story about a University employee charged with drug possession and distribution. She decided to visit the American Legion hall where he was a member in Princeton's John-Witherspoon neighborhood.

She ended up interviewing 98-year-old Albert Hinds, a longtime resident of the ethnically diverse community north of Nassau Street.

"We talked for an hour and a half," said Lautin, a history major from Manhattan. "I don't even think he knew anything in particular about this man who had been arrested, but he just started talking about the relationship between the University and the black community, and that piqued my interest."

The assignment grew into a four-part series for The Prince published the following fall, several papers for her classes and, ultimately, the basis for her senior thesis, "That Side of Paradise: A Story of Princeton -- the University, the Town and the African-American Community." The 150-page paper explores the relationship between the three groups from 1925, with plans for the construction of Palmer Square, through 1948, with the desegregation of the Princeton public schools, and includes snapshots of the present day to show the legacy of the past.

Lautin said there were many "in-between steps" from her stories for The Prince and her senior thesis. "There's a huge difference between writing a series for a newspaper -- that you take two months on and is based chiefly on interviews and covers a wide range of different issues -- and writing a thesis grounded in historical research that you take many months on."

She conducted most of her research through primary sources in Mudd Manuscript Library on campus and at the Princeton Historical Society. She also tracked down information through friends she made in the neighborhood and through oral histories of its residents being compiled for a book by Kathryn Watterson, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program.

"There are so many extraordinary topics outside Princeton," Lautin said. "But it's been such a valuable experience to work on a Princeton topic because I had everything at my fingertips. It just provided an opportunity to truly immerse myself in the material in a way that one can't do with a lot of other topics."

The thesis is written in three chapters, with the first focusing on Palmer Square. The construction of the square was significant, Lautin said, because it "sets up what Princeton sees as its emerging identity and reveals a lot about the paradox that is Princeton -- this combination of progressivism and entrenched traditionalism." Before the square was built, the African-American community extended south to Nassau Street, she explained. By the time the project was completed in the early 1940s, many of the former residents were displaced.

Lautin looks at the University's role in the project and how the black community saw the University. "I wouldn't say the University was an agent as much as it was a willing participant," she said, noting that Edgar Palmer, the driving force behind the project, and many of the town's leaders were Princeton graduates.

In the second chapter on the admission of blacks to the University, Lautin learned about Frank Broderick, a member of the class of 1942 and a former editor of The Daily Princetonian. In an editorial campaign, he advocated for the opening of Princeton's gates to African-American students and, along the way, started a correspondence with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP.

"There were threads of liberalism at Princeton, but the University wasn't ready to change," said Lautin. Princeton admitted its first peacetime black students in 1949. (The U.S. Navy had sent four black students to Princeton under its wartime V-12 program.)

In the final chapter, she focuses on Broderick's role in the integration of the Princeton Summer Camp (now Blairstown) in 1946 and on the University's role in the desegregation of the Princeton public schools in 1948. Although faculty and others on campus seemed supportive of the desegregation of the schools, "the University administration didn't really, as far as I could tell, take much of an interest in it," she said. "And students were more focused on getting blacks admitted to the University and combating anti-Semitism than looking at inequalities outside the campus."

Lautin said she enjoyed combining her skills in history and journalism to find the information she needed for her thesis.

"Jessica Lautin has done a wonderful job of research," said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History, who was her thesis adviser. "She has dug out amazing documents, met and interviewed many protagonists from the faculty, talked with and made friends of many members of the African-American community -- and she has loved and thrown herself into every bit of the work. She has a wonderful nose for interesting material and a real gift for tracking it down."

Lautin said that Grafton provided her with "a huge amount" of guidance during the process. "Working with Professor Grafton was one of the highlights," she said. "The thesis is supposed to be the culmination of your experience. Because of my relationship with my adviser, it was that."

With his encouragement, she is seeking funding to expand her thesis and publish it as a book. She plans to spend the next year in a position that builds on her interests in history and journalism. Then she intends to enroll in graduate school in American studies or history. She hopes to further explore her fascination with learning about history through connections with people.

"... historians can learn as much from relationships as they can from brittle letters and magazine clippings," she writes in the introduction to her thesis. "Those people you meet and become friends with provide not only a personal take on your subject, but offer access to a cultural web -- a history made up as much of interactions between people, daily habits and local hangouts as written and verbal recollections of the past."


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