HSP Acquires Collection of Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Oral Histories

Historical Society of Princeton Acquires I Hear My People Singing Collection of Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Oral Histories

In April, Kathryn (Kitsi) Watterson transferred to the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) the research materials, notes, and oral histories of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, collected during the twenty-year development process for her 2017 book, I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton. This gift was made with the endorsement of community advisers and coordinators, Henry F. (Hank) Pannell, Penelope S. Edwards-Carter and the late Clyde  (Buster) Thomas, as well as interviewees and former Princeton University students, who contributed to the project.

“I am grateful that the stories in this book, from people who have witnessed the barriers and racist assumptions erected to bar their progress, will be more widely available now,” said author Kathryn Watterson. “Their words provide a window into the inner strength and ingenuity of a people who built families, institutions and a vital community life, despite the pernicious injustices they faced. I also appreciate that this collection reveals the creative process involved, from the oral history project we began in 1999—when Hank Pannell told me that if we didn’t get these stories now, it would be too late—to all of the work, love, and spirit embodied in this book.” 

The collection consists of over 60 oral history interviews on 88 video and cassette tapes, as well as transcriptions, photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, maps, census records, historical documents, and drafts of the book.

The collection joins nearly five hundred existing oral histories in HSP’s collection, including oral histories conducted with members of Princeton’s African American community for the seminal A Community Remembers: African American Life in Princeton exhibition at HSP in 1996. The material from Watterson also supplements existing HSP collections that document African American life, such as a time capsule from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children, records related to African American social clubs, and artifacts from African American-owned businesses in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, among many other items.

“We are honored to steward this significant collection,” said Stephanie Schwartz, HSP’s Curator of Collections and Research. “Oral histories are vitally important local history research tools, often filling in the gaps where written historical records are silent, which commonly occurs when it comes to the histories of marginalized communities.” She added, “We’re particularly excited that we have grant funding in hand from the New Jersey Historical Commission to immediately digitize the voices recorded on these vulnerable cassette tapes, ensuring that they are preserved.”

“I feel it is, and felt it was, important to preserve the history of the Princeton African-American community,” said adviser and coordinator, Penelope S. Edwards-Carter. “The community was shrinking when the project started and is rapidly disappearing. We’re happy that this digitalization by the HSP means that family members and descendants will be able to access these materials for genealogical research.”

Project originator and adviser Hank Pannell said, “I’m glad that people can learn about this wonderful neighborhood and all the great people who lived here and took care of each other. I couldn’t be happier about these stories being available for the future—especially for lessons they teach about living, respecting each other, and being human.”

I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton was published by the Princeton University Press in 2017 to much acclaim. In vivid first-person accounts, the book shines light on slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow racism as lived and confronted by African Americans in a Northern town through the past three and a half centuries. In 2018, the book won the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance Author Award for Popular Non-Fiction.

This collection is now open for researchers to access by appointment with the Historical Society’s research staff. Research appointments can be requested via a form on www.princetonhistory.org.

“We hope that, once we digitize the oral history recordings, they will be available to people in several locations,” said Schwartz. “Our priority is to make these recollections, in the singularly evocative voices of the people who personally experienced this history, as widely and easily accessible as possible.”