By Briana Jasso
On November 18, 2015, Princeton students gathered in University President Christopher Eisgruber’s office in Nassau Hall. They came with a demand to rename campus buildings that commemorate Woodrow Wilson, the former president of the United States and the university.
“It was surreal,” sighed Myesha Jemison, Princeton undergraduate student body president, as she recalled the thirty-two hour protest in the fall of 2015. She explained that she felt a sort of shock because she “[thought] of activism as something that happens to — not even our parents’ — our grandparents’ generation.”
Racist symbols had not been a concern for her on the campus, until now.
Protesters like Jemison pointed to Wilson’s legacy of racism. While in office, he resegregated the federal government and screened the pro-Ku Klux Klan film ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the White House.
But nearly two years later, Wilson’s name remains on the buildings of Princeton’s campus. Instead, the university established the Committee on Naming and decided to name several other buildings after prominent black figures associated with the university.
In the spring of 2017, trustees approved a plan to rename West College, an essential campus building, after Toni Morrison, and to change the name of an auditorium in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs to commemorate Sir Arthur Lewis. Morrison, a former Princeton professor and Nobel Laureate, was the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Lewis was a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton from 1963 until 1983. He won a Nobel Prize for economics and remains the lone African-descended winner of a Nobel Prize for something other than literature or peace.
For some students, however, that’s not enough.
“I think it was a way to get the students to be quiet,” Jemison said of the university’s Naming Committee.
Princeton says it takes pride in campus diversity, but students like Jemison remain dissatisfied with Wilson’s presence at the university. Despite the school’s decision to keep the name, however, Jemison said she believes the movement wasn’t for naught.
“It was exciting. It was invigorating,” Jemison said. “It was amazing to see how my fellow student body addressed the issue.”
But some critics say the activists’ energy was misplaced.
Princeton politics professor Stephen Macedo said that the issue was well raised but some of the focus “would be better directed into [national] politics rather than campus politics.” Macedo added that some students and faculty tend to put too much emphasis on campus affairs instead of looking beyond Princeton.
However, Jemison explained that she did “not only go to this university to receive an education, but to be proactive and [be educated] on things that the university doesn’t teach [her].”
“My hope is that they will continue activism in this generation and beyond,” she said.