My Black History 1981: Princeton

Summer Program 1981. Can you find me?*

Attending Princeton University changed my life.

I came to Jesus at Princeton.

I met my husband at Princeton.

At Princeton, I didn’t have any white friends.

This was very unusual because I graduated from a mostly white high school where I enjoyed a diverse social circle. But I had attended a summer program for minority students hosted by the university. We arrived several weeks before the rest of our class and that undoubtedly solidified my connection to those who looked like me.

I had never been around so many ambitious, intellectual teenagers all in one place. My closest friends were engineering majors, and I can now say I know a rocket scientist. Others got their kicks from organic chemistry as they envisioned careers in medicine. I will never forget the night I came upon two male friends giving each other high fives over a thesis statement. It blew my mind.

Even though I withdrew my sophomore year for financial reasons, my connection to Princeton and those incredibly smart humans, infused me with confidence to navigate the very white world I have lived in ever since. Included in that world is an older white gentleman who said to me last year, “Millions of dollars have been poured into the black community over the past 50 years, and for what?”

For what? For my Princeton friends and me.

Those dollars came in many forms. Scholarships, after-school programs, and Affirmative Action were investments some black students needed. I know I did. Most of us were first-generation college students. Joe’s dad only had a sixth-grade education.

Some parents took on second jobs to send their kids to college. Grandmothers slipped us $20 bills. Collections were taken up at churches to cover travel expenses and books. Federal loans and work-study programs bridged the gap, along with donor dollars and government “entitlements” that offered food and shelter for our families back home.

These latter investments irritated the man I mentioned above, who lobbed his grenade as I told him about my nonprofit work on behalf of black children. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t know my Princeton friends. He obviously knows very few successful black people, but that doesn’t mean few exist. He ought to know the black poverty rate has declined from 44% in 1966 to half that today. At the very least, he should have realized that his words might sting.

I relay all of this to put to rest the annoying Republican talking point that “the African American community” is broken and hopeless, that social programs have inflicted pain and harmed all of us.

There are millions of black families like mine in America who have risen out of poverty over the past 50 years, and I am privileged to have attended Princeton with some of them. We are smart and monogamous. We stay married and we pay our bills. We are judges, surgeons, and even rocket scientists. Because money was poured into us, and because of our ambition and intellect, our children will never be on welfare.

To cast black people as so desperate that we have nothing “the hell” to lose is to insult us, our ancestors, and the policies aimed at restoring our nation’s wrongs.

*second row, fourth from right.

4 thoughts on “My Black History 1981: Princeton

  1. Yes! Thank you! Some programs have helped, and some have hurt. Please continue to give us guidance and knowing which ones to support.

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  2. My father came to the USA in 1910 as an 8 year old with his parents from Naveces Spain. At age 13 he started work in a coal mine digging coal with a pic in a 36 inch seam. He ran away from home at age 16 and went to barber college. He worked for various barbers before ending up in Moundsville WVA. where he opened his own shop. What I am I owe to hard working parents who sacrificed for me. Mary, I only tell this to unite with you in thanking God for such unselfish and loving parents.

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