Douglass Day Events Explore Education and Advocacy

Students took center stage at the CDH’s virtual events for Douglass Day, an annual, nationwide celebration of Frederick Douglass’s chosen birthday.

The afternoon of February 13 included a series of presentations by Princeton undergraduates linking Douglass’s writings with current anti-racist activism and a panel discussion on the recent renamings of two local schools: Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and Princeton Unified Middle School.

The events’ emphasis on education complemented the national transcribe-a-thon of important documents in Black history, which focused on the papers of civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell; Terrell earned a master’s in education from Oberlin College and taught at both the secondary-school and college levels (Watch the national programming).

Engaging Abolition

The afternoon’s first event featured presentations by six Princeton undergraduates enrolled in Professor Eduardo Cadava’s fall 2020 course, Mourning America: Emerson and Douglass. The presentations formed part of an online exhibition entitled Abolition: Then and Now, which is viewable online (warning: graphic content).

The event was facilitated by Shannon Chaffers, who serves as a research assistant for Cadava.

Student presentations tackled a wide range of topics, from art to Black feminism, through the lens of Douglass’s work and writing.

Iliyah Coles kicked off the event by discussing the link between photography and abolition. As Coles explained, Douglass both wrote and lectured on photography, a medium that continues to be important in today’s anti-racist movement as a way to combat the idea that Black people are “invisible and meaningless and undesirable.”

On the left, two law enforcement officers walk forward wearing protective equipment. On the right, a protester stands tall, facing the officers.
Undergraduate Ilayah Coles discussed this photo of Ieshia Evans, taken at a protest in Baton Rouge. Credit: The Atlantic 

Isabel Lewis also engaged with photography in her presentation on the media’s portrayal of the Movement for Black Lives. For Lewis, black-and-white photographs hold particular significance. Whereas black-and-white images might take a viewer back to the past, Lewis said, they also can convey the “power and emotion that goes into protesting.”

In her presentation, Cammie Lee grappled with a different kind of image—in particular, artistic portrayals of Black suffering and death (warning: graphic content). Lee’s project raised an important question: whether the pieces she discusses have the potential to “return humanity and individuality to the victim” or whether they are “reenacting rather than counteracting violence.” 

Other presenters stressed different elements of Douglass’s work. Braden Flax looked at Emerson and Douglass from an international perspective, with a focus on Marxism. Auhjanae McGee put Douglass’s writing in conversation with pieces from Essence magazine, noting how the concept of awakening links Douglass’s article “Abolitionist of Western New York, Awake!” with the current idea of “wokeness.” 

Ana Mariana Sotomayor Palomino closed the presentations with a bibliography featuring Black feminist writers whose work she sees as an “extension of Douglass’s emancipatory efforts.”

In his remarks, Cadava praised the undergraduates for providing a diverse array of perspectives on Douglass’s work.

“Each of them, and each in their own way, made the material theirs,” he said.

Sharing Student Experiences

The second event brought together Princeton University undergraduates with students and teachers from Princeton Public Schools to discuss their experiences surrounding recent renamings of the the University’s School of Public and International Affairs and Princeton Unified Middle School, previously known as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and John Witherspoon Middle School, respectively.

The name changes occurred after students and community members brought attention to Wilson’s racist ideology and policies and Witherspoon’s history as a slaveholder. Discussions are ongoing to determine a permanent new name for the middle school.

The panel was moderated by Anastasia Mann, lecturer in Public and International Affairs and a member of the town’s Civil Rights Commission, and presented in partnership with Princeton Public Schools and the Princeton Public Library.

Fittingly, the relationship of education and advocacy featured prominently at the event.

Student panelists from Princeton Unified Middle School said that they decided that a name change was important after learning about Witherspoon in civics class. Before, they had assumed that Witherspoon only stood for positive values.

Faculty added that students also learned another important lesson from their involvement in the renaming. As Jennifer Bigioni, School Library Media Specialist at Princeton High School explained, students became aware of “their own ability to initiate change.”

Ellie van der Schaar, now a student at Princeton High School, agreed: “It’s a very unique feeling to be part of change while it’s happening,” she said.

Though all students were not immediately convinced of the need for change, the movement to remove Witherspoon’s name caught on relatively quickly, with Princeton High School alumnus Geoffrey Allen circulating a petition calling for action over the summer. Bigioni added that school administration was “receptive” to the change.

In contrast, Princeton undergraduates panelists emphasized that the process to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name was long and difficult.

“It's a very unique feeling to be part of change while it's happening.”

–Ellie van der Schaar, Princeton High School

The undergraduates, both of whom are involved in the group Change WWS Now, noted that several years before, the Board of Trustees voted to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name—even after sustained protests by student-activists in the Black Justice League in 2014–15.

“You can’t forget the history of trying to get this changed,” said undergraduate Alaina McGowen.

Although students at both the University and the Public Schools are excited about recent renamings, they agreed that renaming was only part of the process of making their institutions more equitable; curriculum changes are also essential.

Princeton High School student Joycelyn Brobbey emphasized the importance of “diversify[ing] our narratives” so that students gain a more complete understanding of the Black experience rather than one that emphasizes “Black trauma.”

Undergraduate panelists suggested expanding the requirements for public affairs concentrators, who are not currently required to study race to earn their degrees.

And how do the students plan to keep up the momentum in these efforts, even when students move on to new schools—or new careers? 

“We have to keep caring and keep helping and never stop,” said one eighth-grader.

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