The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, which prides itself on being Princeton’s most culturally and economically diverse neighborhood, set aside May 18-19 to celebrate itself and its designation as the town’s 20th local historic district.
Billed as a “welcome weekend,” the two-day event brought the neighbors together and offered activities that ranged from guided tours of the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District to a free cookout and neighborhood cultural display at the Mary Moss Playground, on the corner of John and Lytle streets.
The weekend got underway May 18 with an exhibit from a collection maintained by Shirley Satterfield – from the electric heater for hair-straightening combs in Doris Burrell’s beauty salon on Leigh Avenue, to a signed showbill from a Paul Robeson concert in Trenton in 1942.
Satterfield, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose family has lived there for several generations, is the neighborhood’s official historian and the co-founder of the Witherspoon-Jackson Cultural and Historical Society. She is the president of its board of trustees.
But perhaps the highlight was the unveiling of the first four of 29 plaques marking historic sites in the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District on May 18 at Studio Hillier – the office of architect J. Robert Hillier, who also is a trustee. The historic district is bounded by Paul Robeson Place, Witherspoon Street, Birch Avenue and John Street.
The four plaques will be placed in front of the four churches that anchor the neighborhood – the Mt. Pisgah AME Church, the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, the First Baptist Church and the Morning Star Church of God in Christ. A map at each site allows visitors to take a self-guided tour of the neighborhood.
The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was created when landowner James R. Ferguson opened it for development in 1831. The original owners in the Ferguson Tract, as it was initially known, were mostly whites, but the community also included a few African-Americans.
More African-Americans moved into the neighborhood in the late 1800’s. They were joined by Italian immigrants, who were drawn to Princeton to construct new buildings on the Princeton University campus, and a handful of Irish families.
Satterfield, beaming with pride, said work on the plaques began in March 2018. Now the first four plaques have been completed, she said, adding that “this is a big day for me.”
The first edition of the Witherspoon-Jackson Cultural and Historical Society’s newsletter – the Heritage Outlook – also was rolled out May 18. “‘Heritage’ is our history and ‘Outlook’ is to keep it going,” said Satterfield, who has been giving guided tours of the neighborhood since 1997.
Leighton Newlin, who also is a trustee, said the weekend is the celebration of a key neighborhood having been named as the town’s 20th local historic district.
“Keep in mind, Princeton is not just a town in New Jersey. Our town was the nation’s capital (during the American Revolutionary War). Slavery and everything that touched the history of our great nation also touched the history of our great town,” Newlin said.
“We are here to send a message to Princeton, the United States and the world – that we are going to ‘reboot’ this great neighborhood. The neighborhood is healthy and the future is very bright,” Newlin said.
“This is a beautiful neighborhood. It is time to come together,” Newlin said.
Then, J. Robert Hillier, who is the treasurer for the Witherspoon-Jackson Cultural and Historical Society, pulled the wraps from the four plaques, one by one.
Mt. Pisgah AME Church at 170 Witherspoon Street was organized in 1832 by Samson Peters, who was a preacher at the Trenton AME Church. The present building, which is the fourth one, was built in 1860 and expanded in 1963.
The Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church at 124 Witherspoon St. was created in 1836 when 131 African-American members of the First Presbyterian Church – now known as the Nassau Presbyterian Church – were dismissed from the congregation.
The First Baptist Church, on the corner of John Street and Paul Robeson Place, was organized in 1885 as the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Its name was changed to First Baptist Church in 1930.
The Morning Star Church of God in Christ at 41 Birch Avenue was founded by Elder Daniel Culp Thomas in 1923. It was originally known as the Church of God in Christ.
The remaining 25 plaques – for historic sites that range from the multicultural business district on Leigh Avenue which included Italian-, Greek-, African-American- and Jewish-owned businesses, to Jimmy’s Barber Shop and the Charcoal Inn private men’s club, both on John Street – will be rolled out during the year.