As I prepare to attend my 40th Princeton Reunion next week, it seems like a good time for reflection. The last five years have been an interesting ride. In 2009, I retired from ABC News after 28 years of editing the evening news show World News. At one point there were four Princeton graduates on the show in New York and, believe it or not, we all married Princeton women. There was Tom Nagorsky ‘84, Ned Potter ’76, Paul Friedman ‘66 and yours truly. I know what you’re thinking. If the first class of women didn’t arrive until the fall of 1969, how did Paul meet and marry a Princeton coed. No, he didn’t rob the cradle, he married a graduate student. ABC was a great place to work. It was where I learned the craft of storytelling while working alongside people like Peter Jennings, Charlie Gibson ’65, Dick Schapp, Robert Krulwich, Beth Nissen, Max Robinson, Richard Threlkeld, Carole Simpson and Deborah Amos.
I put those skills to work in several documentary projects chronicling the black experience at Princeton. The first was in 1997, Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni, a film I produced and directed with the help of Calvin Norman ’76 for the university’s 250th Anniversary. I interviewed over 40 black alumni and three university presidents to paint a picture of black life at the university from the first black student, believed to be John Chavis in 1792, to the first black graduate, John Howard ’47, and encompassing the next 5 decades of graduates. A great deal of credit goes to Bob Durkee ’69 and Dorothy Bedford ’82, both on the 250th Anniversary Committee, for making that film possible.
In 2002, I made a biographical film about Carl Fields, the first black dean at Princeton. He was credited with making Princeton more hospitable by acting as a mentor and an intermediary between the administration and black students. Fields also created the family sponsor program that paired black students with families in town. The Third World Center was renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in July of 2002 and the idea was to produce a film that would allow the next generation of students to gain an understanding of who Fields was and his contribution to the university.
In 2009, I produced and directed Looking Forward: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni, a film that was first screened at the 2nd Black Alumni Conference. This film is composed of interviews recorded at the 1st Black Alumni Conference in 2006. Throughout the film, I inserted segments called “historical moments in Black Princetoniana,” where I briefly examine people like James “Jimmie” Johnson, an escaped slave from Maryland, who became a fixture on Princeton’s campus during the 1840s as a vendor for over 50 years. I also describe the controversy caused when three black Princeton Theological Seminary students enrolled in Professor James McCosh’s class in the late 1870s.
As you can imagine, I have amassed a large collection of interviews, photographs, documents and memorabilia related to the African-American experience at Princeton. I realize that these are important historical documents that have the potential to inform, educate and enrich students, scholars and the wider Princeton community. Therefore, I’ve decided to share this material in the form of a book project tentatively titled Blacks at Princeton and with postings on this website (www.blacksatprinceton.com) including full-length documentaries, video interviews, photographs, interview transcripts and documents related to the black experience at Princeton. The book is in development and I’ll keep you posted on its progress through the website.
I invite my classmates, other alumni, of all backgrounds, as well as the general public to share their Princeton stories (written, video and audio) as well as photographs, films, video and memorabilia. Material submitted that is related to the African-American experience may be posted on the Blacks at Princeton website. Other material will be turned over to the Princetoniana Committee and added to their archives. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com, by phone at (917) 748-4122 or via the website.
I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best,
Melvin McCray '74