March 18 was Grover Cleveland’s birthday. One of the most successful politicians of the post-Civil War era, Grover Cleveland made Princeton his home, and is buried here, in the famous Princeton Cemetery. This cemetery was recognized over a century ago as one of the foremost historic sites of the local area, and is also the resting place of figures such as Aaron Burr, Paul Tulane, von Neumann, and John Witherspoon. Despite this history, a proposal to designate the local area as a historic district looks set to go ahead without including the Princeton Cemetery. But one Council member – Jo Butler – is looking to change that.
The town of Princeton recently commissioned consultants to consider the possibility of creating a new historic district in the Witherspoon-John Street neighborhood. Although the initial study area was west of Witherspoon Street, the consultants chose to expand the area of interest to include many properties to the east, including several adjoining the Princeton Cemetery. The cemetery itself was, on the other hand, excluded – a decision that was endorsed by the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission, the body that “protects Princeton’s heritage”. The chair of the Historic Preservation Commission has admitted that the creation of the new historic district is more about preventing possible development than recognizing historically-significant sites. As the cemetery is not considered a likely site for construction, it is not included in the historic district. Other sites with little or no historic significance were included instead.
Although most members of Princeton’s Council seem set to go ahead without recognizing the Princeton Cemetery, Council member Butler has gone on the record saying that at least part of the cemetery ought to be included in the new historic district. In particular, part of Princeton Cemetery was designated as for African Americans only. Butler has told the Historic Preservation Commission that this practice of historic discrimination warrants recognition by inclusion of the ‘blacks-only’ section of the cemetery in the new historic district. This inclusion seems reasonable, given that the primary goal of the district is to recognize “the tangible evidence of a long-term practice of racial discrimination against the mainly black residents“.
Whether the new district will include any of the Cemetery remains to be seen. Princeton Council has not yet made a final vote on the boundaries of the new historic district.