‘Quantum Leaps in Princeton’s Place’

Donna Clovis’ daughter had a play date with a new in girl town. Clovis – who left teaching ESL and Princeton High School to become a journalist, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won a first-place feature-writing award from the National Association of Black Journalists – brought her daughter to the friend’s iconic Princeton mansion on Rosedale Road. She hadn’t realized then that this play date would lead to Clovis’ first full-length novel: “Quantum Leaps in Princeton’s Place.”

It was close to 12 years ago when Clovis received a grant to document the lives and journeys of Holocaust survivors. Her work was placed in the archives of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., though Clovis yearned for another opportunity to unfurl aging stories too often silenced by younger generations.

With much of her time spent in Princeton, Clovis found “the oldest African Americans from town” and chronicled their experiences. Her subjects’ stories of being servants in white homes and living through the tumultuous times of segregation and civil rights fascinated Clovis. Yet her writings were put away and sat for at least two years – until the day she brought her daughter to a play date at the Rosedale House.

“It just so happened that the family who had just moved in discovered the journal of the woman who had owned the house since 1912,” Clovis said. “The mother told me this, unknowing that a person I’d interviewed was one of the servants in that very house.”

Clovis revived her project from the dust and visited the Historical Society to learn more of the fate-filled place she’d walked into. She found that the Rosedale House was the first plantation home in New Jersey.

“The homeowners invited me to come write in the house while my daughter played. They said, ‘It must have been meant for you to write this story,’” Clovis said. “What you read in the book, I’m actually sitting in the house, staring at the staircases, at the upstairs where there was actually slave quarters. It’s interesting that a house over time can have so many memories.”

“Quantum Leaps in Princeton’s Place” is considered a creative non-fiction or historical fiction. Clovis begins the forward and first chapter with her own story – when she and her daughter drove down Rosedale Road and happened upon this Princeton place. Clovis then weaves her interviewees into characters who demonstrate the entangled histories of segregation and civil rights in America.

Chapter two is Clovis’ favorite.

“The older woman, Ida, told me what it was like to be a small child in a town that was segregated. Her mother always told her, ‘you have to listen, you have to be polite,’ and Ida speaks to the level of understanding she had as a 7-year-old girl. Chapter two is conducive of that,” Clovis said.

The stories are not from one perspective. Clovis demonstrates how it feels to exist in a segregated Northern town from the early to mid-1900s. She weaves between violence and inspiration and exploits what may sometimes lurk in bigotry’s darkest corners.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida