Shirley Satterfield’s historical trail

When Shirley Satterfield left for college, she never expected to come home. But in 1981, after more than 20 years away, she returned to Princeton, where her family roots had been cultivated by six generations. Today, Satterfield is one of the most highly regarded living sources of local history – particularly in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood – and has made it her mission to echo its heartbeat for years to come.

Satterfield’s dedication to disseminating W-J’s stories arose when her church commissioned her to research its history shortly after she came back to town. Her passion, however, is perhaps more deeply seeded.

Satterfield has experienced Princeton’s evolution first hand. She attended the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children and later transferred to Nassau Street School to be integrated with white students during desegregation. She’s lived throughout town and has now returned to one of her family’s homes, the VanZant Moore May House, with a plethora of historical treasures residing there with her.

Since 1990, Satterfield has been a part of the Historical Society of Princeton where she established the Albert E. Hinds Memorial Walking Tour to celebrate the African American community in Princeton. Satterfield knew Hinds personally, as she did many of Princeton’s notables, and convinced the municipality to name Hinds Plaza after him.

Satterfield’s perseverance to have the entire W-J neighborhood and its residents recognized as having a distinct role in Princeton’s foundation and flourishment finally paid off when the neighborhood was named Princeton’s 20th historic district on April 11. Yet, from her perspective, there was still more to do.

While preparing for this year’s Joint Effort-Princeton Safe Streets Weekend, which was extended into a week-long celebration of W-J heritage, Satterfield had an idea.

“We need to continue this,” she urged Safe Streets Founder John Bailey, another Princeton pioneer who comes home from Colorado once a year for the event.

That is when the Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society was born.

“Just being a [historical] district is fine, but if we don’t carry the heritage through – a lot of the families are moving and dying, Mary Moss is gone – then it won’t live on,” Satterfield said. “There would be no Princeton without our families and the Italian stonecutters who worked for the university.”

Satterfield is interested in creating a heritage trail, similar to the “Freedom Trail” in Boston that takes visitors through black houses of worship, homes and schools from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as through Underground Railroad sites. The Princeton trail would illuminate the many buildings and locations quintessential to W-J history, whether they stand today.

“It would be a trail to tell people what our ancestors have done,” Satterfield said. “The auras of the places are still here.”

With the society still in its planning phase, Satterfield intends to establish a board, welcome community involvement and team with other institutions, such as Princeton Public Schools to the Arts Council of Princeton. She sets the bar high as she weaves more thread into Princeton’s historic fabric, though for Satterfield it never seems like too far a reach.

“This is my dream, I guess you could say,” Satterfield said.


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