Lecturer in Dance Dyane Harvey-Salaam and students in her course “The American Dance Experience and Africanist Dance Practices” welcome Chief Ayanda Clarke for a collective Ancestral Remembrance Ceremony honoring James Collins Johnson and the naming of the easternmost East Pyne Archway for him. Mr. Johnson, whose story was unearthed and shared through the Princeton & Slavery Project, was a fugitive from Maryland who worked on campus for more than 60 years, first as a janitor and then for many years as a vendor of fruits, candies and other snacks that he sold from a wheelbarrow. When he died in 1902, alumni and students purchased a headstone for him in Princeton cemetery, and inscribed an epitaph that described him as “the students friend.” Last April the University Trustees accepted a recommendation to name the archway for Johnson. The ceremony to be led by Chief Ayanda (a highly respected Babalawo who was initiated to Ifa in Yorubaland, Nigeria), will include a traditional sacred ritual that will uplift the space, honor Mr. Johnson’s unique life and sacrifices, and pay homage to the spirit of the ancestors through African dance, music, and prayers.

Presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Dance in collaboration with the Campus Iconography Committee and the Princeton & Slavery Project.


James Collins Johnson outside of the old chapel on the Princeton campus.

On July 28, 1843, disaster struck James Collins Johnson, a black servant at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University: he was arrested on suspicion of being a fugitive slave. Johnson had worked as a janitor at Nassau Hall, then a dormitory as well as a classroom building, without incident since 1839 after fleeing slavery in Maryland. His arrest ensued after a student recognized Johnson and alerted his owners, who came to Princeton and had him detained for trial as a runaway slave. Tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Johnson was adjudged a fugitive and slated for return to slavery.

A happier ending supervened, however: Johnson was redeemed from slavery by a local white woman, Theodosia Ann Mary Prevost, who had strong ties to the college. Johnson spent the next several years repaying the funds advanced for his purchase. He went on to become a beloved mascot of the college during his six-decade career on campus. When he died on July 22, 1902, Johnson was buried in the Princeton Cemetery, lying only a few feet away from some of the country’s most prominent citizens. Alumni and students took up a collection for his burial and erected a gravestone, whose epitaph pays tribute to Johnson as “the students [sic] friend.”

Read more about Johnson’s life in the full article by Lolita Buckner Inniss at


Poster | Press release

“Ceremony honoring James Johnson arch invokes ‘ancestors who can galvanize community’” |, October 24, 2018

Map + Directions

The ceremony will take place in the courtyard and archway at East Pyne hall on the Princeton University campus.

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