Living history

Albert E. Hinds: the memory of a century.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Talking with Albert E. Hinds of John Street is like taking a stroll through the 20th-century history of Princeton.
   Reminiscences of a barn fire on Stockton Street (now the site of Princeton Borough Hall) which killed a number of horses used in a carriage service, to reminiscences of a trolley car accident on Witherspoon Street late one summer night, pour from Mr. Hinds’ lips as if the events occurred days, not decades ago.
   Mr. Hinds remembers Nassau Street as a dirt road which he helped to pave around 1920, when he was employed by the Hastings Pavement Co. And he seems to know the histories of individual houses in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood where he has spent most of his life. He still lives there, with his third wife, Inez.
   Mr. Hinds celebrated his 100th birthday Sunday amid scores of family, friends and neighbors with a party at the Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church on Witherspoon Street.
   "This is a very special occasion that will not occur again," Mr. Hinds said, drawing laughs.
   Following the accolades and well-wishes from family and friends, Mr. Hinds humbly thanked them.
   "I sat and listened to all the nice things being said and wondered who they were talking about. It’s an honor that the Lord let me be here. Sometimes I fuss with the Lord, but generally it’s the Lord that wins the argument," he said.
   Born the same year as the poet Langston Hughes and the contralto Marian Anderson, Mr. Hinds marveled that his life revolved around a single street — Quarry Street — where he was born, where he went to school, and where he went to church.
   "Not many people can say that," he said, smiling.
   Mr. Hinds also knows first-hand the effects of a segregated education. He attended a segregated elementary school with Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the internationally celebrated actor and singer, who grew up on Green Street. The school for black children used hand-me-down books from the school for white children, he recalled.
   A star football player at Princeton High School, Mr. Hinds would have liked to play for Princeton University, but the university refused to admit blacks in those days. Instead, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which he described as "the black Princeton."
   History played a large part in forming Mr. Hinds’ political convictions.
   Robert Hall, Mr. Hinds’ grandfather and a former slave, moved North to work on the Brooklyn Bridge. Mr. Hall was the first African-American to vote in New Jersey, his grandson said — and he cast his ballot for Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1872. "As a result, I vote Republican," Mr. Hinds said. On Election Day, one can find him serving as a poll volunteer.
   Blacks have always been a part of Princeton’s history — since 1687, Mr. Hinds said. Black families lived not only in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood, but on Harrison, Edgehill, Charleton, William and Chestnut streets. Prior to the construction of Palmer Square in the 1930s, the historically black John-Witherspoon neighborhood had houses up to Nassau Street. Today, John Street still continues up to Nassau, but only as an alley way.
   In recent decades, the John-Witherspoon neighborhood has changed with the influx of Latino immigrants from Central and South America, and with more white families seeking starter houses there. Mr. Hinds worries that black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations will no longer be able to afford to stay in Princeton.
   "It’s always a question (in Princeton) of where do we put the black people," Mr. Hinds said. "Where’s the affordable housing?"
   Mr. Hinds is well-known for his work at the once-segregated Princeton YMCA and later for more than 20 years of service on the borough’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. But his youthful role in efforts to reinvigorate a YMCA in New Orleans, where he had been employed, holds more significance for him.
   "It’s a part of my life that’s important to me, but to nobody else," he said.
   After completing his first semester at Lincoln University in 1924, Mr. Hinds and a friend, William Mitchell (also a Princetonian), traveled to New Orleans, where Mr. Hinds continued his education at Straight College.
   The Great Depression forced a downsizing of the staff at the New Orleans YMCA, so he transferred to Talladega College in Alabama and earned a degree in physical education. His daughter, Myrna Hinds Fuller, also graduated from Talladega College.
   Life in the South turned out to be a positive experience.
   "I’m happy I went South," Mr. Hinds said. "I learned a whole lot I didn’t know about up here. However, I don’t know if I could have made it in any other city except for New Orleans, because of its cosmopolitan makeup. They were quite liberal — they didn’t know who was white, who was black or who was what."
   Another Princeton friend, Howard Waxwood, was attending Morehouse College and came to New Orleans for a visit. Mr. Hinds introduced him to his future wife, Susie. Mr. Waxwood later became one of the architects of the Princeton Plan, which desegregated the Princeton schools.
   "(Mrs. Waxwood) had one husband and I’ve had three wives, so she did a better job than I did," Mr. Hinds said.
   Mr. Hinds is proud to say that he has never been out of a job. He fondly recalled some of his early ones — as a child, shining shoes for a dime, and as the driver of a hack (a horse and buggy) which ferried Princeton University professors to the train station in Princeton Junction.
   After graduating college, Mr. Hinds worked at a YMCA in Atlanta for a year and then moved back to Princeton to work as a recreation director in Hightstown under the federal Works Progress Administration. By the mid-1930s he ran a similar program at the once-segregated Princeton YMCA at the corner of Green and Witherspoon streets — now the home to The Arts Council of Princeton. He also worked as a letter carrier for the Postal Service and as an exterminator at Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital for 25 years.
   These days Mr. Hinds enjoys his weekly bridge game at the Suzanne Patterson Senior Center, where he is known to hand out candy to participants and visitors.
   "If I wasn’t here (at the party), I’d be playing bridge with you," Mr. Hinds said to the cheers of his fellow bridge players.
   In addition to birthday greetings, Mr. Hinds received proclamations from the mayors of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township declaring April 14, 2002, as Albert E. Hinds Day.
   At the party, Inez Hinds gave her husband one of her paintings, featuring a large rainbow, and promised to "give him a kiss later." Myrna Hinds Fuller thanked her father for making her the person she is today.
   Mr. Hinds has no secrets to offer others on how to achieve his longevity. It seems to run in the family. Several relatives have lived into their 90s, Mr. Hinds said — and he may not be the last of his generation to do so. His "baby" brother, Bedford Hinds, is 82.