Submitted by Hans-Christoph Boemers, MPA ’58:
In September 1956, I entered Princeton University fresh from Freiburg University in Germany, where I had just finished my law degree. I had enrolled in the Woodrow Wilson School for a two-year graduate program on a very generous scholarship.
Frankly, I was overwhelmed! I left Western Germany, which was still very much in ruins after the war, aboard the only German passenger ship, which took 12 days to take me from Bremerhaven to New York. Upon my arrival, I found myself in a world-famous, noble, impressive and demanding university, uncertain whether I would be able to live up to the standards required in Princeton. But when I walked into the Graduate College and the apartment that I was to share for two years with a fellow student, I immediately felt sheltered and curious for all the adventures to come.
We were only about 30 students in the first year at Woody Wilson, and our semester started with a pep talk with the dean at his private house. We were asked to forget about girls, movies and pool games. In short, we were asked to live like monks and to remember that there were many young men who were happy to fill our places at Princeton should we fail to meet expectations.
I soon felt accepted in my class, although I was the only foreigner, coming from a country that had brought the most horrible crimes all over Europe and to the United States just 11 years prior. Even a young, orthodox Jew started talking to me after about six months.
Richard Thornell very soon became my best friend, and for the next term he decided to move into my apartment. He was the only African American in all the Graduate School, and, although being one of the youngest among us, he was very self-assured and convincing in discussions. Once, a fellow student from our class visited us in our apartment and asked Richard to find beds on campus for black members of a sports team from his undergraduate college, whom he had invited to play against a Princeton team. Richard sharply said no—and that was that. Normally, he was very helpful, but this time he was quite furious and later told me that he thought the request was racist!
In December of our first year, Richard asked me to join him on a trip through the southern states all the way down to Miami, Florida during Christmas break. We took off late on Christmas Day from Richmond, Virginia, where I had visited some distant relatives, in my nine-year-old Chevy—full of expectations, curiosity and joy! We passed North- and South Carolina, visited Charleston, then drove west to Columbia, where Richard’s girlfriend lived. Her parents had invited us for a few days, and while we bought some flowers to take along and parked opposite the shop, people shook their fists at us because a white and a black man were not supposed to ride together in one car.
The highlight in Columbia was the New Year’s Eve ball attended by a thousand people clad in tuxedoes and long gowns. I, being the only white person in attendance, had a lovely blind date! During our trip, we had spent every night with the most hospitable families, none of which we knew. Richard just called alumni from his college living in the city where we happened to arrive late in the afternoon, and every time we were invited to come and stay the night.
After leaving Columbia, we drove to Savannah and then along the Atlantic Coast to Jacksonville. We stopped several times to swim in the warm ocean and arrived so late in the city that a call to find a place to sleep would have been impolite. Thus, Richard asked for the best black hotel (all the others would not have let him in) and we got a double room in a rather dubious place. Richard asked me to put my wallet under my pillow and put all the Bibles and other books we could find on top of a table he had moved in front of the door, so that the handle could not be depressed. Sure enough, at about 2 a.m. in the morning, several men tried unsuccessfully to get in and rob us.
We had a splendid ride south, marveled at the sprawling city of Miami and then headed northwest for the way back home through central Florida. We bought fresh orange and grapefruit juice along the road for next to nothing, watched an athletic performance of water skiers at Lake Wales and visited a few other tourist attractions. We then drove on through the northern part of Florida, Pensacola, and Mobile in Alabama and finally cut through a small part of Mississippi to arrive in New Orleans! That old city offered us many wonderful, lasting impressions and very good jazz in stylish bars.
Gradually, our holiday time was running out, so we briefly visited a Princeton friend in Rolling Fork on the Mississippi River, before driving through Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia. We stayed for a few hours in Washington, D.C. and then arrived back in Princeton. We had mastered the extended trip without any accident, we had learned a great deal about conditions and facts of life in the south, and we had come to totally trust each other. However, most importantly, we experienced situations that we now know left a mark on us for the rest of our lives.
Our trip gave me a unique insight into the private lives of many African American families in the southern United States and presented me with a deep understanding of American race relations in the 1950s. It also made me understand the revolutionary character of Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights bill of 1957 and of the subsequent rulings of the Supreme Court. No white American would have been accepted as an overnight guest by most of the families I came to meet. I had Richard, who answered all my questions, helped me interpret human behavior that was foreign to me and who explained the everyday life conditions of black Americans in those years. I, on the other hand, sometimes helped Richard visit certain institutions on our way, and since both of us belonged to a tiny minority at Princeton, we had a lot to tell about and to learn from each other.
Princeton most generously opened the door for me to gain more and deeper knowledge in many fields that were to become very important for me in my future life. It also broadened my inner horizon enormously and allowed me to look at my own country and its history from the outside, thereby setting it into a balanced relation to other countries and to the U.S. But the most cherished memories of Princeton were the many hours and events I shared with Richard during our two years in Princeton; it was there that I found a true, lifelong friend.
Richard Thornell, MPA ’58, subsequently joined President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, then studied law at Yale University and became a professor, later President, at Howard University in Washington, D.C.