Robert Engs & Sheldon Hackney: Trailblazers at Princeton together again at Penn





One of the first black students at Princeton; a 'left-wing' provost during a time of change. The two friends fought for racial equality at Princeton - and, years later, came to Philadelphia to leave their marks at the University, too.

Pulling up a chair at one of the long dining-room tables, Robert Engs, Princeton class of '65, sat down to enjoy a meal with some of his fellow undergrads. When the food came out, Engs recalls that Casper Ewing III, seated across from him, remarked, "Let's see what the niggers in the kitchen prepared for us today."

Engs, now a History professor at Penn, was the only black student in his class.

"The next thing I remember, I leaped across the table, I had my hands around Casper's neck, and my buddies were pulling me back," he said.

"Probably worst of the whole thing was that, after I had let go of him and I was back seated, steam coming out of my ears, he apologized. He says, 'I'm sorry, I didn't see you there.'"

As difficult a time as Engs had with his classmates, he got along extremely well with his more liberal-minded professors. So well, that when Engs was working on-campus in the summer of 1966, a young new addition to the faculty named Sheldon Hackney invited him to his house for dinner.

"It was kind of like he treated me like a younger colleague and an interesting person," Engs said. "I thought he was fascinating."

Fifteen years later, the two would reunite at Penn, Hackney as president and Engs as a History professor. Together, they worked toward drastically improving Penn's racial climate.

But Penn's progress had its roots in Princeton.

"While he was president, we worked closely together," Engs said, "but it was on the basis of that earlier friendship and confidence in each other."...

Despite his social problems, Engs excelled academically. He also, by necessity, became highly political.

One of his most memorable coups came when he and his fellow black students packed a segregationist-student-group meeting with sympathetic white classmates.

Elections were being held for the group's vice presidency, and, to the mortification of the president, the conspirators nominated Engs for the post and easily voted him in....

[The article goes on to explain Hackney's role at Princeton in establishing an Afro-American studies program.]




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