At Princeton, university mail carrier and activist talks COVID, injustice, and the future

Reconnecting with Tommy Parker in 2021

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States” —W. E. B. Du Bois

Tommy Parker posing with Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi at Princeton’s Frist Campus Center. (Courtesy of Princeton University)

In the months since the 2020 presidential election, the United States has been thrust into a state of turmoil unlike any other in recent memory. In between an increasingly deadly pandemic, political unrest, and the continued killings of Black and Brown Americans at the hands of peace officers, our country is embroiled in its legacy of divisive tension. Not even conversation has become thinkable in the early days of 2021 as armed insurgents, egged on by a monomaniacal president, stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6. Entering Joe Biden’s first weeks in office, our minds here at Back in America are concerned with rebuilding a sense of trust among our communities. How can there be unity without a sense of shared community? Despite what former President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded (and discredited) 1776 Commission on “patriotic education” might allege, there is no singular, defensible understanding of what it means to be an American: not in 1776 and definitely not today. How can we, as Americans, begin to think about the next steps forward without acknowledging what has been done?

To answer these questions, I’d like to think about how our collective understanding of America shifts over time as we all process what it means to be an American. Last February—although it feels like years—Back in America’s Stan Berteloot spoke with Tommy Parker, a native of Princeton, New Jersey as well as a longtime mail carrier, coach, and activist at Princeton University. Tommy’s activism, stretching back to his parents’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, traverses history and demonstrates the importance of an everyday politics—not a political party defended at the polls every four years, but a personal understanding of how a person should be.

In that podcast, Tommy spoke about his experiences growing up in Princeton amid the radical, racialized 1960s. Influenced equally by JFK’s politics and his activist parents, Tommy feels a profound connection to America and the battles it has been waging for centuries. Growing up, Tommy was surrounded by radical activists at his family’s dinner table: Coretta Scott King was a fixture, alongside members of the Freedom Riders. The radicality of the 60s/70s, poignantly epitomized by Barkley Hendricks’ haunting portraits, has largely been forgotten in our collective cultural memory. However, those early conversations reinforced Tommy’s belief in the plurality and possibilities of America—that, in spite of its racist history, there was something vital and necessary about the American experiment.

“[To be an American is] to be a champion of freedom, of a democratic process in the sense of opportunity. Every matter, everybody counts and has some say,” he said.

Barkley Hendricks’ Noir (1978)

Yet, some voices are more easily recognized than others. Working within Princeton’s local labor movement, Tommy serves as a liaison between the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU), chapter 175 and Princeton’s administration. Facing the lack of substantial labor legislation in America following the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—over the objections of working Americans—the American labor movement has been struggling to gain traction.

With less than 7% of white collar employees belonging to unions, SEIU has fought hard for a fair wage, decent benefits, and an equitable pension plan. “I was actually surprised about our open-minded relationship [at Princeton], considering how labor and education doesn’t always mix…. it’s been a good opportunity to come to a mutual agreement with a lot of win-win type dialogue, and they’ve been receptive,” Tommy said.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tommy and the SEIU Bargaining Unit have been working closely with administrators to ensure that all contract employees receive the proper protections, a rotating schedule, job security, and other benefits that they need to survive. In his own words, the union is “not cocky, but fearless in going after what its workers need.” Despite the productive working relationship between the administration and the union, such contract negotiations remain a constant struggle between both sides which have differing values.

While many other elite American universities have furloughed or laid off their long-standing employees—not to mention tenured academic staff and entire departments— all of Princeton’s unionized workers have managed to keep working with ample personal protective equipment.

“There have been [COVID-19] cases with employees on campus, but nothing like an outbreak. [The University] has a good contact tracing project and they’ve gone all in and are trying to do the best they can to adapt with the ever-changing guidelines and circumstances,” Tommy relates.

Yet, non-union workers from Restaurant Associates, many of whom have worked at Princeton’s various dining halls for decades, were not offered the same protections. Despite SEIU’s efforts to unionize, these workers were furloughed in March 2020 with no information as to if or when they would be welcomed back to Princeton.

Technically speaking, Princeton University has no direct contract with these workers and, as such, bears no legal obligation to provide them with employment or benefits through the difficult pandemic. Yet, for Tommy, their situation is principally a moral issue. Whose responsibility is the well-being of these part-time employees who physically work in Princeton-owned buildings, yet are employed by an outside contractor?

“Outside of my contractual agreement, jurisdiction is a moral argument that goes back to the question of where does institutions of responsibility begin? Even though the workers are not directly working under the University’s Human Resources Department, what responsibility does the University owe them? What responsibility does the University owe anyone who comes to campus? What’s the moral consideration?” he said.

Amid internal uncertainty, these questions went unanswered for nearly 10 months; that is, until late January 2021 when the University reversed its furlough—against mounting student pressure—and offered these workers employment through the end of the spring semester.

Shout-out to the brilliant student journalists at The Daily Princetonian who broke the story earlier this week!

In addition to his union activism, Tommy is engaged in many difficult campus conversations surrounding Princeton’s connection to the American slave trade (check out our podcast on Epix’s Enslaved for more on the slave trade) and the nineteenth-century presence of enslaved persons in antebellum Princeton, many of whom were brought by Princeton affiliates. By 1800, more than 80% of the more than 3,000 African Americans in the Princeton area were enslaved, largely located in the Witherspoon-Jackson Community—by 1840, there were still 12 enslaved people recorded in the federal census.

Many of these early African American settlers in Princeton were denied access to the University or locked out of local resources in ways that bear on the present reality of their descendents, even though many built the University. 

For Tommy, “you can’t put a price on the suffering and irreparable damage of generations of folks who supported organizations that built trillions of dollars which can be traced to the present.”

To offer reparations for the systemic harms committed against Black Americans seems to slight the endless cycle of wage disparity and poverty. Reparations alone cannot atone for the unequal power relations and subjugation of generations of African Americans and doing so may only serve to perpetuate that same racist system. There is no changing the past—an idea that the black radical tradition has been thinking about and through for decades—but how can modern African Americans reconcile and move through this violent and troubled history?

Again the question of moral responsibility emerges: does Princeton, or any institutional body, owe any fiduciary or other obligation to support those who made its existence possible? As one of Tommy’s executive officers puts it: “How can we get away from the past injustices of slavery when the past presents itself in the present? The way that [Princeton] treats its employees is very reminiscent of the debates [surrounding slavery and labor rights] that we’ve had in the past.”

And projects such as “Princeton & Slavery” and the renaming of the W**dr*w W*ls*n School of Public and International Affairs have been working to excavate and center this history. Echoing artist Fred Wilson’s infamous “mining” of Maryland Historical Society’s archival record to highlight the untold stories of slavery and oppression held within material objects, these efforts seek to enliven history in an effort to understand the forgotten and forge new dialogic paths forward. In Wilson’s words, institutions “are afraid of what they will bring to the surface and how people will feel about certain issues that are long buried. They keep it buried, as if it doesn’t exist, as though people aren’t feeling these things anyway, instead of opening that sore and cleaning it out so it can heal.”

Even Princeton President Christopher Ludwig Eisgruber openly acknowledged the persistence of systemic racism at Princeton in an open letter written at the start of the current academic year: “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in the structures of the University itself.”

For Tommy and his self-described “eternal optimism,” this kind of open dialogue and speaking hidden truths is the first step—among many—in normalizing honest conversations about race in America. But for everything that has been accomplished, there is still all too much to be done.

“There’s a lot of consideration about race in town, all the way through the community. Everyone has been very willing to hear and learn and move and try to make change. And sometimes, it can be a little slow but I’ve seen change come in my lifetime,” he said.

And we at Back in America are waiting with baited breath to see the changes that will happen locally in Princeton and across the nation in the days, weeks, and years to come.

To hear more about Tommy’s story, listen to our podcast episode with him on Spotify, Podbean, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts!