Lawrenceville’s Heely Scholar program is a two-week boarding seminar in archival research for rising Fifth Formers that have demonstrated a keen interest and ability in their study of American History. The intent of the program is to introduce students to primary research from the school’s collection and local research institutions. Here, we learn about Justin Wong’s ’18 project with the Trenton Free Public Library.
Justin Wong ‘18 was never that interested in history. “To be honest,” he admitted, “when I came to Lawrenceville, I started off as more of a science guy.” Wong hails from Hong Kong, where he said science is more fun because of the opportunities to do real research. Through his work as one of Lawrenceville’s Heely Scholars, however, Wong’s eyes are opening to new academic possibilities.
The Heely Scholars are tasked with writing a thesis on a particular aspect of American history and how it relates to Lawrenceville. To that end, Heely Scholar Director and History Master Anne Louise Smit took the scholars to the Trenton Free Public Library to sift through their Trentoniana collection, which includes boxes of materials related to the history and development of Trenton, Princeton, and the surrounding area. This past summer, Smit had them investigate information about Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Lawrenceville’s core campus as well as Trenton’s Cadwallader Park.
Wong found himself drawn to the old boxes of artifacts. “We looked at the correspondence about Olmstead’s plan for the park, which was very fun,” he said. “They [also] have one book that had notable families in Lawrenceville during the 1880s. You can see they have Cleve in there, and I think there’s Woodhull. So that was a cool thing I found.”
Wong’s Heely Scholars thesis revolves around the development of unions in Trenton and the impact they had on the city. “My Heely project this term is focused on the 1880 Knights of Labor,” he explained. “Although it isn’t immediately relevant, you can see the continuation of this kind of struggle against capitalism, and how labor unions in the United States faced a lot of troubles compared to their counterparts in Europe.” The collection largely centers on labor unions in Trenton between the 1940s and 1970s, but includes documents about the Roeblings, who designed suspension bridges across the United States, most notably the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the Trenton pottery industry, which spanned from 1850 to 1940.
His research has been so thorough that under the instruction of Laura Poll, the Trentoniana Archivist, Wong has agreed to develop a finding aid for the collection through an internship with the library. “I go through the actual documents from different unions, the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions. There are newspaper clippings, there are founding documents—constitutions and bylaws, the agreements between companies and unions,” he explained. Wong types up the descriptions of the documents he finds and organizes them for future researchers to access. “When someone who’s interested in researching in Trenton, they can just look at the searching aid and they’ll see [where to find these items],” he said. Wong hopes his finding aid will be published on the library’s website.
Wong may not be ready to give up on the sciences completely, but the experience of working in the archives of the Trenton Free Public Library has changed the way he sees history and his role in it. “You go in without knowing anything and by reading—untainted by preconceptions—you learn something about it. That’s very fun—showing that what happens now is contingent on what happened before,” he said.
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