The college students immediately recognized the name as they went through the documents in Trenton’s library archives: Paul Loser, former superintendent of the city’s public schools.
“We were like, wait a minute, is this our Paul Loser?” said Kevin Moncayo, 21, one of the College of New Jersey students who came across the files in the Trentoniana archives at the Trenton Free Public Library as part of a research class.
Yes, his professor, Robert McGreevey, confirmed — this was the same Paul Loser whose name, thanks to a major family donation, is on a prominent building on TCNJ’s campus in nearby Ewing.
Everyone at TCNJ knows Loser Hall, the stately brick building with white columns where the admissions office is housed.
What many didn’t know was some of Paul Loser’s history: As superintendent from 1932 to 1955, Loser had supported segregated schools, arguing against integrating black and white middle school students.
“They immediately recognized the name, but as they started to find more and more evidence of Loser’s segregationist policies, they became quite upset about it and wanted to act,” said McGreevey, who led six students in an advanced history research seminar that studies 20th century Trenton.
“There was a moment when the class became more than just a class, and this was now a research project that was focused on a very alive and living history.”
Last week, academic research crashed headlong into the messy politics of real world activism when two students distributed hundreds of fliers around campus, including taping one to the president’s office door. The fliers urged classmates and professors to action: “THIS CANNOT STAND! Get involved today and end this injustice! CHANGE THE NAME!”
No immediate action will be taken.
The administration has publicly welcomed the students’ findings and top administrators, including the president, provost, chief diversity officer, and vice president for student affairs, are scheduling to meet with the students to discuss next steps.
“I congratulate the students and their faculty mentor for having brought light to this important historical era,” president R. Barbara Gitenstein wrote in an email Thursday to students, faculty, and staff.
“We must decide what is the most productive plan of action,” she wrote, “when we learn that our campus has honored someone whose belief system is inconsistent with our mission, including building an inclusive community of learners.”
Carol Loser, Paul Loser’s daughter-in-law, said she had never heard about his segregationist beliefs and hoped it would not overshadow the good things he had done as superintendent.
“I was entirely shocked and surprised. I thought Dr. Loser had such a fine reputation here, everyone was saying what a wonderful man he was and all of that,” she said. “And Tom and his brother never mentioned anything about racism. I’m not sure they knew it either.”
In 1987, Carol and Tom Loser pledged $1 million to the college, known then as Trenton State College, in the largest single private gift to the school at the time. The Loser Hall project was approved in 1995 and dedicated two years later, named by Tom Loser in honor of his father.
Tom and Carol Loser in 2006 gave the school an additional $5 million, still the largest donation from an individual in TCNJ history, to support the School of Nursing, Health, and Exercise Science.
Other colleges and universities, including Princeton and Yale Universities, have also struggled to grapple with their histories and whom they honor.
At TCNJ, the Losers are prominent donors but largely do not have strong direct ties to the college. Records do not show that Paul Loser or his son Tom attended the college. There is no evidence that they taught at or worked for the school.
Loser’s other son, Paul D. Loser, for many years chaired the nonprofit foundation that receives donations for the college and manages its endowment.
“TCNJ has an opportunity right now that is probably the best-case scenario it can have with a situation like this,” said Tim Osborn, 22, of Sussex County, a senior studying physics and one of the students who leafleted the campus.
For the research seminar, McGreevey sets his students upon a select group of archival boxes at the Trenton library, having them inventory and index the materials as they slowly piece together topics for papers.
This fall, the students quickly zeroed in on Loser, as they found letters, testimony, notes, meeting minutes — documents pointing to Loser’s holding segregationist views and attempting to slow the court-ordered integration process.
“We were feverishly scanning as many documents as we could find, this plethora of documents,” said Justine Thomas, 21, of Orange County, N.Y., a senior studying history and political science. “It was so exciting to find so many documents in such a short class time, and we had no idea walking in that we would find anything on anyone related to TCNJ.”
The students learned that Trenton had four whites-only middle schools and one school for black students in 1943, when Janet Hedgepeth and Leon Williams attempted to enroll in a white-only middle school in their neighborhood.
Their mothers sued when they were rejected. Loser argued that black students were barred “in accordance with the policy and philosophy of education”; the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, ordering integration of the schools and declaring school segregation illegal in the state.
Moncayo and Thomas pursued the Loser research for their papers, and Moncayo brought in Osborn and another student. McGreevey found himself with not only his six history students but two others who were spending hours digging through the boxes.
“This semester has been a crash course for me in archivist history,” Osborn said.
Early on, the students said, they knew they wanted to bring their work to the rest of campus and spark a conversation.
“All of that information was just sitting in that archive,” Moncayo said, “and I didn’t think that we were allowed to just continue to allow that.”
The students are calling for Loser Hall to be renamed. Carol Loser said she opposes that move but will accept it if the administration goes that route.
“If they’re going to change the name, I guess they’re going to do it, and I can’t stand there and say, ‘No, no, no,’ even though in my heart I would like to,” Carol Loser said.
“If there’s hard evidence, then I’ve got to say I must believe it,” she said of Paul Loser’s segregationist views. “I don’t want to, but if it’s there, it’s there.”
No matter the result, McGreevey said he is proud of his students — for both their academics and activism.
“To me, history is magic … and when my students see that, too, my only response is to encourage it,” McGreevey said.
“This is what college is about: It’s about uncovering new evidence and creating new knowledge,” he said. “I could not have designed a more effective course than this.”