PILLAR OF THE COMMUNITY: James Floyd’s influence on Princeton, especially the Witherspoon-Jackson district, touched many over several decades.
By Anne Levin
James Floyd, Princeton’s first African American mayor and longtime civil servant, died Monday morning. A community activist who worked tirelessly to promote civil rights, he was a mentor to many and a familiar figure to anyone involved in local politics. He was instrumental in getting the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood designated a historic district.
“Jim Floyd was a change agent,” said Princeton Councilman Lance Liverman, who grew up in Princeton and knew Floyd nearly his whole life. “This is my definition of someone who truly has changed the direction or path others may have gone. Jim was a mover and shaker in the area of affordable housing in Princeton. This was his passion.”
Mayor Liz Lempert said of Floyd, “Princeton lost a giant. Jim was a barrier-breaker who helped build a better, more inclusive Princeton. He was a ferocious advocate, especially for affordable housing and for youth, and he leaves behind a lasting legacy.”
Born in Trenton in 1922, Floyd was a graduate of Trenton Central High School and West Virginia State College, where he majored in art and political science. He worked for Stokes Molded Products in Trenton, which was later purchased by Electric Storage Battery Company, from which Floyd retired as vice president of personnel.
Floyd moved to Princeton in 1946 after marrying Fannie Reeves, and the couple lived on Quarry Street in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. They had two sons, James Jr. and Michael. Fannie Reeves Floyd died in 2008.
Floyd was an active member of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where he served on several committees with local historian Shirley Satterfield. “He married into a family very close to mine, so I knew him forever,” she said. “Next to Paul Robeson and Albert Hinds, he did more for this community than anyone. Whether he was mayor, head of a committee, or speaking on behalf of Witherspoon-Jackson becoming a historic district, he gave so much. I always say Paul Robeson was our native son, Mr. Hinds was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things, and Jim was a man for all seasons.”
In addition to serving as mayor of the former Princeton Township in 1971, Floyd also served on the Planning Board, the former Borough Zoning Board of Adjustment, and in other capacities. “He was instrumental in the 1950s for fair housing,” Satterfield said. “He worked very closely with our minister and the minister at Nassau Presbyterian Church to get the housing on Glenview Drive.”
Princeton native and housing advocate Leighton Newlin considered Floyd a mentor. “I have known him my whole life and he was a great influence on me,” Newlin said. “My father was my first influence, and later in my life an even greater mentor was Jim Floyd. I just enjoyed sitting around, not so much talking, but listening to him. He gave me great insight into what a difference one man can make in the lives of others and in the town in which he lives.”
Newlin said Floyd will be missed by people of all ages. “His influence was generational. He held court in many ways, and he kept minorities abreast of current events and the political landscape, even at times when we ourselves weren’t paying attention,” he said. “It will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace him.”
Architect and developer J. Robert Hillier [a Town Topics shareholder] called Floyd “an absolute pillar of the African American community. He was a character because of his forthrightness,” Hillier said. “He was a natural leader. He had a good life, and I’m glad he did. He was a good friend.”
A full obituary for James Floyd will appear in Town Topics when it becomes available.