There are a lot of reasons why buildings are named for people — but they almost always represent a gold standard of success or a financial contribution.
Princeton University’s board of trustees has found another reason: civic engagement.
Laura Wooten, who was recognized as the longest-serving election poll worker in U.S. history before her death in 2019 at the age of 98, will have the former Marx Hall renamed for her, effective July 1.
Wooten, who was born in North Carolina in 1920, the same year women’s right to vote was ratified in the U.S., moved to Princeton as a young child at a time when the schools were segregated. She began volunteering at election polls after graduating high school in 1939 — and did so for 79 years.
The building, located along Washington Road, houses the University Center for Human Values, academic offices, a department library and teaching spaces. Plans for a formal dedication will be announced at a later date.
The board of trustees’ action followed the recommendation of the Council of the Princeton University Community Committee on Naming, which is made up of faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduate and alumni representatives, and provides advice to the board with regard to the naming of programs, positions and spaces at the university.
The naming of Laura Wooten Hall is intended to honor her extraordinary contributions and emphasize the importance of civic engagement at all levels.
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said the honor is inspirational.
“I am grateful to the Naming Committee for this inspiring recommendation, and I am delighted that Princeton will honor Laura Wooten for her extraordinary contributions to our nation and the democratic process,” he said. “The addition of Laura Wooten’s name to the tapestry of our campus will recognize Princeton’s history, the breadth of our community and the positive impact that one remarkable person can have through lifelong dedication to public service and civic values.”
Wooten volunteered at local, primary and general election polls in New Jersey for 79 years. Last summer, Gov. Phil Murphy signed “Laura Wooten’s Law,” citing her as the longest-serving poll worker in the country. The legislation focuses on middle school curriculum guidelines to ensure students study the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function of government and the role of a citizen in a democratic society.
“Laura Wooten’s life is a study in civics,” Murphy said at the July 2021 signing ceremony. “She set a tremendous legacy of service. Even more importantly, in her life, born in the segregated South, she persevered through sexism and racism, including right here in New Jersey. Her life stands as evidence that change in a democracy comes not from those who hold elective office, but through the work of ordinary citizens.”
Wooten, who worked at the university in campus dining for 27 years, worked as a nurse’s aide at Princeton Medical Center for 18 years and was a teaching assistant at Community Park School in Princeton.
Wooten was well-known among faculty, students and staff, engaging everyone in conversation as she checked meal cards at the entrance of Butler College dining hall. Two of her grandsons also work on campus: Caasi Love, assistant director of finance and planning for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Isaac Love III, a custodian in Building Services. They are among Wooten’s 16 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren.
While Wooten was beloved by the campus community, the honorific naming is intended to recognize her service to the nation and contributions to the democratic process rather than her service as a Princeton employee.
“She never served as an elected official, worked in government or even graduated from college, but she helped to safeguard one of the fundamental pillars of democracy: the right to vote,” wrote associate professor of history Beth Lew-Williams, chair of the CPUC Committee on Naming.
“Her status as the longest continuously serving poll worker in the nation is a rare and exceptional achievement, one that offers a powerful example of how ordinary citizens can perform extraordinary service to the nation.
“Laura Wooten was a Black woman who was educated in Princeton’s segregated public schools and worked at Princeton’s segregated hospital, but she never lost faith in the democratic system. She believed that everyone’s vote mattered and made it her personal duty to ensure citizens’ voting rights at the polls. Her dedication to service in honor of the democratic process — without compensation or recognition — aligns with core university values.”
Wooten, in a 2018 interview, said the importance of voting could not be stressed enough.
“Voting is your voice, so, if you don’t go out and vote for things, there will never be any changes,” she said then. “That’s the only way you’ll get changes, is to vote. The privilege in a democracy of being able to vote means a lot to me.”