Woodrow Wilson’s name should have never been put on
Yet President Wilson ended up being honored by having his name plastered on buildings, schools and bridges (like here in Washington, D.C) more than most Presidents, in part because influential Democratic historians, notably Kennedy family flack Arthur Schlesinger Jr., pushed the false narrative that he was a great idealist and a great leader. This required burying Wilson’s well-documented record as a racist, though the rest of his record wasn’t great either.
In Part I, I gave the official Ethics Alarms argument for not tearing down honors to Wilson now that Black Lives Matters and its allies are in full Soviet/Maoist cultural bulldozing mode. When Wilson is gone, I see little stopping the mob from tearing down Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials next, to name just one example of where this slippery slope leads.
Despite leading our nation through an existential depression and World War II, FDR had his own black marks regarding racism and discrimination, arguably as many as Wilson. In 1916, a document was discovered showing that Roosevelt, as Wilson’s Deputy Secretary of the Navy, personally signed an order segregating bathrooms in the Navy Department. As President, FDR wouldn’t allow his black and white White House servants to eat together. Everyone knows (or should) that he imprisoned about 70,000 American citizens because they were Japanese, and just last year, “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust” revealed archival evidence of FDR’s callous and bigoted treatment of European Jews prior to and during the Holocaust. Franklin Roosevelt was a racist and an anti-Semite. When we get into retroactively dishonoring Presidents virtually all of them are at risk.
However, there are persuasive arguments that Wilson is a special case.
Four years after it decided to keep Wilson’s name over the objections of students, Princeton University will remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges, the university’s president Christopher L. Eisgruber announced, saying in part,
Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.
Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school. When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role.
These conclusions may seem harsh to some. Wilson remade Princeton, converting it from a sleepy college into a great research university. Many of the virtues that distinguish Princeton today—including its research excellence and its preceptorial system—were in significant part the result of Wilson’s leadership. He went on to the American presidency and received a Nobel Prize. People will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.
Less rational was this section:
“Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.”
This is an admission that the decision, which reverses one just four years earlier by the same board and president when all the evidence of Wilson’s racism was known, is less based on principle than on fear of the mob created by a case of police abuse in Minneapolis. It is bizarre to blame Woodrow Wilson or Princeton for that. The decision to dishonor Wilson is muddied by the George Floyd Freakout, not clarified by it.
In another jarring note, Eisgruber said that Princeton’s board of trustees found that Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”
His thinking? Princeton is punishing him for what he thought? Is the new progressive, Black Lives Matter regime going to prosecute thought-crime? This is far from the first clue that it might.
Conservative law professor Randy Burnett amassed a strong argument that Wilson’s racism is simply too overwhelming to tolerate. He states, “No doubt there are others whose names should also be expunged. But because of his record of official racism and betrayal,Wilson’s name should be first on any such list.” Some examples selected by the professor:
- From Reason’s The Menacing Mr. Wilson:
Wilson’s racist views were hardly a secret. His own published work was peppered with Lost Cause visions of a happy antebellum South. As president of Princeton, he had turned away black applicants, regarding their desire for education to be “unwarranted.” He was elected president because the 1912 campaign featured a third party, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bullmoose Party, which drew Republican votes from incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson won a majority of votes in only one state (Arizona) outside the South.
What Wilson’s election meant to the South was “home rule;” that is, license to pursue its racial practices without concern about interference from the federal government. . . . But “home rule” was only the beginning.
- Here is what W.E.B Dubois thought of Wilson’s racist policies:
President Wilson’s initial policy measures were so stridently anti-black, Du Bois felt obliged to write “Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson” in September 1913. Du Bois was blunt, writing that “[I]t is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful.” Listing the most notorious racists of the era, including “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman,** Du Bois wrote that they were undoubtedly encouraged since “not a single act” or “a single word” from Wilson “has given anyone reason” to believe that he will act positively with respect to African Americans citing the removal of several black appointees from office and the appointment of a single black whom was “such a contemptible cur, that his very nomination was an insult to every Negro in the land.” Altogether the segregationist and discriminatory policies of Wilson in his first six months alone were judged by Du Bois to be the “gravest attack on the liberties” of African Americans since Emancipation.
In a tone that was almost threatening Du Bois wrote the president that there exist “foolish people who think that such policy has no limit and that lynching “Jim Crowism,” segregation and insult are to be permanent institutions in America.” Pointing to the segregation in the Treasury and Post Office Departments Du Bois wrote Wilson of the “colored clerks [that] have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings” and of the one clerk “who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work” who, therefore, “had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years,” he asked President Wilson a long series of questions. “Mr. Wilson, do you know these things? Are you responsible for them? Did you advise them? Do you know that no other group of American citizens has ever been treated in this way and that no President of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment?”
- From “The long-forgotten racial attitudes and policies of Woodrow Wilson,” by Boston University historian William R. Keylor:
[On March 4th, 1913] Democrat Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848….The new administration brought to power a generation of political leaders from the old South who would play influential roles in Washington for generations to come.
..Washington was a rigidly segregated town — except for federal government agencies. They had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies. Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service.
Cabinet heads — such as his son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo of Tennessee – re-segregated facilities such as restrooms and cafeterias in their buildings. In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers. African-Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations.
A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies. But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon – a longtime political supporter, friend and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University – was published in 1905. A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, cinematographer D.W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, titled “Birth of a Nation.”
With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks briefly held elective office in several states. It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War. The film depicted African-Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly denounced the movie’s blatant appeals to racial prejudice, the president organized a private screening of his friend’s film in the White House for the members of his cabinet and their families. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson observed, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
- Finally, from History Matters, is the exchange between Wilson and Monroe Trotter:
Monroe Trotter. Mr. President, we are here to renew our protest against the segregation of colored employees in the departments of our National Government. We [had] appealed to you to undo this race segregation in accord with your duty as President and with your pre-election pledges to colored American voters. We stated that such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, and entirely unmerited and far-reaching in its injurious effects. . . .
President Wilson. The white people of the country, as well as I, wish to see the colored people progress, and admire the progress they have already made, and want to see them continue along independent lines. There is, however, a great prejudice against colored people. . . . It will take one hundred years to eradicate this prejudice, and we must deal with it as practical men. Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation.
Monroe Trotter. It is not in accord with the known facts to claim that the segregation was started because of race friction of white and colored [federal] clerks. The indisputable facts of the situation will not permit of the claim that the segregation is due to the friction. It is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness, doing so even through two [President Grover Cleveland] Democratic administrations. Soon after your inauguration began, segregation was drastically introduced in the Treasury and Postal departments by your appointees.
President Wilson. If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me. . . . Your tone, with its background of passion.
Yes, it’s true: in addition to being a proud racist, Woodrow Wilson was also an insufferable jerk. Of course, that’s not considered a problem in the Ivy league.