June 25, 2015
EXPUNGING WOODROW WILSON FROM OFFICIAL PLACES OF HONOR. As I indicated in my post yesterday, I support Governor Nikki Haley’s initiative to remove the Confederate battle flag from government buildings. Now that we are expunging the legacy of past racism from official places of honor, we should next remove the name Woodrow Wilson from public buildings and bridges. Wilson’s racist legacy — in his official capacity as President — is undisputed. In The long-forgotten racial attitudes and policies of Woodrow Wilson, Boston University historian William R. Keylor provides a useful summary:
[On March 4th, 1913] Democrat Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Washington was flooded with revelers from the Old Confederacy, whose people had long dreamed of a return to the glory days of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, when southern gentlemen ran the country. Rebel yells and the strains of “Dixie” reverberated throughout the city. 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.
Wilson is widely and correctly remembered — and represented in our history books — as a progressive Democrat who introduced many liberal reforms at home and fought for the extension of democratic liberties and human rights abroad. But on the issue of race his legacy was, in fact, regressive and has been largely forgotten.
Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War. He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences. When he entered the White House a hundred years ago today, 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.”
Here is the exchange between Wilson and Trotter:
Mr. 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 Woodrow 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.
Mr. 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 Woodrow 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.
Mr. Monroe Trotter. But I have no passion in me, Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken; you misinterpret my earnestness for passion.
A swell guy, eh? After resigning from the Socialist Party to support Wilson, W.E.B Dubois was appalled at 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?” Like Trotter later Du Bois ends by threatening Wilson with the complete loss of black votes for any of his future electoral quests or that of his Democratic Party. Du Bois relied on questions to hammer home his point. “1. Do you want Negro votes? 2. Do you think that ‘Jim Crow’ civil service will get these votes? 3. Is your Negro policy to be dictated by Tillman and Vardaman? . . . “
(**As Justice Thomas notes, Democrat Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina was the author of the earliest campaign finance “reform,” the Tillman Act that barred corporations from contributing directly to federal candidates.)
In response to these outcries, in 1914, Wilson told The New York Times, “If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it.” It would be a valuable educational experience today to correct this mistake, and the historical record, by having a candid conversation about the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson. And racism was not his only sin. The Wilson administration prosecuted and jailed many antiwar activists for sedition, including Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs for having made an antiwar speech. (Debs was later pardoned by Republican President Warren Harding.)
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. Those who oppose its removal from government buildings should explain exactly why whatever principle of tolerance they apply to so extreme a purveyor of racist policies as Wilson should not be applied equally to memorials to other historical figures as well.
RELATED: Historian Paul Rahe on Progressive Racism:
Wilson, our first professorial president, . . . was the very model of a modern Progressive, and he was recognized as such. He prided himself on having pioneered the new science of rational administration, and he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. With the dictates of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in mind, in 1907, he campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, while governor of New Jersey, he proudly signed into law just such a bill.
STILL MORE on 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.
[Cross posted at The Volokh Conspiracy]