Princeton University Students Protest Woodrow Wilson’s White Racist Legacy – A Matter of Record

“. . . having invited Booker Washington to his 1902 inauguration as president of Princeton University, Wilson spent the next eight years working to keep every other Negro off campus and out of the student body altogether (not wishing to make uncomfortable any southern white who happened to enroll for classes).” Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (The Free Press, 1995), 82-3.

 “In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration I stand for the national policy of exclusion (or restricted immigration). The whole question is one of assimilation of diverse races. We cannot make a homogeneous population out of people who do not blend with the Caucasian race . . . Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve, and surely we have had our lesson.”
Woodrow Wilson, in a letter of May 3, 1912, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson
, Arthur S. Link, editor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 24:353, 382-83.[1]

Reuters news service reports that the students occupying the Princeton University President’s office, have ended their 32-hour sit-in last Friday after making a deal with administrators. Reportedly, “Princeton University will look into removing the name of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from buildings and school programs” due to his “racist legacy.” This is only one part of the students’ demands that also included a call for cultural awareness training for administrative personnel and more on-campus space for cultural affinity groups.

The sit-ins have raised again the question of Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy,” during his time as President of the Princeton University (1902-1910), as Governor of New Jersey (1911-1913) and as President of the United States (1913-1921).

Major media sometimes wrote “racist” in quotes when referring to Wilson’s legacy, suggesting it was controversial or only a matter of perspective. Some suggested Wilson displayed only a few individual minor racist elements. Some might be led to believe that this was understandable because of “his times.” Reuters writes, for example, that Wilson during his administration “supported racial segregation, which was legal and part of public policy at the time in the United States, particularly in southern states.”

Even a student article for the Black Justice League, appearing in campus news venue, the Daily Princetonian, was relatively sketchy about Wilson’s racism, only noting that “As president of Princeton, Wilson certainly did not intend for black students to ever enroll at Princeton. Wilson said, ‘The whole temper and tradition of the place [Princeton] are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form.’ ”

Wilson’s racism, though, was much more than a personal inconsistency, and was vigorously challenged by many in his time, particularly those who suffered the brunt of regulations and policies he supported. Vox: Policy & Politics has recently laid out its case on Wilson’s racism. The broad extent of his racism was laid out in a June 15, 2015 essay appearing in the Washington Post. The essay draws from Boston University historian William Keylor, in his article, “The Long-Forgotten Racial Attitudes and Policiies of Woodrow Wilson.”

Keylor is not the only historian to have set forth the record of Wilson’s racism. It was a white racist policy of exclusion and denigration – whether against Blacks, or Asians in America whose legal exclusion he championed (see the Wilson quote above about “Oriental coolieism.”)

Wilson’s trenchant white racism is hardly news to historians. One of the most thorough summaries of Wilson’s racism was offered by historian Kenneth O’Reilly, in 1995 book, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton. I recommend a careful reading of pages 82 – 95 in O’Reilly’s book. Let me list briefly some of the key points, while recommending a closer reading.

First, Wilson pointed out in such venues as the Atlantic Monthly and in his textbook, A History of the American People (5 volumes) that he viewed slavery as a “civilizing process” (O’Reilly, 82) and the Reconstruction period afterward as “a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.”[2]

Second, regarding Wilson’s years as President of Princeton University, O’Reilly notes that “having invited Booker Washington to his 1902 inauguration as president of Princeton University, Wilson spent the next eight years working to keep every other Negro off campus and out of the student body altogether (not wishing to make uncomfortable any southern white who happened to enroll for classes).”[3]

Third, the U.S. Presidency of Wilson was a striking and historic defeat for racial justice and a time when the policies and practices of Jim Crow were consolidating after Reconstruction. Wilson was instrumental in this, especially in the city of Washington D. C. and at the level of federal government. O’Reilly documents the emptiness of promises Wilson made to blacks during his election campaigns, especially to black AME church leaders to whom he pledged “absolute fair-dealing.” W. E. B. Du Bois mused as Wilson took office that Wilson “has brains. . . not to seek further means of the ‘jim crow’ insult.”

Wilson’s record as U.S. President, though, was a brutal betrayal, and Du Bois would turn a vigorous critic. During his two terms –

  • Wilson “pushed to institutionalize segregation within the federal civil service.” Such segregation had been initiated by earlier administrations, but “Wilson created a national debate by elevating the practice to the level of ‘reform’ and proceeding under the progressive banner.” He linked racism to progressivism, propounding “segregation as a rational, scientific policy.”[4]
  • Wilson “invariably replaced blacks with whites and made no attempt to do otherwise until the second term – when the demands of world war and the contradictions of his own global vision dictated the occasional gesture.”[5]
  • Wilson’s push for segregation spread “beyond the Post Office and Treasury with the administration requiring photographs on all civil service applications” – no doubt to make clear the racial identity of applicants.[6]
  • In analyzing Wilson’s interaction with his family and with other federal officials, O’Reilly notes that “Wilson was primarily worried about white women working under the same roof with black men. His progressive solution (what he called ‘a plan of concentration’), . . . will put them all together and will not in any one (federal) bureau mix the two races.”[7]
  • “White Only” designated facilities spread throughout Washington D.C. in the ethos created by Wilson’s segregation policy. “At [Wilson’s] direction Jim Crow within the federal bureaucracy grew every day of his eight White House years, and at the direction of others Jim Crow had swept the entire capital by the second term’s end.” Near the end of his time in office, in 1920, “blacks and whites could mingle only in the buses and trolleys, the libraries, Griffith Stadium’s grandstands, and for one day a year on the White House lawn (where black and white children joined in the Easter egg rolling events). The Easter Sundays this president spent in office were the only eight days when he did not applaud Jim Crow.”[8]
  • The policies and ethos of Jim Crow that Wilson oversaw were vigorously challenged in his own time. These challenges were forthcoming from white and black leaders of the NAACP. For examples, the white American journalist Oswald Garrison Villard and black acitivist, educator and song-writer, James Weldon Johnson, both spoke out directly and pointedly against Wilson’s policies.[9]
  • Particularly vociferous in his critique was Monroe Trotter (Black newspaper editor, real estate developer and civil rights activist). Trotter represented an African-American delegation from the national Independent Political League. His group represented to the president the rising tide of anger of the black community in Wilson’s era of segregation policy. Wilson finessed them and enraged them all the more. In personal confrontations with them during visits, Wilson would first try to deflect responsibility for Jim Crow to officials from the deep South. Then, when that was utterly unconvincing he would argue that his Jim Crowism simply served “the convenience and agreeable feelings of everybody concerned.”[10]
  • When dealing with blacks “the spirit that the president [Wilson] admitted,” according to O’Reilly, “was silence.” Wilson once scolded Monroe Trotter for speaking across the country about Wilson’s Jim Crow policies as a “humiliation” to black folk. In turn, Trotter termed Wilson’s reasoning “an insult.” Then, Wilson “shook with rage,” saying “If this organization [Trotter’s] wishes to approach me again, it must choose another spokesman. I have enjoyed listening to other gentlemen. They [those others] have shown a spirit in the matter that I have appreciated, but your tone sir, offends me.”[11]
  • Wilson permitted the screening in the White House of D. W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation and actually “encouraged cabinet members and their families to attend.” It was based on the novel by Thomas Dixon, The Clansman, which depicts the clan as virtuous defenders, the rescuers of white women from menacing black men. As the screening ended in the white house, the renown “scholar-President” pronounced the film: “History written with lightning.”[12]

We all may carry on the discussion about how universities like Princeton might best own up to their racist legacies, in ways that make for real change in the present. But Wilson’s failures are so deeply documented that no one should imagine that protesting students are just making it all up for a cause.

In the meantime, the historical and activist work continue.

[1] Cited from Don Wolfensberger, “Woodrow Wilson, Congress and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in America An Introductory Essay,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Monday, March 12, 2007.

[2] Woodrow Wilson, “The Reconstruction of the Southern States,” The Atlantic Monthly, January 1901, p. 6.

[3] Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 82-3.

[4] Ibid. 84.

[5] Ibid. O’Reilly her cites several sources, among them Kathleen Long Wolgemuth, “Woodrow Wilson’s Appointment Policy and the Negro,” Journal of Southern History 24 (Nov. 1958), 458-59.

[6] Ibid. 85.

[7] Ibid. From a May 3, 1912 letter by Woodrow Wilson.

[8] Ibd. 94.

[9] Ibid. 86.

[10] Ibid. 87.

[11] Ibid. 88-9.

[12] Ibid. 90.


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