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Woodrow Wilson was extremely racist — even by the standards of his time

Behold! A racist!
Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This Wednesday, a group of Princeton students stormed the offices of president Christopher Eisgruber to demand that Woodrow Wilson's name be removed from all programs and buildings at the university. That's a big ask. Princeton has an entire school — the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — named after Wilson, who served as university president from 1902 to 1910, before his time in the White House. It also has Wilson College, a residential college for undergrads.

So far, the university is standing firm, insisting that, in the Associated Press's words, "it is important to weigh Wilson's racism, and how bad it was, with the contributions he made to the nation." And outside of Princeton, the incident is being seized upon as yet another example of campus PC run amok:

Leaving aside the broader question of whether Wilson's name should be removed, let's be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s, a period widely acknowledged by historians as the "nadir" of post–Civil War race relations in the United States.

Woodrow Wilson resegregated the federal government

Wilson and his Treasury secretary, William McAdoo, who led the charge by resegregating his department.
Apic/Getty Images

Easily the worst part of Wilson's record as president was his overseeing of the resegregation of multiple agencies of the federal government, which had been surprisingly integrated as a result of Reconstruction decades earlier. At an April 11, 1913, Cabinet meeting, Postmaster General Albert Burleson argued for segregating the Railway Mail Service. He took exception to the fact that workers shared glasses, towels, and washrooms. Wilson offered no objection to Burleson's plan for segregation, saying that he "wished the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction."

Both Burleson and Treasury Secretary William McAdoo took Wilson's comments as authorization to segregate. The Department of Treasury and Post Office Department both introduced screened-off workspaces, separate lunchrooms, and separate bathrooms. In a 1913 open letter to Wilson, W.E.B. DuBois — who had supported Wilson in the 1912 election before being disenchanted by his segregation policies — wrote of "one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work [and who] consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years." That's right: Black people who couldn't, logistically, be segregated were put in literal cages.

Outright dismissals were also common. Upon taking office, Wilson himself fired 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service and replaced them with white people. After the Treasury and Post Office began segregating, many black workers were let go. The head of the Internal Revenue division in Georgia fired all his black employees, saying, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field." To enable hiring discrimination going forward, in 1914 the federal government began requiring photographs on job applications.

In 1914, a group of black professionals led by newspaper editor and Harvard alumnus Monroe Trotter met with Wilson to protest the segregation. Wilson informed Trotter, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When Trotter insisted that "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," Wilson admonished him for his tone: "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."

"Listen to DuBois" is a good general rule of thumb
W.E.B. DuBois, a vocal critic of Wilson's segregationist policies, pictured in 1950.
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It's worth stressing that Wilson's policies here were racist even for his time. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had been much better about appointing black statesmen to public office, and other political figures, including whites, attacked Wilson's moves toward segregation. The influential pro–civil rights journalist Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that the Wilson administration "has allied itself with the forces of reaction, and put itself on the side of every torturer, of every oppressor, of every perpetrator of racial injustice in the South or the North." He further attacked it for its "political stupidity": The administration "has put into the hands of the Republican party an issue which, if they have the sense to use it, may be just the touchstone they are seeking."

Villard was taken seriously by the White House, which tried to court him on the issue and offered hints that it might be changing its tone. He met with Wilson and corresponded with him on racial issues numerous times. But the segregation policies were never reversed.

Some Republicans seized upon the issue, though it wasn't the political game changer that Villard hoped it would be. "Congressman John J. Rogers of Massachusetts introduced resolutions urging investigation of treatment of Negro employees in the Treasury and Post Office Departments," historian Nancy Weiss writes, "but both measures died on committee calendars without gaining so much as a hearing."

Wilson's racism even extended to foreign affairs. While it had been customary to appoint black ambassadors to Haiti and Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), Wilson didn't do that either. At the Versailles Convention in 1919, Wilson helped kill a proposal from Japan calling for the treaty to recognize the principle of racial equality. While 11 out of 17 members at the meeting considering the amendment favored it, Wilson, who was presiding, arbitrarily decided that the amendment had been defeated because the vote wasn't unanimous. This wasn't an actual rule that the proceedings were operating under; a simple majority vote was enough to decide that the League of Nations would be headquartered in Geneva. Wilson just really didn't want the treaty to recognize racial equality and wanted to appease the British Empire, which was premised on subjugating African and South Asian people.

Woodrow Wilson was a vocal defender of the Ku Klux Klan

Wilson was governor of New Jersey when he became president in 1913, but he had been born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina. He was, historian William Keylor notes, the first Southerner elected to the presidency since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Southern racists, accordingly, rejoiced his election. "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," Keylor writes. "Rebel yells and the strains of 'Dixie' reverberated throughout the city."

Wilson himself was the descendant of Confederate soldiers, and identified deeply with the "Lost Cause" narrative, according to which the Confederacy was a government of noble men trying to preserve a decent agrarian way of life against crude Northern industrialists, rather than a separatist movement premised on white supremacy. Historian Wesley Moody describes Wilson's most famous book as an academic, A History of the American People, as "steeped in Lost Cause mythology." The book was generally sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, describing them as "men half outlawed, denied the suffrage, without hope of justice in the courts, who meant to take this means to make their will felt." ("This means" being violence and intimidation against black people.) The following quote from the book even made its way into The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's infamous feature valorizing the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the South:

"A great Ku Klux Klan."
DW Griffith

Lest one think this is a misrepresentation of Wilson's views, The Birth of a Nation actually cut off the most racist part of the first half of the quote:

The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.

And that was only the last of three Wilson quote title cards in the film. This one came first:

[A]dventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the Negroes.…In the villages the Negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.

And then this one:

The Policy of the congressional leaders wrought…a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South.…in their determination to "put the white South under the heel of the black South."

For his part, Wilson lent The Birth of a Nation his approval by screening it at the White House and reportedly telling Griffith that it could "teach history with lightning."

Elsewhere in the book, Wilson attacked Reconstruction on the grounds that "the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded." He was strongly against black suffrage: "It was a menace to society itself that the negroes should thus of a sudden be set free and left without tutelage or restraint." He praised those freed slaves who "stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble" but bemoaned that they were the exception, the being "vagrants, looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune" who inevitably "turned thieves or importunate beggars. The tasks of ordinary labor stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent; dangerous nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot and incendiary fire."

At the end of Reconstruction, "Negro rule under unscrupulous adventurers had been finally put an end to in the South, and the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites, the responsible class, established." In a 1881 article that went unpublished, Wilson defended the South's suppression of black voters, saying that they were being denied the vote not because their skin was dark but because their minds were dark (yes, really).

Wilson's racism wasn't the matter of a few unfortunate remarks here or there. It was a core part of his political identity, as indicated both by his anti-black policies as president and by his writings before taking office. It is completely accurate to describe him as a racist and white supremacist and condemn him accordingly.

Correction: This post originally referred to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs; it's actually the school of Public and International Affairs. Wesley Moody was also mislabeled as Wesley Morris.


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