Progressive. President of Princeton University. Creator of the Federal Reserve System. Supporter of women’s voting rights. The 28th President of the United States. These are all things that come to mind when we think back on the life and career of Woodrow Wilson. Few of us think “segregationist.” Nonetheless, Wilson was a staunch believer and promoter when it came to separating white and black Americans.
William Keylor is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. In a book he wrote in 2013, he noted, “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 largely been forgotten.”
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Woodrow Wilson was a product of the South. Born in Virginia in 1856, he grew up in Georgia and South Carolina. His Southern upbringing influenced his beliefs and actions throughout his life. During his tenure as Princeton’s president, the school did not accept black applicants because Wilson thought their pursuit of education was “unwarranted.”
When he was elected President in 1912, Washington, DC was strictly segregated. However, federal agencies had been integrated during Reconstruction and many African-Americans had been hired into civil service jobs, working alongside white employees. Although five decades had passed since the Emancipation Act, Wilson immediately set to work dismantling reforms that had opened opportunities for black citizens.
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Woodrow Wilson encouraged his cabinet members to re-segregate their departments. Many of them did so, including the Postal Service and Department of the Navy. Workers were separated by color, then separated by screens. In one department a black worker was reportedly surrounded by a cage instead, since his job required him to work closely with his white colleagues. In the Treasury Department, cafeterias and restrooms were separated. A new rule was instituted requiring photographs of all civil service job applicants.
Wilson claimed these changes were made to eliminate “friction between the colored and white clerks,” adding, “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest.”
African-American Monroe Trotter, a Boston newspaper editor and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, led the National Independent Political League to the White House in protest. Wilson brushed them off, stating “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit.” Trotter retorted, “For fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness, doing so even through two Democratic administrations.”
WILSON'S IMAGE GRACES THE FRONT OF THE LARGEST DENOMINATION OF U.S. PRINTED CURRENCY. THESE EXTREMELY RARE BILLS WERE ONLY MADE DURING A THREE-WEEK STRETCH BETWEEN DECEMBER 1934 AND JANUARY 1935.
W.E.B. Du Bois later wrote the President, “It 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.”
“Birth of a Nation,” the legendary silent movie produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915, depicted the glories of the rising Ku Klux Klan. The film’s verbal commentary was delivered in the form of quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s writings.
Ironically, Wilson was heavily supported by black voters when he ran for President in 1912. He promised them “not more grudging justice but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling.” However, as protests grew against his segregationist policies, Wilson’s response was merely to suggest that if black Americans regretted voting for him, “they ought to correct it.”
Historian John M. Mulder has been quoted as saying Wilson’s “stance on race is perhaps the greatest single defect of his moral vision of what the United States should be.”
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