Woodrow Wilson is best known as the President of the First World War who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to found the League of Nations. A progressive reformer who fought monopolies and child labor, he served two terms from 1913.
But Wilson was also a segregationist who wrote a history textbook praising Confederation and, in particular, the Ku Klux Klan. As president, he overturned hard-fought economic progress for black Americans, overseeing the segregation of several federal government agencies.
While Wilson was hailed for his role in the First World War, historians and activists have long drawn attention to his other actions. And institutions have strived to respond to this aspect of his legacy. In June 2020, the University of Monmouth announced that it would rename its Woodrow Wilson Hall. And after years of protests, Princeton University said it would withdraw its name from its prestigious school of public policy, saying that his segregationist attitudes and policies made Wilson a “particularly inappropriate namesake.” In places like Washington, DC, historians and parents have called for its name to be removed from public high schools.
To reassess Wilson’s legacy, it is important to understand not only his leadership during a world war, nor his corporate and labor reforms. It is also important to know that, on the home front, it has perpetuated violence and inequality for black Americans. Here’s how.
Praising the Confederation and the KKK
Wilson is often associated with the state of New Jersey because it was there that he was governor and president of Princeton University. But he was born in Virginia antebellum in 1856 and lived in Georgia during the Civil War. His parents supported Confederation and Wilson’s five-volume history textbook, A history of the American people, echoes these attitudes. The book adheres to what historians call the narrative of the “lost cause”, a non-factual vision of history that romances the Confederation, describes the institution of slavery as a sweet patrician affair, transcribes the civil war as a matter of state rights rather than slavery. and demonizes the reconstruction era efforts to improve the lives of former slaves.
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Wilson wrote that the reconstruction placed the white men of the south under “the intolerable burden of governments borne by the votes of ignorant negroes”, and that these white men responded by forming the Ku Klux Klan. He described the Klan as “an” invisible Empire of the South “, linked in a loose organization to protect the country from the south from some of the ugliest risks of an era of revolution.
In reality, the KKK was a violent terrorist group targeting black Americans. Confederate veterans founded the paramilitary group after the end of the civil war in 1865. The first wave of the KKK was not dissolved until the early 1870s after President Ulysses S. Grant passed laws allowing him to pursue him with military force.
White historians like Wilson helped popularize the Confederate Klansmen, who became the heroes of DW Griffith’s 1915 film The birth of a nation. The villains in the film were black Americans portrayed by white actors in black. Wilson agreed to show the film – which quoted his own book in its boxes – at the White House and would have congratulated him by saying: “It is like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that all of this is terribly true. “
The popularity of the blockbuster led white men to re-found the KKK, which flourished across the country in the 1920s. Wilson played an active role in promoting the ideology that led to this revival.
READ MORE: How “the birth of a nation” revived the Ku Klux Klan
Separation from the federal government
Wilson’s views on the breed also informed his passage to the Oval Office. While campaigning and legislating as a progressive who struggled to dismantle big business and improve the lot of American workers, his administration limited opportunities and made working conditions worse for some black Americans.
After reconstruction ended in the 1870s, white men from the south began to obliterate reconstruction reforms by using laws, violence and intimidation to prevent black men from voting and expelling them from local governments and States. Things were different in the federal government. Black men started working for the federal government during the Civil War, and at the turn of the century, black men and women made up about 10% of this workforce.
READ MORE: “How the government seizes the reforms erased in the South after the reconstruction”
When Wilson took office in 1913, he was the first southerner to be president since the reconstruction. His cabinet included several white southerners, who “really didn’t know how integrated the federal service was, how [relatively] Washington was not dissociated, “says Eric S. Yellin, professor of history and American studies at the University of Richmond and author of Racism at the Service of the Nation: Government Employees and the Color Line in America by Woodrow Wilson. “And when they arrive, some of them are really shocked.”
Immediately, these cabinet members began to speak of the segregation of federal government employees by race. Wilson allowed his cabinet to do so despite protests from civil rights activists like WEB Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter – whom Wilson angrily threw out of the Oval Office at a 1914 meeting in which Trotter argued against the segregation. A transcript of this meeting reveals that Wilson had argued, “Segregation is not humiliating, but an advantage, and should be considered by you, gentlemen.”
During Wilson’s presidency, he allowed his cabinet to separate the Treasury, the post office, the engraving and printing office, the navy, the interior, the maritime hospital, the war department, and the government printing office. This meant creating separate offices, dining rooms, bathrooms and other facilities for white and black workers. It also meant firing black supervisors, removing black workers’ access to promotions and better paying jobs and reserving these jobs for white people.
“The federal government was one of the few employers across the country to give African Americans a chance; especially a blow to career and social mobility, ”says Yellin. In Washington DC, where most of these federal jobs were based, this led to an increase in home ownership among black families. After Wilson’s presidency, home ownership for blacks dropped in Washington, Yellin says, in part because black federal workers no longer had access to these better jobs and wages.
Even if these practices were not codified by federal law, segregation persisted in the public service for the next few decades, preventing black Americans from DC and across the country from getting better jobs and paying to support themselves. their needs, those of their families and their communities.