Last weekend, Princeton University announced they were dropping the name Woodrow Wilson from its school of international affairs and public policy and from one of its colleges.
The President of the University, Christopher L. Eisgruber, noted in his announcement that Wilson displayed a racism that “was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
My initial reaction was skeptical. Removal of the symbols of the Confederacy – statues and flag – was long overdue. These commemorated people and a breakaway republic that fought against the United States in order to preserve slavery. Monuments and building names of other prominent Americans without this clear-cut past, like Wilson, have come under closer scrutiny as well. New York Times columnist Brett Stephens tried to distinguish between historical figures who should not be celebrated from those who had flaws, like all human beings. He drew his line based on whether or not people worked to “establish a more perfect union,” as outlined in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.
The case of Woodrow Wilson seemed less straightforward: professor of political economy, President of Princeton, Governor of New Jersey and two-term President with a progressive and internationalist legacy.
History, though, is written in the present, for the present. It answers the question – how did we get here? The Wilson of the present is not the man who crafted fourteen principles on which to shape a treaty to end the first world war, not the man whose name is attached to an American foreign policy tradition of globalism and moralism.
Eisgruber calls the current moment in American race relations, and, more broadly, in American society, “a searing present.” So, we should ask how did this moment become searing? A resurgence of racism, apologized by and condoned from the top. On the same day that Princeton announced its decision, the President of the United States posted a video on his Twitter feed of one Florida supporter shouting “Where’s your white hood?” and another calling back “white power.” It is, therefore, not surprising perhaps that a few days later Trump criticized the Princeton decision to remove the Wilson name.
So, what was Wilson’s legacy on the road to the searing present? Before he was President, Wilson wrote in his five-volume History of the American People that ”white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation […] until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan.”
It was his decisions while President, though, that helped steer the country to where are now. Wilson could have left alone a racially integrated civil service, but he did not. The civil service had officially been integrated since immediately after the Civil War, but Wilson oversaw the segregation of federal departments shortly after getting sworn in, emphasizing “I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments.” He cut short a meeting with Black leaders who came to protest these policies. It took 35 years before Harry Truman would issue an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the federal service.
Less significant except for its high symbolism, Wilson decided to invite D.W. Griffith to the White House to screen his pro-Ku Klux Klan film, Birth of a Nation, the first film of any kind to be shown in the Presidential mansion. The film used Wilson’s quote on the “great Ku Klux Klan” as one of its intertitles. Protests and riots ensued, but Wilson claimed innocence in awareness of the film’s intent.
History is not supposed to be counterfactual, but it is not hard to imagine a different course of Jim Crow history in the 20th century had Wilson pursued progressive reforms on civil rights as vigorously as he did with policies as varied as child labor, woman suffrage (albeit belatedly,) national banking and income tax.
While history helps us answer how we got here, it also should help guide us towards where we want to be, and surely that is far away from this searing present. Princeton’s decision is almost an easy one, with tougher choices ahead on policies to address the racism that Black citizens confront on a daily basis.
This first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle, July 3, 2020.