On the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, and shortly after President Obama’s in 2013, I published the following op-ed in the Richmond Post-Dispatch:
[On March 4, 1913] Democrat Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848. 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. Rebel yells and the strains of “Dixie” reverberated throughout the city. The new administration brought to power a generation of political leaders from the old South who would play influential roles in Washington for generations to come.
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 been largely forgotten.
A recent Washington Post commentary by Professor Randy Barnett of the Georgetown University Law Center quoted extensively from my op-ed to argue for removing our 28th president’s name from all public buildings and bridges in the United States. Barnett is following up on the movement to remove the Confederate flag from southern government buildings after the horrendous racist attack on congregants at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., June 17, and like him, I applaud the long overdue removal of the Stars and Bars from all public places as a symbol of slavery, Jim Crow, and the pervasive scourge of racism that we are still trying to eradicate from our country. But I believe that the idea of equating the Confederate flag with Woodrow Wilson, in spite of all the flaws in his character on racial matters, is an overstretch.
Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South who regretted the outcome of the Civil War. He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences. When he entered the White House, Washington was a rigidly segregated town—except for federal agencies. They had been integrated during Reconstruction, enabling African Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side-by-side with whites. Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of integration.
Cabinet heads such as Wilson’s son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo of Tennessee, resegregated facilities such as restrooms and cafeterias in their buildings. In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers. African Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations.
A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and a Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies. But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, a longtime political supporter, friend, and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University, was published in 1905. A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, director D. W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, Birth of a Nation.
With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South, when blacks briefly had held elective office in several states. It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering that the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it to after its defeat. The film depicted African Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly denounced the movie’s blatant appeals to racial prejudice, the president organized a private screening of his friend’s film in the White House for members of his cabinet and their families. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson observed, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
A century after white Southerners hailed what they hoped would be the beginning of a “post-Reconstruction” society in 1913, African Americans today nurture hopes for the coming of a “post-racial” society as America’s first black president serves his second term, with African Americans occupying prominent positions in the federal government. The juxtaposition of these two Democratic administrations reminds us of the extraordinary distance that the American people—and the Democratic Party—have traveled on the subject of race relations.
Wilson’s racial views were formed during his upbringing in the South after the Civil War and represent a stain on his reputation. But his views on race represent only a part of his legacy, which includes domestic political achievements such as the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, as well as a foreign policy that promoted democracy and self-determination and the peaceful settlement of international disputes.
If we are to judge Woodrow Wilson solely on his retrograde racial views, then we must hold other public figures in the country’s history to the same standard. Should we rename our nation’s capital and tear down the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial because our first and third presidents were slaveholders (as were the fourth and fifth), overlooking the other contributions each made to our early history? Should we dismantle the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and forget about his New Deal reforms and wartime leadership because he did not utter a peep of protest during his four terms in the White House against the oppressive system of racial segregation in the South, which was then controlled by his Democratic Party? Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a courageous critic of McCarthyism, a leading opponent of the Vietnam War, and an energetic advocate of international cooperation. But he was also a staunch defender of racial segregation at home, voting against both the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Should we delete his name from the program that he sponsored for fellowships to promote international educational and cultural exchange?
Once the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and Jim Crow, is removed from all public buildings, we should continue to engage in a nationwide discussion about how to combat the scourge of residual racism in this country. But we should stop short of deleting from official places of honor the names of all past leaders who either actively supported or passively tolerated racial prejudice and discrimination. We must not sweep their racist views or policies under the rug as has happened in the public memory of Woodrow Wilson. But neither should we attempt to suppress our memory of the positive contributions they may have made to this country and the world. To borrow a hackneyed phrase, we must be careful not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
William R. Keylor, a professor of international relations and history at the Pardee School of Global Studies, can be reached at email@example.com.
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