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.
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.”