“Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”–Woodrow Wilson
“When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.”–Charles Evans Hughes, Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 presidential election opponent
A. Scott Berg, whose biography of Woodrow Wilson came out this month, made a startling admonition to President Obama. He said, “Be more like Wilson.” The statement made my jaw drop, because out of all the presidents who have held office from the Civil War to the present, Andrew Johnson is probably the only one who would be more appalled than Wilson if he saw that the United States has a black president. With the exception of Andrew Johnson, one would have to look before the Civil War to find a president more bigoted toward African American than Woodrow Wilson was.
In order to understand the roots of Woodrow Wilson’s racism, it is vital to examine his family background and early life. Neither of Woodrow Wilson’s parents came from the South. His father was a native of Steubenville, Ohio, the hometown of Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War. His mother had been born in England but spent most of her childhood in Ohio. In the 1850s, however, they moved South, and Woodrow was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856. A year later, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where they remained until Wilson was thirteen, at which point they moved to Columbia, South Carolina. At age sixteen, Wilson went to Davidson College in North Carolina before returning home from an illness the following year. While Wilson would achieve most of his pre-presidential prestige in New Jersey, he did not live in the North until 1875, when he transferred to Princeton University. His earliest childhood memory was of hearing the news that Abraham Lincoln would be elected president and that there would be a war. Wilson’s father, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, fully embraced the culture of the antebellum South. In 1861, he delivered a proslavery sermon in Augusta entitled, “Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible.” According to Reverend Wilson, God, “has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State.” Antislavery Northerners were “infidels.” When the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Wilson’s denomination, split over the issue of slavery, Wilson sided with the proslavery faction. He served as a Confederate military chaplain. To quote the Bible, “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.” Woodrow cannot be blamed for the fact that his father defended keeping human beings of a different race in chains.
Yet the evidence shows that the son followed in his father’s footsteps. In 1880s, Woodrow Wilson questioned whether or not black suffrage had been a good idea. He referred to blacks as “an ignorant and inferior race.” Wilson wrote sympathetically of the “Black Codes” that had been passed by Southern states in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. These codes, according to Wilson, were motivated by, “the sudden and absolute emancipation of the Negroes,” who he viewed as, “a host of dusky children untimely put out of school.” Wilson also claimed that, “the domestic slaves, at any rate, and almost all who were much under the master’s eye, were happy and well cared for.” He even argued that Reconstruction, not slavery, was the cause of current racial conflict. In 1902, Wilson became President of Princeton University. While president, he made sure to avoid admitting black students to Princeton’s undergraduate program. When a black man from South Carolina wrote of his desire to attend Princeton, Wilson wrote back and “politely” informed him that blacks were not welcome at his school, though also suggesting that he apply to Princeton’s Theological Seminary, an institution separate from the main university.
Is Wilson being held to 21st century standards if he is condemned for his policies as president of Princeton University? It is instructive to compare him to Teddy Roosevelt, another president of his generation who, like Wilson, was racist against blacks. Around the time that Wilson began his inglorious reign at Princeton, a bill desegregating the New York public school system was passed by the legislature. Teddy Roosevelt was governor at the time and signed the bill. According to Roosevelt, his own children had black classmates, and it had not impacted them negatively. It is also worthwhile to compare Princeton University’s level of racism to that of some other schools. For instance, black students had graduated from Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Rutgers before Woodrow Wilson became president of Princeton. Dartmouth, for example, had a black student graduate almost thirty years before Wilson was even born.
Woodrow Wilson was the first president born in a Confederate state since Andrew Johnson and the first to actually be elected since Zachary Taylor. (Andrew Johnson entered office by virtue of Lincoln’s assassination and did not run for a second term.) His Cabinet contained Southern segregationists, like Josephus Daniels and William Gibbs McAdoo, and Northerners like William Jennings Bryan who firmly believed in white supremacy and felt that previous presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt had brought the country too close to racial equality. Wilson and his merry band of bigots, however, found that though Washington, D.C. was thoroughly segregated, the offices of the federal government were not. With the president’s approval, the U.S. Railway Mail Service, the U.S. Postal Service, the Treasury Department, the Interior Department, the State Department, the War Department, and the Navy became segregated. Those applying to become federal employees now had to include photos of themselves so that their race would be apparent. In some cases, black and white employees were separated by screens. Employees who objected were shown the door. The NAACP protested, but to no avail.
Even the League of Nations, widely considered Wilson’s crowning achievement and vision, was marred by his racism. When a covenant for the League was being written, Japan attempted to insert a clause mandating racial equality. Not wanting the United States to be brought up on charges of human rights violations, Wilson helped nix the clause.
Certainly, Wilson looks bad when compared to the minority of whites in the early 1900s, such as Wendell Phillips Stafford, Mary Ovington, the Spingarn brothers, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, Frank Sanborn, Horace Bumstead, Jane Addams, William Hayes Ward, Henry Moscowitz, Wilbur Thirkield, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Albert Pillsbury, Moorfield Storey, and the Garrisons, who favored racial equality. Yet he also looks bad next to other moderate, early 20th century political leaders. It has already been discussed how Wilson was more reactionary on race than Teddy Roosevelt. It should also be noted that his successors, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, called for federal anti-lynching legislation and a national conversation on race. Were they racist? Certainly. But their records look a sight better than Wilson’s. Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson’s 1916 Republican opponent quoted at the beginning of this post, also warrants attention. What course would Hughes have pursued on civil rights if he had beaten Wilson in 1916? It is hard to imagine him doing as badly. Years after losing to Woodrow Wilson, Hughes was appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was not exactly a civil rights crusader, but he did make major decisions against exclusion of blacks from juries and voting primaries, helped chip away at segregated schooling by ruling that in the absence of an in-state school for blacks, the University of Missouri had to admit a black student, and upheld the right to boycott racist businesses. While the story is difficult to verify, it was said that during Hughes’ time as Chief Justice, a Marshall of the Supreme Court complained about black people eating in the Supreme Court’s cafeteria, Hughes threatened to fire him if he did not take a more enlightened attitude. Wilson was not only racist but abnormally so for his era.