I want to offer a proposal that will initially strike most of my readers as insane and offensive but hear me out. You know who New Orleans needs to name a building after? It’s a native of the city who was a flawed, profoundly violent man in many ways, who hurt a lot of people, and who invokes a negative, pained reaction from a lot of people. But this New Orleans native was also in some ways a visionary. Despite growing up as white man in the South during the 1940s, he vehemently opposed segregation and was outraged by the way that black people were treated in the United States. He should be honored as the champion of racial justice that he was with a building bearing his name in the city where he was born. That man is Lee Harvey Oswald. Now yes, he did assassinate John F. Kennedy, because he supported the Soviet Union. He did leave Kennedy’s wife a widow, his children without their father, and the rest of the Kennedy family bereft of a loved one. But we have to understand that every hero is flawed. We cannot reduce such a great man to one wrong act. And we also have to grasp that the 1960s were a more violent time. The electric chair was used to execute a criminal in 1963, with Kennedy’s acquiescence. Anti-rape laws were far laxer. Television shows portrayed spousal abuse cavalierly, reflecting the far more tolerant attitude toward domestic violence. Most states did not prohibit teachers from physically punishing students. We cannot judge Oswald by the standards of 2016. Does this sound ridiculous to you? That was the intention. I do not favor naming a building or anything else after Lee Harvey Oswald, fierce foe of segregation though he was. But I was attempting to demonstrate how it sounds to myself and a lot of other people, probably African Americans in particular, when they hear defenses Princeton University’s recent decision to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name on campus buildings and other facilities, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
These facilities were recently the subject of protests due to Wilson’s racism, which you can read about here. The short summary is that Wilson was unusually racist toward black people, even by early-twentieth century standards, and approved of the resegregation of federal departments that had been desegregated for decades. There are three key arguments in favor of keeping Wilson’s name on these facilities that I will address here. The first argument is that removing them would be erasing history. However, there is a difference between remembering a historical figure and honoring them. Students should absolutely learn about Wilson in the classroom. But a facility with his name on it comes across as a tribute, which is exactly what it was intended to be. I can pretty much guarantee that students will have a greater understanding of Wilson from a classroom lecture and discussion than they will from walking past a “Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs” or what have you. The second argument is that we are overlooking Wilson’s good points. Let us leave aside details such as the fact that he supported the 19th Amendment only after intense pressure or that his decision to involve the U.S. in World War I could be seen as disastrous on multiple levels. The biggest problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that for African Americans, Wilson’s racism was the most significant part of his presidency. We cannot shrug off the very negative impact Wilson had on black people because we like the impact of the worker’s compensation legislation that he signed. The third argument is that we are judging Wilson by the standards of 2016. This would be a fair complaint if Wilson’s views were normal or liberal for the era. There is a reason why you don’t see a lot of black people protesting against the Lincoln Memorial. It’s because although he was racist, Abraham Lincoln’s views about African Americans were moderately liberal for the era, and he promoted policies that led to progress in African Americans’ rights. In fact, he probably did more for African Americans’ rights than any other president. Wilson, however, was unusually racist even for the era. At the time that he was excluding black people from Princeton’s undergrad program, plenty of other Ivy League schools had already accepted a few black students. One of Wilson’s predecessors as president, Teddy Roosevelt, supported school desegregation as Governor of New York before Wilson became President of Princeton. The very fact that the departments segregated under Wilson had been unsegregated under previous presidents gives lie to the idea that Wilson was just a “man of his times.” Such a claim has little more accuracy than the idea that Andrew Jackson’s racism toward African Americans and Native Americans was no worse than average for the era. I do not endorse renaming every facility originally named for a racist historical figure. But it is reasonable and necessary to rename facilities when they bear the name of either a slaveholder/proslavery individual or someone who was unusually bigoted for the era in which they lived. Wilson was too young to fall into the first category, though his father did. But he certainly fell into the second.