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5 surprising facts about Woodrow Wilson and racism

Biographies provide insight into America's 28th president as the debate rages at Princeton University over Woodrow Wilson and his complicated legacy.

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    No other historic figure 'so strangely attracts and repels' as much as 28th US President Woodrow Wilson, one British parliamentarian declared.
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Each American president comes with built-in contradictions, but few can beat Woodrow Wilson when it comes to appearing one way and acting another.
Wilson looked like a buttoned-up, moralistic and rigid preacher’s son, which he was. But he swooned over women – he described his sensuality as a “riotous element in my blood” – and became helplessly besotted with a Washington D.C. widow after his first wife died.

He was Southern-born and Southern-sympathetic. But he made a name for himself in Yankee country and rocketed in his 50s from president of Princeton University – a small, all-male college – to governor of New Jersey to US president in barely 2 years.

And then there’s perhaps the biggest contradiction of all. This progressive icon – a legendary advocate for expanding all sorts of rights and an inspiration to the world after the Great War – was backwards and bigoted when it came to race.

It all makes for a complicated man and a complicated legacy. No other historic figure “so strangely attracts and repels” as much as Wilson, one British parliamentarian declared.

Now, students at Princeton University are clamoring to remove his name from facilities and school programs because of his sordid legacy on race.

Does President Wilson deserve to be honored today? To shed some light, here are 5 facts about Wilson and race, all gleaned from three books: 2013’s Wilson, by A. Scott Berg; 2009’s Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, by John Milton Cooper Jr.; and 2004’s 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs: The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace.

1. Wilson’s bigotry had wide boundaries.

In a 1902 book about American history, Wilson exposed his bigotry on the page in a passage about immigrants. He described “men of the lowest class” from Italy and “of the meaner sort” from Hungary and Poland, as “men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in the numbers ... sordid and hapless elements of their population, the men whose standards of life and work are such as American workmen had never reamed of hitherto.”

These words came back to haunt Wilson. He apologized and praised immigrants to the leaders of Polish, Hungarian, and Italian organizations. He even rewrote a new edition of the book, according to Chace’s account of the 1912 election. But this reversal didn’t persuade Wilson to push to remove the ban on blacks at Princeton.

2. For Wilson, inequality and order reigned supreme.

In his biography, Berg suggests that Wilson suffered from  “genteel racism,” a prejudice that couldn’t stomach the idea of racial equality or inappropriate behavior in the pursuit of white supremacy.

Cooper, in his biography, puts it this way: “Violence, lynching and virulent racism ... grieved him.”  But when it came to lynching, he “deplored the passion, disorder, and sullied international image of white Americans rather than injury, horror and death of black Americans.”

As for relations between the races, he was appalled that the French army allowed blacks to serve next to whites, and he worried about Communism creeping into the US among black veterans returning from World War I.

Wilson did occasionally stand up for blacks, at least temporarily, such as when he appointed a black man to serve in a mid-level Treasury Department position that had traditionally been held by African-Americans. But Wilson folded under pressure from senators who refused to support allowing a black man to be in charge of white women.

He also allowed Jim Crow laws to be put into place in Washington D.C. and allowed the secretary of the treasury and the postmaster general to segregate their departments.

“For all his talk of evenhandedness,” Berg writes, “Wilson did not consider the races fundamentally equal, and he had no intention of equalizing them under the law.”

3. "Birth of a Nation" quote may be bogus.

Historians have repeatedly written that Wilson praised the racist film “Birth of a Nation” after a private screening at the White House by saying: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Berg argues in his biography that the president “almost certainly never said it,” although he provides scant details about why the quote is so questionable. Citing his service as a Princeton University trustee, Berg declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to Berg, Wilson described the film this way in a letter three years later: “I have always felt that this was a very unfortunate production and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people.”

4. A black leader confronted Wilson on race.

As recounted in Berg’s book, Wilson got “sucker punched” when an African-American leader named William Monroe Trotter met with him and launched into an attack: “only two years ago, you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to the race. What a change segregation has wrought!”

Trotter asked if there was a “new freedom” for whites and “a new slavery” for blacks, and he implied that blacks would defect from the president’s Democratic Party. Wilson lost his temper: “Your tone, sir, offends me.... You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.”

5. The world paid a price for Wilson’s racism.

In his book, Cooper decries Wilson’s “failure of moral conscience,” one that haunted his time on the world stage as he tried to put the planet back together after the most devastating war of all time.

While he worked with diverse world leaders to spread American values, Cooper writes, “his reluctance to enter the war for fear of further depleting the white race disclosed what really moved him.”

Unfortunately, Cooper adds, Wilson was not one of a “small number of white Christians of that era who came to see racism as a sin.”

“His learned, sophisticated Protestantism ... may have kept him from making the leap of faith of evangelicals who recognized African Americans as fellow children of God. This was perhaps Woodrow Wilson’s greatest tragedy: The North Star by which he steered his life’s spiritual and intellectual journey may have prevented him from reaching his full stature as a moral leader and rendering still finer service to his nation and the world.”

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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