Why Princeton students want Ivy to drop Woodrow Wilson name, portraits

After a 32-hour sit-in outside the president's office, school officials are now considering some of the protesters' demands.

Julio Cortez/AP
Tents are erected outside of Princeton University's Nassau Hall, where students are staging a sit-in, Thursday, in Princeton, N.J. The protesters from a group called the Black Justice League, who staged a sit-in inside university President Christopher Eisgruber's office on Tuesday, demand the school remove the name of former school president and US President Woodrow Wilson from programs and buildings over what they said was his racist legacy.

Princeton University will consider expunging former United States President Woodrow Wilson’s name from facilities and school programs after signing a deal with student demonstrators who feel he has a racist legacy.

Student demonstrators and top administrators at New Jersey's prestigious Ivy League school solidified the agreement after members of the Black Justice League student organization staged a 32-hour sit-in outside Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber’s office.

Mr. Eisgruber said Princeton appreciated the "willingness of the students to work with us to find a way forward," in a university statement.

The demonstrators demanded the removal of Mr. Wilson’s name and image from public spaces, and a name change for Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. They also wanted the school to establish a cultural competency and diversity training program and select a space for “cultural affinity” groups.

The school now says it will consider removing a mural of Wilson, begin conversations about Wilson’s legacy, and boost cultural competency training for faculty. Administrators agreed not to impose any formal disciplinary action against the student protesters who peacefully left the office.

At the time of his presidency (from 1913 to 1921), Wilson was considered one of the most prominent leaders of the Progressive Movement. However, he publicly supported racial segregation, which was legal at the time and part of public policy in all 50 states. Segregation in public accommodations was not banned until decades later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

While in office, Wilson organized a private screening of the film "Birth of a Nation," which was widely criticized by the NAACP at the time and later became a recruiting tool for the Klu Klux Klan. As Boston University Professor William Keyler noted in a 2013 article on the university website:

With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks briefly 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 to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War.  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 the 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.”

Demands for the erasure of Wilson’s name from Princeton property and programs coincides with a wave of protests at US colleges over the treatment of minority students. Wilson served as president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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