Princeton tackles Woodrow Wilson's race record, head on

As a new civil rights era snowballs on college campuses across America, Princeton has a new exhibit designed to cast its oft-lauded progressive president in a more nuanced light.

Mel Evans/ AP/ File
The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is seen at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., in this December 2015 file photo. Princeton has begun an examination of the legacy of alumnus and former President Woodrow Wilson as part of an agreement with students who staged a sit-in to protest his views on race and segregation.

Princeton University students who have demanded that the school acknowledge Woodrow Wilson's record of bigotry on race alongside his oft-lauded progressivism are getting their wish.

The Ivy League university's Monday launch of a new exhibit, "In the Nation's Service? Wilson Revisited," comes after its campus' Black Justice League campaigned last fall for the 28th president of the United States and former college president's name to be removed from programs and buildings, and for other changes to be made on campus to make the university more diverse.

The college’s efforts to present Wilson’s record in a more balanced light is the latest acknowledgment of a wide-ranging wave of campus protests on a scale not seen since the 1960s, as students demand reform within America's institutions of higher learning.

Schools from "state universities like Missouri and Maryland to highly selective private schools like Amherst, Brandeis, and Brown, have been infused with a restless impatience," the Monitor’s Harry Brunius and Jessica Mendoza reported last month.

Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Princeton's Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said the students have opened a helpful dialogue that is part of a national conversation.

"It's important for students to understand great people are complicated," Dean Rouse told the Associated Press. "Rarely is someone black or white. We have to learn to live with that complexity."

The exhibit includes about a dozen panels outlining highlights from Wilson's life, putting his record in historical context and emphasizing that he both reflected and defied the views of his era. It will run through October 28. An interactive version is also available online.

"What we were trying to do here is take the line that separates 'Wilson good' and 'Wilson bad' and expand it," Daniel Linke, archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton and curator of the exhibit, told the AP. "There's a nuanced debate to be had. He's still affecting us today."

Wilson’s more racist side has been chronicled in a number of biographies. One of the most recent, fellow Princeton graduate A. Scott Berg's "Wilson," explores the many contradictions between Wilson's public image as an advocate of collective human rights and his bigoted personal beliefs.

"For all his talk of evenhandedness," Mr. Berg writes, "Wilson did not consider the races fundamentally equal, and he had no intention of equalizing them under the law." 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," as Randy Dotinga wrote for the Monitor in December.

John Milton Cooper Jr.'s "Woodrow Wilson: A Biography," put 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."

Following the Black Justice League’s 32-hour sit-in inside Princeton's president's office last fall, the college is also due to soon make a decision on whether to meet the League's calls to remove Wilson's name from campus programs and buildings.

"It's what we're grappling with on campuses across the country," Dean Rouse told the AP. "We can sandblast a name from the building, but to actually change how we operate, and what our community is like is much harder."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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