Few presidents are as revered as Woodrow Wilson in academia. He was, after all, the last academic elected to America’s highest office.
Beyond that, much ink is spilled and many lectures devoted to his policies which many professors are enamored of, chiefly the progressive income tax at home and the League of Nations abroad. As Black History month draws to a close, we should highlight a Wilsonian trend in policy that is relevant to both his national and international outlook—segregation.
“I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments,” President Wilson wrote in his first year in office. “I think if you were here on the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves that they should be organized, so far as possible and convenient, in district bureaus where they will center their work.”
Economist Bruce Bartlett unearthed the Wilson missive in his new book Wrong On Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. “It is true that the segregation of the colored employees in the several departments was begun upon the initiative and at the suggestion of several of the heads of the departments, but as much in the interest of the Negroes as for any other reason, with the approval of some of the most influential Negroes I know, and with the idea that the friction, or rather the discontent and uneasiness, which had prevailed in many of the departments would thereby be removed,” President Wilson wrote in another letter that same year. “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the negroes.”
As Bartlett shows, the NAACP heartily disagreed. “It realizes that this new and radical departure has been recommended, and is now being defended, on the ground that by giving certain bureaus or sections wholly to colored employees they are thereby rendered safer in possession of their offices and are less likely to be discriminated against,” read a letter from the NAACP board. “We believe this reasoning to be fallacious.”
“It is based on a failure to appreciate the deeper significance of the new policy; to understand how far reaching the effects of such a drawing of caste lines by the Federal Government may be, and how humiliating it is to the men thus stigmatized.”
Similarly, when U. S. forces entered the “war to end all wars,” President Wilson may have wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” but as commander-in-chief he did so with a segregated military. “World War I brought no improvement in Wilson’s policy towards blacks,” Bartlett writes. “They were put in segregated military units, mostly relegated to support positions, and kept out of combat.”
“One reason was a fear of giving them training with guns, which they might use to defend themselves from racist attacks once the war was over.” The war won, Wilson’s attitude did not change.
“At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson fought measures that might aid black equality,” Bartlett writes. “The Japanese delegates to the conference, for example, were very keen on adding a racial equality clause to the peace treaty, which had strong support among Asian-Americans.”
“But Wilson was warned by his close adviser Colonel Edward House that acceptance of the clause ‘would surely raise the race issue around the world.’” Although most Wilson aficionados sadly acknowledge this part of his persona, albeit with comparative brevity, they dismiss these policies and practices usually by pointing out that Wilson was “a southerner” and “a man of his time.” This explanation falls short when you compare him with another southerner stuck in a time warp—Robert E. Lee.
Wilson wrote that “domestic slaves were dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters” in 1893, nearly three decades after the Civil War ended. By way of contrast, Lee called slavery “a moral and political evil” in 1856, before the War Between the States began.
Also, Wilson as president of the United States refused to speak out against lynching, as Bartlett relates. In comparison, Lee, in elderly retirement, would physically interpose himself between whites and blacks when the former meant to do the latter harm, preventing them from so doing, according to historians who have chronicled the general’s career.
Yet academic historians consistently put Wilson in the top 10 or 20 of American presidents while the old confederate is considered too politically incorrect to mention. The university fathers at the institution of higher learning that bears his name even floated the idea of taking the general out of the Washington and Lee logo.
The ultimate irony is that Wilson’s attitudes on race, which academics abhor, mesh nicely with the “progressivism” they champion and clash with the conservatism and libertarian impulses they eschew. After all, slavery and segregation are the ultimate form of government regulation.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.