The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over the weekend we published a piece from Dick Lehr centered on a contentious meeting Wilson had with civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter and which punctuated the president’s shameful legacy on race relations. The most up-voted view in the comments section:

In 1914, most people were racist or bigoted against something. Why expend effort digging up racist behaviour from over a century ago, when there is plenty of modern day racism affecting living people every single day in the here and now? Sounds like yet another cynical manufactured outrage geared toward sparking a social media backlash.

Another reader asks rhetorically, “When can we start smashing busts of Obama because he didn’t approve of gay marriage in 2008 [and didn’t endorse it until May 2012]?” This reader, on the other hand, gives an accounting of Wilson’s bigoted actions in the White House even in the context of the early 20th century:

Actually, Wilson is regarded as more racist than the norm for the time because of the actions he took to deepen segregation in the government.

Though black and whites had worked together in the capital since the Civil War, Wilson moved to end integrated staffs wherever he had the power to do so. He fired as many blacks as he could and where he could not fire them, he put up screens in offices to make sure that blacks and white could not work together directly.

Wilson’s wife, Ellen, was given authority by the president to help segregate the staffs; separating white from black with separate bathrooms, eating areas, and workspaces. Not a very normal role for a First Lady.

Later, Wilson’s appointed head of the IRS in Georgia explained his firing of all of the bureau’s black employees by telling reporters, “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.”

Writer W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of the newly separated staffs, “The federal government has set the colored apart as if mere contact with them were contamination. Behind screens and closed doors they now sit as though leprous.”

What Wilson did was not at all normal for the time and he set a tone for a segregated government with new rules of separation that continued to be enforced for almost half a century.

Ta-Nehisi also tackled Wilson along those lines. Here are some more shocking quotes from the the 28th President of the United States, from his 1918 book A History of the American People: Reunion and Nationalization:

Your thoughts? Any historians out there have something more detailed to say about this dark chapter of the American presidency? Please email Update from a reader who works as a historian at an Ivy League university and whose dissertation focused on interpretations of Reconstruction in Mississippi:

With regard to the excerpts from Wilson’s history textbook: Wilson was really just synthesizing what had regrettably become the standard interpretations of slavery and Reconstruction, not just among laypeople but among most of the history profession. With few exceptions, historians had deemed the political revolution of Reconstruction not only a failure but a dangerous and destructive policy borne out of a desire to punish white Southerners.

It is certainly true that, as so many have pointed out, Wilson’s decision to segregate the federal bureaucracy—which should be seen as an effort to exclude African Americans, not just separate the races—marked him as more extreme than most educated whites of his era. But his historical interpretations, which were not based on any original research on his part, were as mainstream as they could be.