Woodrow Wilson and the Problem of Civic Plunder

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

Last week MSNBC host, and former Congressman, Joe Scarborough seemed shocked that Princeton students would object to having numerous buildings on their campus named after president, and bigot, Woodrow Wilson.

I think there’s some room to debate over whether changing the names of buildings or taking down statues is an appropriate way to deal with institutions that have chosen to honor people like Wilson. The act of veneration says something about both the venerated and venerator. That Princeton once chose to plaster the name of an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan all over its campus should never be forgotten. I generally prefer some sort of contextualization, some way of making it absolutely clear who the honored figure was and why the institution honoring the figure chose to ignore it.

But I also attended a university where the concerns were somewhat different. I don’t really know how it feels to be a student at predominantly white school and see Wilson’s name everywhere. I suspect it can’t help but to increase one’s feeling of alienation.

Reasonable people can disagree about how to deal with the memorialization of Wilson. But they can not disagree, as Dylan Matthews points out, over who Woodrow Wilson actually was:

Leaving aside the broader question of whether Wilson's name should be removed, let's be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s, a period widely acknowledged by historians as the "nadir" of post–Civil War race relations in the United States.

As Matthews notes, Wilson was racist, not by the standards of our time, but by the standards of his own time. A defender of domestic terrorists, exhorter of the Lost Cause, Wilson actually resegregated the federal government. In regards to race, Wilson’s presidency does not represent more of the same, but an actual step backward.

Let us not be abstract here.

Resegregating the federal government did not merely mean white and black people not being able to hold hands, it meant civic plunder. Here is Gordon J. Davis recounting how Wilson destroyed the livelihood of his grandfather, John Davis:

Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary — for an African-American — of $1,400 per year.

But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.

By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.

Davis was an upstanding, tax-paying American. But he faced a danger that most upstanding, tax-paying Americans of that day didn’t face—the destruction of wealth for the better upholding of white supremacy. And because wealth is inherited, the effects of this plunder redound through the generations.

As I said, I didn’t go to a school like Princeton. But one need not have that experience, to understand why seeing one’s University celebrate the name of someone who plundered your ancestors—in a country that has yet to acknowledge that plunder—might be slightly disturbing.