The civil-rights leader was soon having second thoughts. In the fall of 1913, he and other civil-rights leaders, including Ida B. Wells, met with Wilson to express dismay over Jim Crow. Trotter’s wife, Deenie, had even drawn a chart showing which federal offices had begun separating workers by race. Wilson sent them off with vague assurances.
In the next year, segregation did not improve; it worsened. By this time, numerous instances of workplace separation became well publicized. Among them, separate toilets in the U.S. Treasury and the Interior Department, a practice that Wilson’s Treasury secretary, William G. McAdoo, defended: “I am not going to argue the justification of the separate toilets orders, beyond saying that it is difficult to disregard certain feelings and sentiments of white people in a matter of this sort.”
For blacks—who ever since Lincoln’s War had expected some measure of equity from the federal government—the sense of a betrayal ran deep.
Trotter sought a follow-up meeting with the president. “Last year he told the delegation he would seek a solution,’’ he wrote a supporter in the fall of 1914. “Having waited 11 months, we are entitled to an audience to learn what it is. Not only for the sake of his administration but as a matter of common justice.” Of course, the president’s plate was full.
Wilson might have bumbled, and worse, on civil rights, but he was overseeing implementation of a “New Freedom” in the nation’s economy—his campaign promise to restore competition and fair labor practices, and to enable small businesses crushed by industrial titans to thrive once again. In September 1914, for example, he had created the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers against price-fixing and other anticompetitive business practices, and shortly after signed into law the Clayton Antitrust Act. He continued monitoring the so-called European War, resisting pressure to enter but moving to strengthen the nation’s armed forces. In addition to attending to the state’s affairs, Wilson was in mourning: His wife, Ellen, had died on August 6 from liver disease. On November 6, one of his advisers noted in his diary that the president had told him “he was broken in spirit by Mrs. Wilson’s death.”
Eventually, Wilson agreed to meet a second time with Trotter, and on November 12 the persistent editor and a contingent of Trotterites entered the Oval Office for their long-sought, long-awaited follow-up meeting. Trotter came prepared with a statement and launched the meeting by reading it.
Trotter began with a reference to their 1913 meeting and to the petition he had presented, containing 20,000 signatures “from thirty-eight states protesting against the segregation of employees of the national government.” He listed the on-the-job race separation that had gone unchecked since—at eating tables, dressing rooms, restrooms, lockers, and “especially public toilets in government buildings.” He then charged that the color line was drawn in the Treasury Department, in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Navy Department, the Interior Department, the Marine Hospital, the War Department, and in the Sewing and Printing Divisions of the Government Printing Office. Trotter also noted the political support he and other civil-rights activists had provided to Wilson. “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race,” he said. And then he reminded the president of his pledge to assist “colored fellow citizens” in “advancing the interest of their race in the United States,” and ended by posing a question that contained a jab at Wilson’s much-ballyhooed economic reform program. “Have you a ‘New Freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro-American fellow citizens? God forbid!”