The legacy of president Woodrow Wilson—often lauded (and loathed by Glenn Beck in particular) for his Progressive Era bona fides—has become the subject of fierce debate this week, after protests by students at Princeton, highlighting the man’s grossly racist side.

Wilson’s accomplishments were many, for instance appointing the nation’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice and signing into law a host of important regulatory bills. But it’s also undeniable that much of the federal government was re-segregated under his administration during the 1910s, closing off an important route of advancement for African Americans. According to a piece from the New York Times editorial board:

As the historian Eric Yellin shows in “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” Wilson stocked his government with segregationists who shared his point of view. The man he chose for the postal department, which had the most black employees nationally, had campaigned on the promise that the Democratic Party could be counted on to keep black people out of its own ranks and out of the government affairs of the Southern states. In this way, the administration set about segregating the work force, driving out highly placed black employees and shunting the rest into lower-paying jobs.

At the very least, this happened on his watch and under his authority, by men he’d picked. But lest anybody be getting the idea Wilson was being pushed around, here, Vox went digging through sources like his own writing, and found a racist upholding the Lost Cause.

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It’s one thing to look at the numbers, or to read Wilson’s work. It’s another to confront the individual stories of those who were actually wronged. The New York Times also has a stark piece from Gordon J. Davis about his grandfather, John Abraham Davis. Davis went to work at the Government Printing Office in 1882 and climbed the ranks to a management position, making $1,400 annually and supervising whites. Until the rug was yanked out from underneath him:

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.

When Davis wrote to his supervisor about the initial demotion, he was told he was too slow to do his job properly—but there’s no previous mention in his personnel file of this supposed slowness. And Davis was far from alone—the Times followed the piece with similar stories from readers.

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History doesn’t exist to make us feel good, or to provide us with icons we can venerate. History simply is what was; it’s our responsibility to figure out how to live with its consequences as righteously as we can.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

Photo via Getty.