By Robert Oliver -
The date of March 4 may not have any significance in the African-American community other than personal birthdays and wedding anniversaries. However March 4, 2013 will mark the centennial of the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. On that day President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration will be celebrated in Washington D.C.
Why would March 4 and Woodrow Wilson be significant for African Americans?
Wilson was a progressive Democrat and is considered one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Many African Americans are under the impression that Wilson was a fighter for civil rights as the Democratic Party on Democrats.org says: “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers' rights, and women's rights.” However what that website does not reveal that this progressive Democratic president was a racist and segregationist. Some of you may ask, “A racist and a segregationist? How can that be? Democrats say they have always fought for civil rights for American Americans in their 200-year history, even before the Civil War! Wilson was a hero! Those Republicans are up to their old tricks again trying to smear a great civil rights leader!”
Well, let’s look at the facts carefully and logically. PBS.org wrote:
“In 1912 Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for president, promised fairness and justice for blacks if elected. In a letter to a black church official, Wilson wrote, ‘Should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing for everything by which I could assist in advancing their interests of the race.’ But after the election, Wilson changed his tune. He dismissed 15 out of 17 black supervisors who had been previously appointed to federal jobs segregating their departments.Throughout the country, blacks were segregated or dismissed from federal positions. In Georgia, the head of the Internal Revenue division fired all black employees: ‘There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro's place in the corn field.’ He said. The President's wife, Ellen Wilson, was said to have had a hand in segregating employees in Washington, encouraging department chiefs to assign blacks separate working, eating, and toilet facilities. To justify segregation, officials publicized complaints by white women, who were thought to be threatened by black men's sexuality and disease.”
Therefore President Woodrow Wilson was not an advocate for civil rights as popularly assumed, but practiced racial segregation in the federal government after his inauguration in 1913:
“Wilson's historical reputation is that of a far-sighted progressive. That role has been assigned to him by historians based on his battle for the League of Nations, and the opposition he faced from isolationist Republicans…Domestically, however, Wilson was a racist retrograde, one who attempted to engineer the diminution of both justice and democracy for American blacks—who were enjoying little of either to begin with....
“Upon taking power in Washington, Wilson and the many other Southerners he brought into his cabinet were disturbed at the way the federal government went about its own business. One legacy of post-Civil War Republican ascendancy was that Washington's large black populace had access to federal jobs, and worked with whites in largely integrated circumstances. Wilson's cabinet put an end to that, bringing Jim Crow to Washington.
“Wilson allowed various officials to segregate the toilets, cafeterias, and work areas of their departments. One justification involved health: White government workers had to be protected from contagious diseases, especially venereal diseases, that racists imagined were being spread by blacks. In extreme cases, federal officials built separate structures to house black workers. Most black diplomats were replaced by whites; numerous black federal officials in the South were removed from their posts; the local Washington police force and fire department stopped hiring blacks. Wilson's own view, as he expressed it to intimates, was that federal segregation was an act of kindness.'
The website of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library reports:
“Wilson permitted segregation in federal offices soon after becoming president, treating it, he said, not as an instrument of humiliation, but as a means to ease racial tensions. W.E.B. Dubois and likeminded thinkers disagreed heartily with Wilson's choice, petitioning repeatedly for the suspension of the practice. Wilson refused.”
The April 1959 issue of the Journal of Negro History stated:
“When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency in 1913 many Negroes believed that he would champion their cause for advancement. An unprecedented number of Negroes had cast their vote for Wilson, ridicule from others of their race for so departing from the ranks of the Republican Party. This deviation from the traditional line of Negro support was nurtured by discontent with the Republican and Progressive candidates, Taft and (Theodore) Roosevelt, and their platforms. It was spurred by the stirring assurances of wholehearted support to the Negro race by Woodrow Wilson.
“Yet it was in Woodrow Wilson’s administration that the most bitter blow to Negro hopes of advancement fell.”
When he was president of Princeton University, Wilson barred blacks from admission. Yet many blacks voted for him anyway.
NAACP officer W.E.B. Du Bois, Editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis, had hopes in Wilson. He wrote to President Wilson in March 1913:
“Sir: Your inauguration to the Presidency of the United States is to the colored people, to the white South and to the nation a momentous people, to the white South and to the nation a momentous occasion. For the first time since the emancipation of slaves the government of this nation — the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives — passes on the 4th of March into the hands of the party which a half century ago fought desperately to keep black men as real estate in the eyes of the law.
“Your elevation to the chief magistracy of the nation at this time shows not simply a splendid national faith in the perpetuity of free government in this land, but even more, a personal faith in you.
“We black men by our votes helped to put you in your high position. It is true that in your overwhelming triumph at the polls that you might have succeeded without our aid, but the fact remains that our votes helped elect you this time, and that the time may easily come in the near future when without our 500,000 ballots neither you nor your party can control the government.
“True as this is, we would not be misunderstood. We do not ask or expect special consideration or treatment in return for our franchises. We did not vote for you and your party because you represented our best judgment. It was not because we loved Democrats more, but Republicans less and Roosevelt least, that led to our action… We want to be treated as men. We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on street cars and railroads. We want the right to earn a living, to own our own property and to spend our income unhindered and uncursed. Your power is limited? We know that, but the power of the American people is unlimited. Today you embody that power, you typify its ideals. In the name then of that common country for which your fathers and ours have bled and toiled, be not untrue, President Wilson, to the highest ideals of American Democracy.”
However, just six months after Wilson’s inauguration, Du Bois wrote Wilson:
“Sir, you have now been President of the United States for six months and what is the result? It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful. Vardaman, Tillman, Hoke Smith, Cole Blease, and Burleson are evidently assuming that their theory of the place and destiny of the Negro race is the theory of your administration, They and others are assuming this because not a single act and not a single word of yours since election has given anyone reason to infer that that you have the slightest interest in the colored people or desire to alleviate their intolerable position… To this negative appearance of indifference has been added positive action on the part of your advisers, with or without your knowledge, which constitutes the gravest attack on the liberties of our people since emancipation, public segregation of civil servants in government employ, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government.
“In the Treasury and Post Office Departments colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings. We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work has consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years. Mr. Wilson, do you know these things? Are you responsible for them? Did you advise them? Do you not know that no other group of American citizens has ever been treated in this way and that no President of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment? Here is a plain, flat, disgraceful spitting in the face of people whose darkened countenances are already dark with the slime of insult. Do you consent to this, President Wilson? Do you believe in it? Have you been able to persuade yourself that national insult is best for a people struggling into self-respect?”
Paula Span on History.net wrote: “Black leaders subsequently declined to support [Wilson’s] reelection. ‘We need scarcely to say that you have grievously disappointed us,’ Du Bois wrote.
"By any reasonable standards anyone would apply today, I think it's fair to say Woodrow Wilson was a racist," (University of Wisconsin historian John Milton Cooper, author of several Wilson biographies) Cooper acknowledges, regretfully.”
In 1956, Du Bois admitted:
“In 1912 I wanted to support Theodore Roosevelt, but his Bull Moose convention dodged the Negro problem and I tried to help elect Wilson as a liberal Southerner. Under Wilson came the worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that we had experienced since the Civil War.”
Black educator Booker T. Washington said of his visit to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1913, just a few months after Wilson’s inauguration: “I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time.”
Why were they bitter? Could it be that Wilson promised before his election “Should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing for everything by which I could assist in advancing their interests of the race”? They had a lot of hope and were disappointed.
Were Du Bois and the rest of the black voters who voted for Wilson bamboozled and hoodwinked? They discovered that they were worse off under Wilson than under any other previous president.
Why is Woodrow Wilson still considered a “hero”?
According to the U.S. history book Land of Promise:
“Woodrow Wilson's administration was openly hostile to black people. Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist who believed that black people were inferior. During his campaign for the presidency, Wilson promised to press for civil rights. But once in office he forgot his promises. Instead, Wilson ordered that white and black workers in federal government jobs be segregated from one another. This was the first time such segregation had existed since Reconstruction! When black federal employees in Southern cities protested the order, Wilson had the protesters fired. In November, 1914, a black delegation asked the President to reverse his policies. Wilson was rude and hostile and refused their demands.”
I Googled “Woodrow Wilson fought for civil rights.” Here is what I got:
“No results found for ‘Woodrow Wilson fought for civil rights’”
My question is in the light of facts, why are public schools, streets, a bridge, etc. named after this American white supremacist and segregationist? Why does this American white supremacist and segregationist president get a pass from his odious racial beliefs and practices when other white supremacists and racists are excoriated by the media and by many African American leaders? Why was I even not taught of Wilson’s racism in my U.S. history course in college?
Why the silence?
March 4, 1913 – a date that will live in infamy in black history or a date to be celebrated?
Robert Oliver is a former newspaper editor in the San Diego area and also a former photojournalist in Chicago. He is a frequent radio commentator and lives in San Diego, California. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.