Woodrow Wilson is best known as the World War I president who earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to found the League of Nations. A progressive reformer who fought against monopolies and child labor, he served two terms starting in 1913.
But Wilson was also a segregationist who wrote a history textbook praising the Confederacy and, in particular, the Ku Klux Klan. As president, he rolled back hard-fought economic progress for Black Americans, overseeing the segregation of multiple agencies of the federal government.
While Wilson was lauded for his role in World War I, historians and activists have long called attention to his other actions. And institutions have grappled with how to respond to this side of his legacy. In June 2020, Monmouth University announced it would rename its Woodrow Wilson Hall. And after years of protests, Princeton University said it would remove his name from its prestigious public policy school, explaining that his segregationist attitudes and policies made Wilson an “especially inappropriate namesake.” In places like Washington, D.C., historians and parents have called for removing his name from public high schools.
In reevaluating Wilson’s legacy, it’s important to understand not only his leadership through a world war, or his business and labor reforms. It’s also important to know that, on the home front, he perpetuated violence and inequality for Black Americans. Here's how.
When Wilson entered office in 1913, he was the first southerner to be president since Reconstruction. His cabinet included several white southerners, who “really had no idea how integrated the federal service was, how [relatively] unsegregated Washington, D.C. was," says Eric S. Yellin, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Richmond and author of Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. "And when they arrive some of them are really in shock.”
Immediately, these cabinet members began to talk about segregating federal government employees by race. Wilson allowed his cabinet to do this despite protests by civil rights activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter—whom Wilson angrily threw out of the Oval Office during a 1914 meeting in which Trotter made the case against segregation. A transcript of that meeting reveals that Wilson had argued, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”