It’s not hard to find anecdotes about Wilson’s celebration of the racist tour de forceBirth of a Nation, the country’s first cinematic blockbuster. But Wilson’s racism went far, far deeper. We rightly judge people at least in part in the context of their times, not ours. But even judged against the standards of his own day, Wilson was a racist and a throwback, committed to turning back the limited gains African-Americans had held onto after Reconstruction. As an historian and political scientist, Wilson played a part in the historiographical reimagining of the Reconstruction years as a period when half savage blacks ruled over white Southerners in connivance with corrupt Northern extremists before being overthrown by white southern “redeemers” in the last two decades of the 19th century. Nor did Wilson leave his racism in the realm of ideas.
When Wilson came to Washington he quickly instituted a purge of African-American federal workers in Washington and around the country. Where purges weren’t possible, federal workplaces were re-segregated, often with surreal and hideous results. Even more than Wilson, Wilson’s wife Ellen, a Georgia native, was a visceral racist who was shocked to see the limited level of integration then in place in the nation’s capital. She was reportedly especially disgusted to see black men and white women working in the same workplaces and took a personal role in pushing forward resegregation in Washington, DC.
Numerous African-American federal workers were fired, in many cases by white Southern Democratic appointees. The Post Master General and the Treasury Secretary both re-segregated their departments and gave supervisors free rein to fire African American employees at will. In Atlanta, 35 African-American postal workers were summarily fired. Similarly stories took place throughout the country. Wilson’s Collector of Internal Revenue in Georgia said in 1913, “There are no Government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negroes place is in the cornfield.”