Power  /  Argument

Woodrow Wilson Should Stay Canceled

The 28th President of the United States enabled segregation and vile treatment of Black federal workers. He doesn’t deserve an image rehabilitation.

Wilson’s administration decimated decades of advancement for Black employees. The highest-ranking Black postal workers were fired because, as supervisors, they were said to be a rape threat to white women workers in their units.

Those who were kept were demoted, then forced to work in degrading conditions; in alcoves, partitioned off from white workers by lockers, banished from using cafeterias, and forced to use bathrooms that were far from their assigned workstations. One employee who had to have contact with others because of his assignment was partitioned into a cage, so that he would not have physical contact with his white coworkers.

In addition to the humiliating policies of physical segregation, in 1914 Wilson required that all applicants for federal jobs anywhere in the country submit a photograph with their application, so that the Black applicants could be more effectively weeded out and taken out of competition with white applicants.

Strangely, Frum mentions much of this history in his assessment of Wilson but says that his “bigotries… were common among people of his place, time, and rank” and that a “fixation” on his actions “demands explanation.”

For me, the explanation is that Wilson wasn’t common, he was extraordinary. He turned back the clock on more than four decades of progress for Black workers and ushered in an era of segregation that had not been experienced since Reconstruction.

While it might seem to affect just the 4,000 black workers who were employed by the Post Office, the signal sent by the Wilson administration was profound.

His actions made segregation and all its attendant humiliations more commonplace throughout the nation. He used his presidential power to give segregation a national endorsement. He amplified its logic—that Black men had to be physically separated from white women or else they would rape them.

Indeed, this was the undergirding logic of extra-legal white mobs lynching Black people across the nation. Although Wilson claimed to be against such violence, his segregationist policies added meat to the bones of the monster of American racism, tacitly endorsing physical, economic, and psychological violence for more than a generation.

Wilson also needed the support of Southern Democrats with strongly anti-Black views if his ambitious program of progressive economic reform was to be enacted. This was his overriding goal and, as historian Kendrick Clements wrote, “Wilson’s attitude was always that there were more important issues to be pursued than racial justice.”