Home / General / Wilson, Roosevelt, Jefferson: Debating America’s Racial Legacy

Wilson, Roosevelt, Jefferson: Debating America’s Racial Legacy



Above: Theodore Roosevelt, Virulent Racist

The recent debates over which Americans to honor with statues, building names, and other monuments, is welcome. History should be debated. The present is not under any obligation to the past to keep something named after John C. Calhoun. Right now, the biggest flash point is around the memory of Woodrow Wilson. The 28th president was certainly an unreconstructed racist, although I do wonder how much of his bad reputation comes from his notorious approval of Birth of a Nation, which did not exactly separate him from the average Democrat in 1915. But as I’ve argued before, the relationship between symbols and protest is important and often hard to understand for those who don’t see protest as the primary mode for change. Those symbols are particularly salient at Princeton, where Wilson was president before becoming governor of New Jersey.

Wilson is known for many progressive policies and for idealistic views about the spread of democracy around the world. But historians have also noted that he was an unapologetic racist who took many actions as president of the United States that held back even minimal rights for black people. And while many argue against judging people from earlier generations by today’s standards, this essay by William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, notes that Wilson moved federal policy on racial equality backward. He undid moves toward desegregation by federal agencies, and he defended segregation.

In an essay last month in The Daily Princetonian, the Black Justice League outlined its case for removing honors on campus for Wilson.

“We owe nothing to people who are deeply flawed,” the essay says. “There is an impulsive reaction to want to ignore uncomfortable or questionable legacies. However, what does it say about our society if we continue to glorify legacies without acknowledging — and at the very least caring about — the continuous promotion of unrectified inequalities and injustices? … By not recognizing the importance of this discourse, the university is telling its marginalized community and the outside world that it values its bleached-clean version of history over the prolonged discomfort and alienation of students of color. This erasure is especially dangerous in the present context of state-sanctioned violence against black people that prolongs this genocide.”

Despite my hatred of the word “discourse,” the general point is of course correct. We do owe nothing to people whom we decide no longer represent our values. Wilson is largely vilified by progressives and the left today for a few reasons. First, it’s that he was influential to neoconservatives and the designers of the Iraq War. This is somewhat unfair. Second, it’s his approval of The Birth of a Nation. Third, it’s that he segregated the federal government in new ways. The last two are pretty bad. Does this make him uniquely racist for his time or even unusually racist? No, not really and I think Dylan Matthews actually does a disservice to us by claiming he was especially racist. The early 20th century was a horrible time for racial minorities of all kinds. Wilson represented them well, no question, but he represented preexisting desires for extreme segregation and racial violence. None of this is defending Wilson at all, but rather simply stating the reality and ubiquity of white supremacy at the time.

I also want to compare Wilson to Theodore Roosevelt. The latter is often compared favorably to Wilson but this is really letting the vastly overrated TR off the hook. Basically, Roosevelt’s racial moderate reputation relies on the sole incident of him eating dinner with Booker T. Washington. And fair enough, that’s certainly something Wilson would not have done. But outside of that Roosevelt was a hell of a racist. Roosevelt’s utterly vile conduct in the treatment of the Brownsville soldiers is appalling:

Although there was no trial, and the men were not given a hearing or the opportunity to confront their accusers, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 black infantrymen discharged without honor because of their alleged conspiracy of silence. Some of the men dismissed had over twenty years of service and were only a short time away from retirement with pensions. All of this was taken away from them. Blacks were furious at Roosevelt’s action, and Booker T. Washington was anguished over the unjust action. Although he did not criticize the president publicly, he protested in private; still, Roosevelt dismissed his plea to reconsider. Even some whites criticized the President. A United States Senate committee investigated the episode in 1907-08 and upheld Roosevelt’s action.

This might not be a racist act quite on the level of Wilson’s segregationist policies, but it was an extraordinarily racist act that needs to be acknowledged.

I will also note once again that race in the United States is not just about the oppression of African-Americans, which is often forgotten about even today. Roosevelt was not only a believer in white supremacy, but an active player in genocidal politics against Native Americans. This is a man who said:

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

That’s certainly as awful as anything to ever come out of Wilson’s mouth. He also of course was the imperialist president and between 1901 and 1911 approximately 250,000 Filipinos died resisting an American imperialist expansion explicitly based upon ideas of racial superiority. Roosevelt was not only a eugenicist who freaked out about race suicide and the impact of immigrants upon American society, but he was also close friends and long-time associates with Madison Grant, author of the notorious 1915 book The Passing of the Great Race. And while one might argue it is unfair to taint people with their friends, in this case, there’s little to no evidence that Roosevelt disagreed with Grant’s racial assumption in any way. In fact, he wrote:

“This is a capital book–in purpose, I vision, in grasp of the facts our people must realizes it shows an extraordinary range of reading ad a wide scholarship. It shows a habit of singular seriousness thought on subjects of most commanding importance. It shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous sentimentalities and attractive and corroding falsehoods which few men dare assail. It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it.”

If we are going to go after Woodrow Wilson’s legacy, let’s do the same with Roosevelt.

We can also wonder how far this questioning of our past will go before even liberals push back on it. Thomas Jefferson represents an interesting case. Jefferson is a polarizing figure in modern America because he was a hypocrite. It’s impossible not to note that hypocrisy in a man who wrote some of the finest language about liberty ever written also refusing to free his slaves. Should we continue to name things after Jefferson? I don’t have a good answer to this. I just don’t know. Certainly there is a very good case to be made here.

At William & Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater, the notes on the statue just appeared, without an individual or group claiming responsibility or formally asking for the statue to be removed. Officials have noted that the protest has not actually damaged the statue, so they are not treating the incident like vandalism.

“A university setting is the very place where civil conversations about difficult and important issues should occur. Nondestructive sticky notes are a form of expression compatible with our tradition of free expression,” said a spokesperson via email.

Students have been debating the issues raised by the notes on social media and in columns in the student paper.

At Missouri, the Jefferson statue became an issue last month as tensions were rising over a range of issues raised by black students, who cited incidents of racial harassment as well as campus culture issues, such as the prominence given to a Jefferson statue.

A petition is circulating calling for the statue to be removed. The petition notes the history of Jefferson’s involvement with slavery. “Thomas Jefferson’s statue sends a clear nonverbal message that his values and beliefs are supported by the University of Missouri. Jefferson’s statue perpetuates a sexist-racist atmosphere that continues to reside on campus,” the petition says.

I don’t know that a Jefferson statue actually perpetuates a sexist-racist atmosphere on campus, but maybe it does. What about George Washington, although at least he freed his slaves on his death? James Madison? Should we rename those universities entirely?

Again, I don’t know. But as a historian, I strongly welcome these conversations over the meanings of our venerated figures of the past. History lives and rather than remain the repository of right-wing ideology and mythology, it’s great that we are having public conversations about the actual actions of these people. The more grounded they are in real historical scholarship, the better. So far, I am not disappointed in this aspect of the conversations.

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