Nobody doubts that Woodrow Wilson was utterly and deplorably racist.
But before we start chiseling the early 20th century president’s name off buildings, maybe it’s worth remembering what else he was.
Citing Wilson’s wretched racial attitudes, protestors have demanded that his name be taken off institutions such as the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, where he was university president before becoming governor of New Jersey and president of the United States, and Southwest Portland’s Wilson High School.
“We’d have to be ignorant about history to continue to affiliate ourselves with this man,” Wilson history teacher Hyung Nam argued earlier this year.
Wilson administration policies toward African Americans were unquestionably abhorrent. Southern himself, Wilson named Southerners to head the largest government departments, Treasury and Post Office, where they imposed rigid segregation and destroyed careers. He admired the racist movie, “Birth of a Nation” Wilson refused to make the few traditional token black appointments. He rejected Northern objections to his policies, and a White House meeting with black leaders ended in angry disaster when Wilson claimed he’d been insulted.
Adjusting names to fit changing values can be important. Historical revision has shown Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to be a slave trader before the Civil War, a war criminal during it and the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan afterward. Last year it made absolute sense for Jacksonville, Fla., to change the name of Forrest High School to Westside High School. The Memphis City Council even voted to dig up Forrest and his wife from their graves in a city park, proclaiming it no fit site for a public picnic.
Hardly any American past political figures can be said to look good on race, and reading Ta-nehisi Coates’ powerful “Between the World and Me,” it seems unlikely that people a century from now will look admiringly back at us. Two Portland high schools are named after slave-holding presidents (Jefferson and Madison) and at the district’s enrollment high point the list included three more (Washington, Monroe and Jackson). Such leaders are also all over our money. If we want to make statements about how we feel about past racial attitudes, we’ve got a target-rich environment.
But we might note that when we say “Wilsonian” (or “Jeffersonian” or “Jacksonian”), when Franklin D. Roosevelt called himself a Wilsonian, the definition isn’t about racial attitudes. “Wilsonian” meant, then and now, the idea that nations could work together in international organizations and cooperation and, by applying principles of self-determination, possibly prevent the kind of mass killing in Europe that loomed over most of Wilson’s presidency.
Wilson, of course, failed to persuade either the American people or the Senate of this, and the League of Nations, the international organization that came out of World War I, went forward and failed without U.S. involvement. But 25 years later, in the midst of a wider, even more savage slaughter, the journalist Gerald W. Johnson wondered if Wilson hadn’t been right: “It is not a pleasant idea, for if he was right, the rest of us were wrong. . . . Dead men scattered from the Solomon Islands to Italy suggest that we may have been wrong.”
Domestically, that same Wilson backed financial regulation and the eight-hour day, and strongly supported diversity – if not exactly what we mean by diversity today. He appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court, and vetoed limitations on immigration. In 1915, when immigrants from suspicious places were attacked not as jihadists but as violent anarchists, Wilson welcomed a group of newly sworn-in citizens in Philadelphia:
“You dreamed dreams of what America was to be, and I hope you brought the dreams with you,” Wilson told them. “… Just because you brought dreams with you, America is more likely to realize dreams such as you brought. You are enriching us if you came expecting us to be better than we are.”
At a time when immigrants make up a larger part of Portland and the United States than in a century, when the ceiling of the David Douglas High School cafeteria is thick with the flags of the dozens of countries that have supplied its students, that Wilson shouldn’t be written off.
There were many different sides to Wilson, and it can be more educational to confront complexity rather than simply seek validation. If parts of Wilson’s story make us recoil, there are also messages of particular value to us today.
We need to remember the racism of Woodrow Wilson.
But we shouldn’t completely surrender to it.
Note: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/16/15.