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President Woodrow Wilson: Pro-Segregationist Democrat

In 1912 Bishop Alexander Walters, who had campaigned in 1908 for the Democratic candidate, lamented the extent to which the Republican Party had slid from the principles of a Charles Sumner of the 1870s. Walters, who was then head of the Colored Democratic League, stated that “the dullest mind can see at a glance the difference between the [Republican] party as represented by Charles Sumner in 1870 and Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912 . . . “. Walter’s influence was instrumental in convincing W. E. B. Du Bois to support Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s candidacy and to spurn the Republicans Roosevelt and Taft.

Du Bois hinged his support for the southern-born candidate on the condition that Wilson make a statement supporting black civil rights. Wilson complied by issuing a remarkably mild statement expressing his “earnest wish to see justice done the colored people in every matter.” He stressed that his wanted this justice fueled by “liberality and cordial good feeling” instead of “mere grudging justice.”

In coming out to support Wilson Du Bois resigned from the Socialist Party but soon grew disillusioned with Wilson’s campaign. In his bid for the White House, the former Princeton president failed to appear before any black audiences. Wilson won the election handily garnering 6.3 million votes to Taft’s 3.5 million, Roosevelt’s 4.1 million, and Debs’ 900,000 popular votes. This was the greatest triumph for the Democracy since the decade prior to the Civil War. Wilson received an unprecedented level of black support for a Democratic presidential candidate winning an estimated five to seven percent of the black vote.

President Wilson's initial policy measures were so stridently anti-black, Du Bois felt obliged to write “Another Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson” in September 1913. Du Bois was blunt, writing that “[I]t is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful.” Listing the most notorious racists of the era, including “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Du Bois wrote that they were undoubtedly encouraged since “not a single act” or “a single word” from Wilson “has given anyone reason” to believe that he will act positively with respect to African Americans citing the removal of several black appointees from office and the appointment of a single black whom was “such a contemptible cur, that his very nomination was an insult to every Negro in the land.” Altogether the segregationist and discriminatory policies of Wilson in his first six months alone were judged by Du Bois to be the “gravest attack on the liberties” of African Americans since Emancipation.

In a tone that was almost threatening Du Bois wrote the president that there exist “foolish people who think that such policy has no limit and that lynching “Jim Crowism,” segregation and insult are to be permanent institutions in America.” Pointing to the segregation in the Treasury and Post Office Departments Du Bois wrote Wilson of the “colored clerks [that] have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings” and of the one clerk “who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work” who, therefore, “had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years,” he asked President Wilson a long series of questions. “Mr. Wilson, do you know these things? Are you responsible for them? Did you advise them? Do you know that no other group of American citizens has ever been treated in this way and that no President of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment?” Like Trotter later Du Bois ends by threatening Wilson with the complete loss of black votes for any of his future electoral quests or that of his Democratic Party. Du Bois relied on questions to hammer home his point. “1. Do you want Negro votes? 2. Do you think that ‘Jim Crow’ civil service will get these votes? 3. Is your Negro policy to be dictated by Tillman and Vardaman? . . . “

The Early Background of Woodrow Wilson

Heading the American Presbyterian Church circa 1860 was Dr. James H. Thornwell under whose aegis Joseph Ruggles Wilson, Wilson’s father, worked at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Thornwell was a fierce defender of slavery who pushed hard for secession. With the approach of the Civil War Wilson’s father, hosted the conference in which the Southern wing split from their northern brethren establishing the Southern Presbyterian Church. Thereafter, the rabidly pro-slavery Thornwell used the Wilson home as his base of operations. In myriad other ways Wilson was tied personally to slavery including his aunt’s husband, the aptly named slavetrader, James Bones. These strong role models exerted a powerful influence on the development of Wilson’s political and social consciousness of race.

Wilson was only nine years of age when the armies of Sherman swept through his hometown Augusta, Georgia. A few years earlier, although only a small child, he had witnessed the recruitment and exodus of all the fighting age men from his town. The war’s anxiety, funerals, and ultimate defeat weighed heavy on him later. He actually witnessed Confederate president and vice-president Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, respectively, frog-marched through Augusta on their way to their brief stays in northern prisons. In addition, one of the fondest memories of Wilson was a close up glimpse of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During his adolescence Wilson likely shared the collective southern white shame and resentment that briefly, black men occupied the Congressional seats once held by Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun. Devastated and impoverished, many white southerners turned their resentment on the ex-slaves who they felt betrayed the kind and considerate treatment they benefitted from as slaves. Exaggerating black political gains they described the situation as “Negro domination” or “Negro rule”—terms used to justify successive reigns of anti-black violence and repression.

Born December 28, 1856 to Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, and Janet Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Woodrow Wilson grew up in an atmosphere steeped in intensely anti-black sentiment. His birthplace of Staunton, Virginia made this almost inevitable given the sacred status slavery held in the collective consciousness of the citizenry. Prior to the war, Reverend Wilson’s church hosted the meeting which launched the separate pro-slavery Southern wing of the Presbyterian Church. Wilson’s father defended slavery and aided the cause of the Confederacy, occasionally performing the role of Chaplain in the field with the soldiers. The bitterness of the white South’s defeat was burned into the psyche of the future president. Wilson never forgot the saddened faces of the defeated Confederate leaders, Jefferson Davis and Robert B. Lee, who remained cherished figures among his neighbors.

Despite his scholastic achievements Woodrow Wilson never developed beyond a sentimental attachment to the values and customs of his native region. Following an exclusive screening of D. W. Griffin’s “Birth of a Nation,” President Wilson approvingly termed the film, considered almost universally as a racist diatribe against black emancipation, as “history written in lightning.” Wilson’s Division and Reunion, 1829-1889, displayed the future president’s pro-southern sympathies and biases. The volume’s 80,000 words reflect Wilson’s mature scholarly views on race and African Americans. For two years, Wilson immersed himself into the issues surrounding slavery, race, Reconstruction, and the Civil War. Slavery, in Wilson’s view, was of great benefit to Africans as it had led to more progress for them in America, in his view, in two and one half centuries than had occurred in two millennia on the African continent. In Division and Reunion he defended the slaveholders against “the charges of moral guilt for the establishment and perpetuation of slavery which the more extreme leaders of the anti slavery party made against the slaveholders of the southern states.” Wilson absolved the early American colonists from guilt utilizing the familiar contention that the brutal institution was imposed upon the colonists by the British.

From 1902 to 1910, Wilson served as Princeton University’s president. During the years Wilson headed the prestigious educational institution, he continued the university's policy of a de facto prohibition on black enrollment. In a private letter Wilson wrote in 1904 he observed:

I would say that, while there is nothing in the law of the University to prevent a negro’s entering, the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission . . .

While Wilson confidently predicted that this would “never” occur, two black men received masters during his tenure at the university. Nevertheless, Wilson correctly identified a mechanism of racial discrimination so effective that no black received a bachelor’s from Princeton until 1947.

Increasing Segregation in the Federal Bureaucracy

I am heartsick over the announcement that you have appointed a Negro to boss white girls as Register of the Treasury—Thomas Dixon in a letter to Woodrow Wilson

The Wilson administration was heavily staffed with southerners, including five of the president’s ten cabinet members. Prominent Wilson aide, Josephus Daniels, who published the Raleigh News and Observer stated bluntly that the “subjection of the negro politically, and the separation of the negro socially” took priority over all other matters in the South “short of the preservation of the Republic itself.” Daniels vowed to “recognize no emancipation” that did not accept these priorities. Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo launched a reform effort aimed at extending the segregation in the federal government that had already increased under the African American-supported Republican administrations of Roosevelt and Taft. By confining blacks to specific departments and divisions of the federal government contact between whites and blacks could be held to a minimum. Wilson defended this policy asserting that it was “distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves” and a policy that made them “more safe in their possession of office and the less likely to be discriminated against.”

President Wilson’s Meetings with William Monroe Trotter

In 1910, soon after Woodrow Wilson’s victory in the New Jersey gubernatorial contest, the editor of the Boston Guardian, William Monroe Trotter, wrote to the future president congratulating the emerging Democratic national figure. With African Americans disgusted with the Republican Party’s lack of action, and, increasing hostility toward their interests, many leaders desperately sought alternatives.

For the three decades prior to the Wilson administration federal appointments and hiring put more stress on individual merit. With Wilson came formal segregation forcing a determined African American response to it. Early in the administration Postmaster General Albert Burleson railed against blacks and whites sharing the same drinking glasses, restrooms, and towels. Portraying blacks as sub-humans he called for a rigid segregation by race. At the same time, an organization, the National Democratic Fair Play Association began a mass movement aimed at ridding and segregating blacks in the federal government. The organization’s propaganda emphasized the horror of black men supervising white women and the “ill-smelling,” “greasy,” “wooly-haired,” blacks. By August 1913 the NAACP’s Moorfield Storey accused President


President Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President

1913 to 1921

Birth: December 28, 1856, Staunton, Virginia, Ohio

Death: February 3, 1924

Education: Davison College, Princeton

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Academician, Politician

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Woodrow Wilson September 13, 1999, CSPAN



Wilson of setting up “two classes” in the federal government “as if mere contact” with African Americans was tantamount to “contamination.” He went on to protest that black employees could only hope for “the prospect of mere subordinate routine service” with no chance of promotion. The new federal rules dictated that no black could supervise a white person and institutionalized a particular scrutiny on the possibility, however narrow, of any black male supervision over white women.

In November 1913, African Americans finally received their opportunity to personally confront President Woodrow Wilson over his policies toward their interests. Trotter presented a lengthy statement to Wilson hammering away at the injustice and inequality of segregation. Trotter told the president the reason for segregation “can only be that the segregated are considered unclean, diseased or indecent as to their persons, or inferior beings of a lower order, or that other employees have a class prejudice which is to be catered to or indulged.” No other of the nation’s “racial elements” are segregated in this manner, Trotter declared. “If separate toilets are provided for Latin, Teutonic, Celtic, Slavic, Semitic, and Celtic Americans, then and only then would African Americans be assigned to separation without insult and indignity.” Trotter continued to say that segregation damages black opportunity for promotion.

President Wilson claimed that he had been misrepresented and that no one in his Cabinet displayed any of these attitudes. Wilson denied that “the spirit of discrimination has been shown in any essential matter; certainly not in the matter of promotions. There is not a single instance of that sort, and there will not be. . . .” The president contended that the segregation order shown to him by the delegation was the first such “order of segregation” that he had seen. He assured the delegation that “there is no policy on the part of the Administration looking to segregation.”

In November 1914, a second African American delegation led by William Monroe Trotter met at the White House with President Wilson, who was still emotionally shaken by the death of his wife in the previous August. Trotter reminded the president of his delegation’s appeal the previous year concerning the increasing racial discrimination and segregation in all areas of life, especially in the federal government. The Boston editor reiterated the delegation’s view that “such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, entirely unmerited, and far reaching in its injurious effects, . . . “ Moreover, Trotter recalling the president’s promise to investigate the delegation’s charges. Despite the president’s reassuring words, a full year later, segregation in the Treasury and Post Office departments, and other federal departments remained present and, in some cases, had actually increased.

These events threatened to completely destroy any tentative moves African Americans had made away from the Republican Party, in Trotters’ view. Wildly exaggerating the sentiments of a small minority of the era’s blacks, Trotter, whose father was appointed to the D. C. Recorder of Deeds by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, maintained, “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race. What a change segregation has wrought!” Trotter asked Wilson rhetorically: “Have you a ‘new freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro American fellow citizens? God forbid!”

Trotter presented the National Equal Rights League’s demand that the president issue an executive order “against any and all segregation of government employees because of race and color, . . .” Feeling cornered and perhaps remembering his earlier disavowal of segregation to the same group one year earlier, President Wilson declared, “let us leave politics out of it. If the colored people made a mistake voting for me, they ought to correct it and vote against me if they think so. I don’t want politics brought into it at all. . . “ showing open disdain for the black vote. Only a few years before President Taft ostensibly competing with Wilson for black votes, expressed a similar sentiment.

Irritated, President Wilson then, apparently unconsciously, began to counterpose the “American people,” and “the Negro race,” as if blacks were not American. Wilson stated that the “American people, as a whole, sincerely desire and wish to support” black progress rejoicing in “evidences” of black advancement. “But,” Wilson added, “we are all practical men” and could expect “friction” between the races. The “best way” to “help the Negro” was to foster his “independence.” He defended the segregation of the departments saying that his administration was not “seeking” to put black employees at a “disadvantage” but merely attempting to arrive at arrangements that would relieve tension.

President Wilson told the delegation, “it takes the world generations to outlive all its prejudices.” His administration merely “did not want any white man made uncomfortable by anything that any colored man did, or a colored man made uncomfortable by anything that a white man did.” “It works both ways,” the president concluded, denying that there was any discrimination in this arrangement. Wilson said that he had been assured that genuinely “separate but equal” facilities were provided the black employees.

The discussion began to heat up when the African-American delegation replied to the president’s lengthy defense of his policies. Trotter declared: “We are not here as wards. We are not here as dependents. We are not here looking for charity or help. . . . “ The Boston editor pointedly told Wilson it was a matter of law, “We are full fledged American citizens vouchsafed equality of citizenship by the federal Constitution.” Pleadingly, Trotter urged that the president consider the fact that the black employees had used the public toilets in their departments for some fifty years prior to the advent of his administration. Trotter stressed his disappointment that Wilson did not take a position that segregation was morally wrong.

President Wilson’s anger at being spoken to in such a manner boiled over. To be lectured to by a black man, especially one brimming with self-confidence such as William Monroe Trotter, meant a loss of face for a white man, not to mention for a pro-segregationist southern-bred sitting president, during a white supremacist-dominated era. The man, who as president of Princeton confidently predicted that a black would never attend, snarled to the remainder of the delegation, “Let me say this, if you will, that if this organization wishes to approach me again, it must choose another spokesman. I have enjoyed listening to these other gentlemen. They have shown a spirit in the matter that I have appreciated, but your tone, sir, offends me. . . .” Wilson remarked that Trotter was “the only American citizen that has ever come into this office who has talked to me in a tone with a background of passion that was evident. . .” again stressing that the organization must replace Trotter as spokesman. Trotter replied, “I am from a part of the people, Mr. President,” to which Wilson shot back, “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.”

Following the meeting, Wilson admitted that by angrily ordering the African American delegation from his office he had erred. In a letter Wilson later admitted that he regretted his emotional outburst during the meeting. “Never raise an incident into an issue. When the negro delegate threatened me, I was a damn fool to lose my temper and to point them to the door. . .” instead of listening, and merely telling them he would consider their petition. President Wilson’s perception of being threatened seems revealing. The condition the president imposed upon any dialogue with African Americans is that they speak from a position of complete powerlessness.

William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter’s courage to stand firm for racial justice in an era of rampant anti-black violence and political repression reflected both an increasing sense of black collective self confidence as well as an increasing sense of political desperation. The legacy of this incident in the collective growth of black political experience and wisdom can also be seen in the dramatic change exemplified by Du Bois’s misguided faith in Wilson’s vague promises in 1912 compared to the NAACP’s utilization of a questionnaire on the presidential candidates in 1920. Yet, the basic problems hindering the growth of black political influence on the executive branch remained. Both major American political parties continue to ignore, distort, and work against basic black interests. This inability to exert a powerful influence on either political party constituted a formidable obstacle impeding further black progress. Yet, the steady migration of blacks from southern rural areas to the urban north coupled with industrialization was gradually increasing black political power ensuring that in the coming decades, African American interests would be increasingly difficult to ignore.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.