When inaugurated 102 years ago, Democratic Thomas Woodrow Wilson became the first Southerner elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Washington was flooded with revelers from the Old Confederacy, whose people had long dreamed of a return to the glory days of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, when southern gentlemen ran the country. Rebel yells and the strains of “Dixie” reverberated throughout the city. The new administration brought to power a generation of Democratic Party political leaders from the old South who would play influential roles in Washington for generations to come.
This is American History – not “Negro” History. This history has been suppressed. Suppressed and “segregated” by the Democratic Party and white liberal elites, the teacher’s unions, those in the racial spoils business. They have created an intellectual “ghetto”, a form of historical apartheid. This is American History – it should be treated as such. We owe it to the men and women, black & white, recounted here.
Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia and South Carolina, Wilson was a loyal son of the old South and Democratic Party, who regretted the outcome of the Civil War. He used his high office to reverse some of its consequences. When Wilson entered the White House, federal government agencies had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period by Republican Party administrations, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies. Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of Republican racial integration in the federal civil service.
In 1912 Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate for president, promised fairness and justice for blacks if elected. In a letter to a black church official, Wilson wrote, “Should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing for everything by which I could assist in advancing their interests of the race.” But after the election, Wilson changed his tune. He dismissed 15 out of 17 black supervisors who had been previously appointed to federal jobs and replaced them with whites. He also refused to appoint black ambassadors to Haiti and Santa Domingo, posts traditionally awarded to African Americans. Two of Wilson’s cabinet ministers, Postmaster General Albert Burelson and Wilson’s son-in-law Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, both Southerners, issued orders segregating their departments. In some federal offices, screens were set up to separate white and black workers. African-Americans found it difficult to secure high-level civil service positions, which some had held under previous Republican administrations. Throughout the country, blacks were segregated or dismissed from federal positions. In Georgia, the head of the Internal Revenue division fired all black employees: “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.” He said. The President’s wife, Ellen Wilson, was said to have had a hand in segregating employees in Washington, encouraging department chiefs to assign blacks separate working, eating, and toilet facilities. To justify segregation, officials publicized complaints by white women, who were thought to be threatened by black men’s sexuality and disease.
A delegation of black professionals led by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor, appeared at the White House to protest the new policies. But Wilson treated them rudely and declared that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
The novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon – a longtime political supporter, friend and former classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins University – was published in 1905. A decade later, with Wilson in the White House, cinematographer D.W. Griffith produced a motion picture version of the book, titled “Birth of a Nation.”
With quotations from Wilson’s scholarly writings in its subtitles, the silent film denounced the Reconstruction period in the South when blacks briefly held elective office in several states. It hailed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a sign of southern white society’s recovery from the humiliation and suffering to which the federal government and the northern “carpetbaggers” had subjected it after its defeat in the Civil War. The film depicted African-Americans (most played by white actors in blackface) as uncouth, uncivilized rabble.
While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People publicly denounced the movie’s blatant appeals to racial prejudice, the president organized a private screening of his friend’s film in the White House for the members of his cabinet and their families. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson observed, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History. He offers the following opinion piece on the anniversary and how racial relations have changed over that century.