Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: I don’t much like President Woodrow Wilson, Wilmington’s famous inhabitant

President Thomas Woodrow Wilson
President Thomas Woodrow Wilson AP

When he lived in Wilmington, President Woodrow Wilson went by the nickname Tommy – as a bookish, bespectacled pastor’s son bound for the Ivy League and the White House, an erudite teenager who once complained that the local girls couldn’t carry on intelligent conversation.

He stood tall in Southern high society, one of handful of college boys in all of Wilmington, member of the blueblood Presbyterian Church on Third Street, best friend to John D. Bellamy Jr., whose father was perhaps North Carolina’s richest man.

He inhabited a city only nine years removed from the Civil War, and he passed his afternoons in the palatial Bellamy Mansion built with slave labor and financed by plantation profits – a culture where racism was the unquestioned norm. That house would be set on fire in 1972, largely, it is thought, because Wilson’s boyhood chum had aided the mobs that attacked leading black citizens in the 1898 race riot.

I never knew this about our 28th president. When I think of him – and it’s not often – I picture him in a top hat and overcoat, hammering out the Treaty of Versailles or dreaming up the League of Nations. But the protests at Princeton University, Wilson’s alma mater, demanding that his name be removed from a campus building as posthumous punishment for his segregationist views, caused me to turn up his roots.

And after a week of getting to know “Tommy” Wilson, I can say that I’m nauseated by several aspects of his character. And that’s precisely why we ought to keep his name on that Princeton building. Without its being written there, we might be tempted to forget.

Before I go much further, let me share this delicious observation from journalist and Wilson biographer William Allen White, just to let you know I’m not the only one with a poor opinion of North Carolina’s sort-of son.

“When I met him,” White wrote in 1929, “he gave me a hand that felt very much like a five-cent mackerel; cold, stiff, moist, unresponsive … He smiled, but I got the wrong side of his face, a side which gave me a certain impress of a reptilian personality.”

Wilson has no monuments in Wilmington, no statues or buildings named for him. Having stayed only a year in 1874 and a few summers after, he hardly qualifies as a local institution. And there is no clamor to pull up the Wilson historical marker on Third Street or the plaque to his memory inside First Presbyterian Church.

Hardly anybody asks after Wilson at Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, where archivist Carol Bragale showed me a folder full of clippings. No known photographs exist of Wilson in Wilmington, and few locals still celebrate their connection to the long-dead president.

“It’s more his father,” Bragale told me, meaning Joseph Wilson, who pastored at First Presbyterian for 11 years and earned $4,000 annually – “rather a staggering sum for Reconstruction days in a small town,” White noted in his biography. When I stopped by at First Presbyterian, staff at the front desk took me to the elder Wilson’s picture, which still hangs on the wall.

Father and son were beyond close, both bookworms, fond of study. But the Wilsons’ butler David Bryant, a black man who often took the boy scholar swimming in the Cape Fear River, told White that the mother, Jessie Janet Woodrow, held greater sway over the future president. “Inside he was his mother all over,” Bryant recalled. “She had English ways – thought she was a little better than other folks – standoffish a little, and folks thought her cold and distant.”

Wilson suffered from dyslexia and struggled as a student. Home from Davidson College after his first year, recovering from a long and debilitating cold, he prepped himself for more rigorous study, aided by Bellamy, who was the better scholar. They made for a peculiar pair, reading Sir Walter Scott out loud to each other on jaunts that sometimes took them to an old Confederate camp, behavior that caused neighbors to think Wilson was less interested in people than in scholarship.

“It was their habit to take books and go out in the pine woods and read,” White wrote, “sometimes sprawling on their backs, flipping the pages, chasing the story. So they read through half a dozen of Scott's novels. They called their excursions reading raids, which were really high old intellectual times.”

To get some sense of their companionship, I walked through Bellamy Mansion at the corner of Fifth and Market – an extremely worthwhile tour led by volunteer docent George Pidot, a retired economics professor and a Princeton graduate like Wilson.

It’s impossible to overstate the wealth of John Bellamy the elder, who owned hundreds of slaves and built his mansion with the income from only one of his plantations over a single year. Wilson’s best friend grew up in a house that had wall-to-wall carpeting at a time when most made do with wooden floors. Bellamy built an indoor kitchen lined with fire-proof brick at a time when nearly everybody else cooked in an outbuilding for safety’s sake. The windows in the formal parlor had bronze valances, and the panes of glass in some windows cost more than the average man made in a year.

Slaves lived in the “Negro House” out back when the house opened in 1861, and they did every ounce of work from tending the coal cellar to tossing out Bellamy’s bath water. One slave who did Bellamy’s plaster work, William B. Gould, fled his bondage in the middle of the war, rowing out to a federal blockade ship in the Atlantic Ocean and declaring himself contraband, serving a turn in the Union navy.

Wilson’s friend’s portrait hangs above the fireplace in the parlor. Like Wilson, Bellamy entered a life of law and politics, rising to become both a congressman and dean of the state Bar Association. Pidot told me that few visitors to the mansion know about the 1898 riots, the only coup d’etat in the United States, in which white mobs overthrew the elected government, attacked the black-owned newspaper, burned black homes and killed anywhere from 15 to 60 people. But Bellamy, he told me, offered legal advice to the cabal, and that is thought to be the motive behind the arson in 1972, a time of racial unrest in Wilmington.

Through his presidency, Wilson often gave nods to his boyhood, calling it unforgettable and deeply significant. In 1909, he gave a speech at UNC-Chapel Hill, in which he told the crowd that the South is the only place on Earth where nobody has to explain anything to him. Many scholars dispute the idea that Wilson was a fire-breathing racist, and they describe his presidency as the beginning of liberal activism. But I can’t excuse a scholar who discouraged a prospective black student from applying at Princeton or a president who defended segregation as a means of keeping racial peace. People are prisoners of their own eras, I suppose. But I keep remembering that President Teddy Roosevelt, a moderate on race, had invited Booker T. Washington to the White House more than a decade earlier.

“In a historical context,” Pidot said of Wilson, “you can degrade anybody. He was a good old Southern boy. You have to make allowances that the world has changed.”

We finished our tour in the belvedere, the top of Bellamy Mansion that looks out over the city, and I asked Pidot if Wilson’s memory carried any meaning for Wilmington in 2015. He didn’t think so, and he wouldn’t call for cleansing either his alma mater or his retirement city of the former president’s name. If you want to avoid repeating the sins of the past, you air them out in public.

So I’m airing them here, taking potshots at a dead president on behalf of those who didn’t get the chance, hoping this history will stay fresh.