Over the last week, a growing number of students at Princeton have demanded that the university confront the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson, who served as its president before becoming New Jersey’s governor and the 28th president of the United States. Among other things, the students are demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from university facilities.
Wilson, a Virginia-born Democrat, is mostly remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, a benign and wise leader, a father of modern American political science and one of our nation’s great presidents.
But he was also an avowed racist. And unlike many of his predecessors and successors in the White House, he put that racism into action through public policy. Most notably, his administration oversaw the segregation of the federal government, destroying the careers of thousands of talented and accomplished black civil servants – including John Abraham Davis, my paternal grandfather.
An African-American born in 1862 to a prominent white Washington lawyer and his black “housekeeper,” my grandfather was a smart, ambitious and handsome young black man. He emulated his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, in style and dress. He walked away from whatever assistance his father might have offered to his unacknowledged black offspring and graduated at the top of his class from Washington’s M Street High School (later the renowned all-black Dunbar High School).
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Even as the strictures of Jim Crow segregation began to harden in the South, Washington and the federal Civil Service offered African-Americans real opportunity for employment and advancement. Thousands passed the civil-service exam to gain coveted spots in government agencies and departments. In 1882, soon after graduating from high school, the young John Davis secured a job at the Government Printing Office.
Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary – for an African-American – of $1,400 per year.
But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.
By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.
Many black men and women suffered similar fates under Wilson. As the historian Eric S. Yellin of the University of Richmond documents in his powerful book “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” my grandfather’s demotion was part of a systematic purge of the federal government; with Wilson’s approval, in a few short years virtually all blacks had been removed from management responsibilities, moved to menial jobs or simply dismissed.
My grandfather died before I was born, but I have learned much about his struggle – and that of other black civil servants in the federal government – from his personnel file. What is most striking is his sense of humiliation; after all, he had spent his career in a time and place where, whatever was happening in the South, African-Americans were able to get ahead. And then, suddenly, with Wilson’s election, that all changed.
Consider a letter he wrote on May 16, 1913, barely a month after his demotion. “The reputation which I have been able to acquire and maintain at considerable sacrifice,” he wrote, “is to me (foolish as it may appear to those in higher stations of life) a source of personal pride, a possession of which I am very jealous and which is possessed at a value in my estimation ranking above the loss of salary – though the last, to a man having a family of small children to rear, is serious enough.”
And the reply he received? His supervisor said, simply, that my grandfather was unable to “properly perform the duties required (he is too slow).” Yet there had never been any indication of this in his personnel file.
Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.
It is this legacy of humiliation that the Princeton students demand the university, and the country, confront.
We must listen to them.
The New York Times
Gordon J. Davis is a partner at the law firm Venable.