Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Woodrow Wilson in retrospect

As a schoolboy, I saw Woodrow Wilson as a tragic figure -- a brilliant man, with a progressive spirit, who failed to obtain support for the peace treaty that might have prevented World War II.  When I learned more about him and his presidency, however, his luster diminished in my view. He was very stubborn and determined to have his own way. He was an autocrat as president of Princeton, and he refused to accept conditions relating to the Versailles Treaty that might have allowed its ratification.

Most damaging of all was my discovery of his virulent racism. I've just been reading an engaging and informative new book, Washington: A History of Our National City, by retired professor Tom Lewis. He notes that Wilson imposed Jim Crow segregation practices on the Federal Government soon after taking office. Jobs that had traditionally gone to blacks, went to whites only. Blacks working in the Post Office and Treasury were moved into separate offices, forced to eat in separate dining rooms and drink from separate water fountains, and denied white subordinates.

Things were even worse after the war ended. "[R]eturning black soldiers found Washington to be a mre segregated city than the one they had left. Federal departments ... refused to consider blacks who had scored well on their civil service examinations... The Metropolitan Police Department turned down blacks for positions; the fire department so effectively kept blacks from promotion that the District commissioner in charge of public safety had to create an all-black brigade in an attempt to ensure a modicum of fair treatment."

Wilson shares the blame with white supremacist members of Congress, of course. But he set a terrible example that makes me think much less of him.

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