The 28th President of the US Woodrow Wilson epitomizes the issues African Americans had to face in their pursuit of equal rights. The first southern president since the Civil War, he grew up in Georgia and this may be an explanation behind his ideology that led to his active efforts to institutionalize segregation.
Wilson was very much an apologist for slavery and a lot of his academic writings before and after his presidency were blatantly sympathetic towards slavery. In Wilson’s view, slavery was part of the civilizing process and also claimed that Reconstruction was ‘a host of dusky children untimely put out of school’. These quotes from Wilson himself really emphasize his belief in segregation and put into context the horrors of his presidency. A precursor of his presidency would be his position of president at Princeton in 1902, of which, at his inauguration, he only invited one black person which was Booker T Washington. After that, it appeared that Wilson’s antipathy to black people seemed clear, with him aiming to make sure no black people made it onto the Princeton campus during his eight years in charge. This was shown by his efforts by the end of his presidency at Princeton to remove any public record that African Americans had ever attended Princeton.
Surprisingly, when Wilson received the presidency in 1913, there was hope among black citizens that he would advance civil rights and were willing to deviate from their republican roots because of the strong discontent with the republican and progressive candidates like Taft and Roosevelt. Instead of aggressive policy against segregation, Wilson actively did the opposite, and a lot of his administration was dedicated to increase racial inequality in America. As president, he hindered the economic progression of African Americans and oversaw multiple counts of segregation in federal agencies, which are still felt to this day. During his presidency, Wilson helped popularize the Confederate Klansmen, who unsurprisingly became the heroes of DW Griffith’s 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation’. As well as actively promoting the work of the KKK and bringing around a new wave of radical racial terrorism, he agreed to screen the film at the White House and in its title card, had quotes from his own book. In 1915 at Red Stone Mountain in Georgia, the KKK was re-founded and its revival can be attributed to Wilson’s promoting of his own racial ideology.
Wilson’s actions as president were very much a continuation of his depraved ideology as his administration began the process of worsening and hindering the black workforce while also campaigning as a progressive, bringing the end of big businesses and improving workers’ rights. A large part of Wilson’s presidency was his southern cabinet’s influence on policy and legislature, many of whom were white supremacists. It was stated by historian Eric S. Yellin that when they arrived, they were really in shock at the number of black people working in the federal government. At the turn of the century, a lot of black people made up the federal government and various members of Wilsons’s cabinet were outraged at the amount of black people who were part of the federal service and talks about segregating the workforce were imminently had. Wilson allowed his cabinet to segregate the federal government and, unlike Presidents who actively felt pressure from civil rights activists to aggressively go after segregation, Wilson did the opposite and ignored protests from prominent civil rights figures like W.E.B DuBois. The extent of Wilson’s willingness to segregate should not be understated as his cabinet aimed and succeeded in segregating things like the Treasury, Post office and the Navy, which led to separate offices and rest areas. The result of this was it was made harder for black people to receive promotions and a lot of black supervisors were dismissed.
The increased implementation of a Jim Crow system in federal government was not the only thing hindering the advancement of African American rights during Wilson’s presidency because his response to the increased violence and lynching’s nationwide because of the great migration in 1917-18 further emphasized his active blockading of equal rights. The best example of this was his response to the East St Louis riots in 1917, in which Wilson spoke out against the rioters claiming they were betrayers of America’s great democracy but did nothing further in terms of action.
Overall, Wilson’s presidency cannot be characterized by the blissful ignorance that plagued most presidents on the issue of civil rights. Instead, his presidency can be characterized by the active attempts to purge the progress made by those before him in the advancement of African American rights.