Presidential Discrimination

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A paper highlighting Woodrow Wilson's failures regarding race relations in the United States

Precisely at the turn of the century, a fatal confrontation between a black man and an undercover police officer in New York City’s Tenderloin District lead to one of the largest race riots in New York’s history (besides the draft riots) which eventually culminated into white gangs and officers attacking virtually every black man they encountered in the neighborhood. Six years later, fears of a developing black upper-class in Atlanta, Georgia lead to a massive white mob raiding several black-owned businesses and assaulting hundreds of blacks (Mixon). Riots similar to these continued throughout the 1900-1910s, such as the horrific Springfield riot in 1908 and the Texas Brownsville Incident (Gale). Legal action by white southerners restricted African American rights even further through intentional attacks on black voting rights by use of literacy tests, poll taxes, and Grandfather clauses which were all mandated by state constitutions. In 1896, the supreme court case Plessy v. Ferguson legalized the enforcement of “separate but equal” public facilities. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 by W.E.B Du Bois in response to this perpetual physical violence and discrimination against African Americans through methods such as these, and commonplace lynchings, which were ignored for the most part due to the lack of legislation after reconstruction specifically preventing them (NAACP). Following this, the National Urban League was created in 1910, an organization designed to help African Americans secure employment, housing, healthcare, and educational opportunities in major cities. Beginning at around the same time was the Great Migration, a mass migration of African American families from the South into industrial areas mainly in response to this prevalent discrimination present throughout the South, the Boll Weevil crisis, and a need for industrial workers after the beginning of the first world war (Lewis). With the 1912 election quickly approaching, many African Americans began to search for someone to champion their cause. Even though African Americans primarily cast their vote under the Republican party in previous elections up to that point, William Howard Taft was largely out of the picture due to the lack of black workers holding office under his presidency. Black voters put their faith and votes in the new Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, after his sentiment claiming to defend civil rights throughout his term in a letter written to a black preacher:Should I become President of the United States, [Negroes] [] may count upon me for absolute fair dealing and for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United States.” (Brown). As time would tell, this was an empty promise. Woodrow Wilson actively worked against African American interests in the years prior to and during World War 1, causing a deterioration in race relations.

Many scholars believe that Wilson’s ingrained racism was fostered during his childhood. Born in Virginia in 1856, the tense climate and deeply rooted racist attitudes in any confederate state pre- and post- civil war may have shaped Wilson’s foundational beliefs about race (Yaffe). Wilson’s 1901 book, A History of the American People, clarifies his white supremacism even further, with Wilson praising the Ku Klux Klan for ridding “the white men of the South” from “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes.” and how "white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation [...] until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan South,” bound together in loose organization,  to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution.” (Wikiquote). In 1902, Wilson was appointed as Princeton University’s president and inherited the university’s exclusionary environment. Even though Wilson was primarily responsible for a drastic reformation of the college, he did nothing to challenge its prejudice. “While there is nothing in the law of the University to prevent a negro’s entering, the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no negro has ever applied for admission,” wrote Wilson in a 1904 letter to a University official. Five years later, Wilson wrote in a letter to a Southern black applicant “that it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”. Princeton did not award a single bachelor’s degree to an African American throughout the entirety of Wilson’s presidency, which ended in 1910 (Yaffe).

After his 1912 election, Wilson’s infamous segratory agenda found its heart in the nation’s capital. Before the Wilson administration, federal offices were relatively unsegregated and provided equal employment opportunities to all applicants. The question of race relations was raised only a month after the Wilson administration had come to power. At a cabinet meeting, the Texan Albert Burleson voiced several complaints about working with black people while employed in the Railway Mail Service. He announced that he planned on instituting segregation within the service and he hoped that other departments within the federal government would follow suit (Wolgemuth). Soon enough, discreet changes began to take root in federal offices in D.C., beginning with the Post Office, the Treasury, and finally the Navy. Black workers were downgraded, fired, and sent to dead letter offices . The rest were screened off by use of curtains to separate black and white clerical workers. Public bathrooms and cafeterias were segregated, and certain buildings were even designated as “whites only”. From 1914 onwards, applications for federal jobs mandated a photo of the applicant to be included with the application. This was instituted under the guise of “preventing impersonation”, but its real purpose was evident by white administrators neglecting to hire or appoint most qualified black applicants (Boyd and Chen). As there were no direct executive orders signed by Wilson himself, many attributed these segregationist efforts to his cabinet. However, a series of letters to the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, Oswald Garrison Villard, proved otherwise. Wilson affirmed that he was aware of the segregation present in federal departments while defending the policy, and believed that "with the idea that the friction, or rather the discontent and uneasiness which had prevailed in many of the departments would thereby be removed ” and that "[Black employees were] more safe in their possession of office and less likely to be discriminated against” (Wolgemuth). William Monroe Trotter, Boston Globe editor and former advocate for the Wilson campaign, sought out two meetings with him in 1913 and 1914 in order to directly confront the president about the policy. Trotter attempted to make Wilson aware of the several instances of segregation within the departments and convince him that it was more of a humiliation to the entirety of black americans than it was a way of decreasing racial tensions; but was eventually booted from the White House after Wilson was “offended by his tone” (Lunardini). Wilson’s steadfast dismissiveness of any argument against the policy did not quell any resistance against it. Petitions with over 20,000 signatures were brought to Wilson’s desk, and civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the National Independant Equal Rights league actively fought against the administration (Boyd and Chen).

Three months after Wilson’s meeting with the Trotter delegation, Wilson sponsored a  screening of the unquestionably racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation, based off the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. The movie depicted the Klan as heroic vigilantes, responsible for rescuing the South from the clutches of barbaric and uncivilized black rapists. It also featured several of Wilson’s quotes from the previously mentioned A History of the American People. Aside for the films ideology, the movie was considered a breakthrough in cinematographic techniques for the time, causing it to receive much critical acclaim for that aspect alone. Wilson is commonly quoted as saying “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it’s all so terribly true” after watching the film. The broad consensus among most historians is that Wilson said the movie was “History written with lightning”, but doubt has been cast on the latter part of the quote. It’s also unclear if Wilson was actually aware of the film’s content before watching it. Wilson wrote a letter three years after seeing the film: ”I always felt that this was a very unfortunate production, and I wish most sincerely that its production might be avoided, particularly in communities where there are so many colored people” (Benbow). Even so, this statement came in too little and too late, as the damage had already been done. The president’s praise helped only to further the spread of the film, which subsequently inspired a 1915 resurgence of the Klan (History).

Even with his original pledge on the campaign trail in 1916 to “keep us out of the war”, Wilson announced that America would officially join the conflict on April 6, 1917. The black community was divided on which stance to take, some viewing the war as an opportunity to prove their worth as a race, while others actively resisted the draft, viewing it as hypocritical to what they stood for. The draft openly enlisted black Americans, albeit to a limited extent, and all black troops were placed in segregated regiments. The rest of the draft was assigned to service jobs, due to the widely held belief that African Americans were unfit for the front lines and more suited for manual labor (Williams). While black infantrymen showed exceptional courage in combat, rampant discrimination was still entrenched within the military and at home. On July 2 1917, Riots in East St. Louis between black and white workers killing upwards of 39 residents and de-housing around 6,000. This can be partially attributed to the president’s investigation into racially based voter fraud after many employers undercut white wages by hiring black workers and used them as strikebreakers against white workers (O’Reilly). Even after he was made aware of the riots and was alarmed by the national guard’s inaction, he still waited an entire year to denounce racial mob violence in public (Gerstle). Around the same time, many black soldiers were being court-martialed for false accusations of rape while abroad. This was primarily sparked by a confrontation in Houston, Texas, after black troops were harrassed by the city’s residents to the point of storming the town and killing sixteen white civilians and law enforcement. Minor riots continued throughout the remainder of the war . The war officially ended on November 11, 1918, and black troops entered into a second war at home. The subsequent “bloody summer” that ensued, stemming from rising fears of black bolshevism after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the mass of returning black soldiers caused an estimated 38 individual riots over the summer and late august of 1919; the most devastating of these in locations like D.C. and Chicago. The number of reported lynchings also swelled from 64 in 1918 to 83 in 1919 (Williams).

When presented with the racial atrocities and general political incompetence that took place under the Wilson administration from 1912 to 1921, it’s easy to question the validity of his position as one of America’s most highly regarded presidents. Setting any racial biases aside, Wilson made some major economic and social progress during the 1910s. Economically, Wilson was very effective at laying the final blows to trusts after the Roosevelt presidency through the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 and the establishment of the FTC. The Federal Reserve System, the backbone of America’s banking system today, can be credited to Wilson. Socially, Wilson stood by the passage of the nineteenth amendment, granting women’s suffrage nationally. However, Wilson failed to do one thing under his administration, and that was to “make the world safe for democracy”. That would require ensuring the safety of his own people, and the pursuance of solutions to the strife that occurred between the individual worlds present within his own country. Wilson did not attempt to actively create a divide; but rather, through inaction and outright refusal, created the conditions by which the divide occured.


Works Cited

Asch, Chris Myers. “Woodrow Wilson's Racist Legacy.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Dec. 2015,

Benbow, Mark E. “Birth of a Quotation: Woodrow Wilson and ‘Like Writing History with Lightning.’” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 1 Oct. 2010,

Birth of a Nation Opens.”, A&E Television Networks,

Boaz, David. “Woodrow Wilson's Racism Isn't the Only Reason for Princeton to Shun His Name.” New York Post, New York Post, 4 Dec. 2015,

Boyd, Deanna, and Kendra Chen. “Woodrow Wilson: Federal Segregation.” Woodrow Wilson: Federal Segregation,

Brown, Joshua, et al. “Missed Manners: Wilson Lectures a Black Leader.” HISTORY MATTERS,

Lewis, Femi. “Causes of the Great Migration: Searching for the Promised Land.” ThoughtCo, 14 Aug. 2017,

Littel, McDougal. “Wilson's New Freedom.” The Americans, McDougal Littel, 2006, pp. 332–337.

Lunardini, Christine A. “Standing Firm: William Monroe Trotter's Meetings With Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1914.” The Journal of Negro History, 1 July 1979,

Mixon, Gregory. “Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 23 Sept. 2005,

“Oldest and Boldest.” NAACP,

O'Reilly, Kenneth. “The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson.” no. 17, 1997, pp. 117–121., doi:10.2307/2963252. Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.

Race and Nation in the Thought and Politics of Woodrow Wilson.” Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, by Gary L Gerstle, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008, pp. 112–113.

"Race Riots (U.S.), 1900–1910." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, edited by John Hartwell Moore, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 431-435. U.S. History In Context, Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.

Williams, Chad. “African Americans and World War I.” African Americans and World War I,

Wolgemuth, Kathleen L. “Woodrow Wilson and Federal Segregation.” Vol. 44, no. 2, 1959, pp. 158–173., doi:10.2307/2716036. Accessed 28 Mar. 2018.

“Woodrow Wilson Wikiquotes.” Woodrow Wilson - Wikiquote, Wikipedia,

Yaffe, Deborah. “Wilson, Revisited.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, 3 Feb. 2016,



Submitted: April 05, 2018

© Copyright 2023 Adrian Rebeil. All rights reserved.

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Bert Broomberg

Very interesting read. Your essay showed me some things about Woodrow Wilson, I didn't know. I merely knew him as the level headed American President that had some good ideas about the world after The Great War, such as
the League of Nations. Your essay pointed out a darker side of the man (no pun intended), I can appreciate that bit of extra knowledge.

Fri, April 13th, 2018 3:55pm

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