Accuracy in Media

Few presidents are as revered as Woodrow Wilson in academia. He was, after all, the last academic elected to America’s highest office.

Beyond that, much ink is spilled and many lectures devoted to
his policies which many professors are enamored of, chiefly the
progressive income tax at home and the League of Nations abroad. As
Black History month draws to a close, we should highlight a Wilsonian
trend in policy that is relevant to both his national and international

“I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in
several of the departments,” President Wilson wrote in his first year
in office. “I think if you were here on the ground you would see, as I
seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored
people themselves that they should be organized, so far as possible and
convenient, in district bureaus where they will center their work.”

Economist Bruce Bartlett unearthed the Wilson missive in his new book Wrong On Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past.
“It is true that the segregation of the colored employees in the
several departments was begun upon the initiative and at the suggestion
of several of the heads of the departments, but as much in the interest
of the Negroes as for any other reason, with the approval of some of
the most influential Negroes I know, and with the idea that the
friction, or rather the discontent and uneasiness, which had prevailed
in many of the departments would thereby be removed,” President Wilson
wrote in another letter that same year. “It is as far as possible from
being a movement against the negroes.”

As Bartlett shows, the
NAACP heartily disagreed. “It realizes that this new and radical
departure has been recommended, and is now being defended, on the
ground that by giving certain bureaus or sections wholly to colored
employees they are thereby rendered safer in possession of their
offices and are less likely to be discriminated against,” read a letter
from the NAACP board. “We believe this reasoning to be fallacious.”

“It is based on a failure to appreciate the deeper significance of the
new policy; to understand how far reaching the effects of such a
drawing of caste lines by the Federal Government may be, and how
humiliating it is to the men thus stigmatized.”

Similarly, when U. S. forces entered the “war to end all wars,”
President Wilson may have wanted to “make the world safe for democracy”
but as commander-in-chief he did so with a segregated military. “World
War I brought no improvement in Wilson’s policy towards blacks,”
Bartlett writes. “They were put in segregated military units, mostly
relegated to support positions, and kept out of combat.”

“One reason was a fear of giving them training with guns, which they
might use to defend themselves from racist attacks once the war was
over.” The war won, Wilson’s attitude did not change.

“At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson fought measures that
might aid black equality,” Bartlett writes. “The Japanese delegates to
the conference, for example, were very keen on adding a racial equality
clause to the peace treaty, which had strong support among

“But Wilson was warned by his close adviser Colonel Edward House that
acceptance of the clause ‘would surely raise the race issue around the
world.'” Although most Wilson aficionados sadly acknowledge this part
of his persona, albeit with comparative brevity, they dismiss these
policies and practices usually by pointing out that Wilson was “a
southerner” and “a man of his time.” This explanation falls short when
you compare him with another southerner stuck in a time warp-Robert E.

Wilson wrote that “domestic slaves were dealt with indulgently and even
affectionately by their masters” in 1893, nearly three decades after
the Civil War ended. By way of contrast, Lee called slavery “a moral
and political evil” in 1856, before the War Between the States began.

Also, Wilson as president of the United States refused to speak out against lynching, as Bartlett relates. In comparison, Lee,
in elderly retirement, would physically interpose himself between
whites and blacks when the former meant to do the latter harm,
preventing them from so doing, according to historians who have
chronicled the general’s career.

Yet academic historians
consistently put Wilson in the top 10 or 20 of American presidents
while the old confederate is considered too politically incorrect to
mention. The university fathers at the institution of higher learning
that bears his name even floated the idea of taking the general out of
the Washington and Lee logo.

The ultimate irony is that Wilson’s attitudes on race, which academics
abhor, mesh nicely with the “progressivism” they champion and clash
with the conservatism and libertarian impulses they eschew. After all,
slavery and segregation are the ultimate form of government regulation.