The renowned Princeton University has now joined a ballooning list of famous organisations in the United States that have announced efforts towards addressing systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
On Saturday, the Ivy League university said its School of Public and International Affairs would drop the name of Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president from 1913 to 1921, who had been its namesake since 1948.
“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today,” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement.
President Trump on Monday tweeted his disapproval, “Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center,” calling the move “incredible stupidity”.
Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center. Now the Do Nothing Democrats want to take off the name John Wayne from an airport. Incredible stupidity!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
Who was Woodrow Wilson?
Born in the American South before the brutal Civil War, Wilson (1856-1924) worked as an academician for several years before entering politics. For eight years, he served as the top administrator at Princeton, transforming the then sleepy university into an avant-garde institution.
In 1911, supported by conservatives in the Democratic party, Wilson got elected as the governor of New Jersey. In two years, he was propelled to the US presidency, and became the first occupant of the White House to have a PhD degree.
As president, Wilson enacted several important pieces of legislation, and the US emerged as a world power after ensuring victory for the Allies in World War I.
At home, the Wilson administration saw the reduction of import duties, started the country’s central bank and a national business oversight body, and strengthened anti-monopoly and labour laws. In Wilson’s second term, the US passed its 19th constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
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Abroad, Wilson played a key role in negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. His famous ‘Fourteen Points’ led to the creation of the League of Nations, which although failed, served as a blueprint for the United Nations after World War II. In 1919, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Why is Woodrow Wilson controversial?
Despite his many achievements both in the US and internationally, Wilson held highly racist views, and his administration is blamed for pushing back against decades of African American progress.
Wilson segregated the country’s civil service, demoting or transferring several black officials who had reached senior positions after working for decades; many having white civil servants reporting to them. When opposed by an African American leader, Wilson replied, “segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you”. The policy had long-lasting effects, and was not reversed by succeeding administrations.
Wilson reflected Southern prejudices against African Americans, and had called the post-Civil War black vote as “ignorant and often hostile”. He had also spoken approvingly of the Ku Klux Klan, and had allowed a White House screening of the viscerally racist 1915 film ‘The Birth of a Nation’. His tenure also saw the lynchings of hundreds of black people, mostly in the South.
The debate at Princeton
In 2015, a group called the Black Justice League staged a 32-hour sit-in at the university, demanding the removal of Wilson’s name from the public policy school and a residential college. Even while he worked at Princeton, Wilson maintained anti-black views, and is known to have discouraged African American students from enrolling. The university only admitted its first black students in the 1940s.
Although Princeton president Eisgruber agreed to consider the move, the university board in 2016 voted to keep the name, but announced “an expanded and more vigorous commitment to diversity and inclusion at Princeton”.
Now, with the national debate on race relations at fever pitch, the university appears to have changed its views. Eisgruber’s Saturday press statement read, “Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school. When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school.
“This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice.”
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