Scholars weigh in on Woodrow Wilson, Princeton and racism

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The Princeton University committee that is studying the legacy of alumnus Woodrow Wilson as it relates to race asked nine scholars to submit essays on the topic. Here are excerpts from four, taken as written on the website.


ERIC YELLIN, professor of history and American studies, University of Richmond

"From tariff reform to the income tax to the creation of the Federal Reserve to meaningful antitrust reform, Woodrow Wilson's achievements make him one of the United States's most successful progressive politicians. Add in his leadership in the allied victory in World War I, and Wilson rises in the estimation of many to a level of historic greatness. And yet, as I hope has become apparent, Wilson also played a leading role in one of the defining injustices of American life: the systematic denial of rights and dignity to African Americans."


PAULA GIDDINGS, professor Afro-American studies, Smith College

"For many, the legacy of Woodrow Wilson has two, apparently contradictory parts. On the one hand, he was a great progressive and reformer as a transformative college president, a corruption-busting governor, an international visionary, and particularly as a determined President whose "New Freedom" reforms were some of the most important in the 20th century. On the other hand, he sanctioned segregation at the highest levels of government. That one was the corollary, not the antithesis, of the other means that they cannot be viewed separately but must be weighed as a single and ultimately ruinous heritage."


KENDRICK CLEMENTS, emeritus professor of history, University of South Carolina

"Like most colleges and universities that have been in existence for a long time, Princeton's history includes people and events that make many of us uncomfortable. Educational institutions are, after all, part of the fabric of American society. Since we cannot eradicate the past, the question is what use we should make of it. Woodrow Wilson exemplified aspects of the racism that has permeated American history, but he also proposed that students and faculty confront all of the nation's problems in their classrooms and seek solutions for them."


JOHN COOPER JR., emeritus professor of American Institutions, University of Wisconsin

"The best way to judge Wilson on matters of race is not to keep score between good and bad deeds but to recognize him and judge him for what he really was. Many have made snap judgments based on his birth in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War and his upbringing in Georgia and South Carolina during the war and Reconstruction to write him off as a typical white man of those places and times. Such a characterization is wrong."



Essays submitted to Princeton's Wilson Legacy Review Committee: .