BOOK REVIEW: ‘Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration’ Documents Racism of Woodrow Wilson…Policies That Led to a Multiracial Protest Against Federal Segregation

Note by Reviewer David M. Kinchen: I’m posting this April 2007 Review in advance of my review of Jean Edward Smith’s “Eisenhower in War and Peace”.  I reviewed Professor Smith’s biography of FDR a month after this review was posted  (it’s on this site).


Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it. – Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) to a painter, source of the “Paint me as I am, warts and all” quotation
* * * *

With his 2004 “Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration” (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO, $21.95, 268 pages) out in a brand new paperback edition, author Nicholas Patler provides the general reader with a side of the “sainted” Woodrow Wilson all too often missing from biographies that leave out Wilson’s “warts and all.”

Even before reading a book (“Righteous Conquest: Woodrow Wilson and the Evolution of the New Diplomacy” (Kennikat Press National University Publications, 1972) by the late Sidney Bell, a Concord University professor, I had my doubts about the former president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey.

I deplored Wilson’s abuses of freedom of speech carried out by his notorious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. These “Red Raids” led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union under Roger Baldwin in 1920. Yes, a Democratic President’s civil rights abuses helped spur the creation of the ACLU!

I firmly believe Wilson brought the anti-war U.S. into a war we had no business in, the First World War, and was indirectly responsible for the rise of Nazism and Communism and the horrors of WWII. He ran for re-election in 1916 against Charles Evans Hughes on a “He Kept Us Out of War” platform and violated his promise about a month after his second inauguration.

As the events described by Patler were unfolding in Washington, Wilson’s racism came to the fore again, documents Marshall University professor Jean Edward Smith in his forthcoming biography “FDR” (look for my review in May). Smith notes how Wilson in 1913 rejected a protest by the Japanese government against the racist California law banning Japanese people from owning land in the Golden State by “summarily rejecting” a protest note from the Japanese government.

Smith further describes how Wilson insulted the Japanese in 1919 in Paris when the Japanese delegation – from a nation that had fought on the side of the Allies — tried to amend the preamble to the League of Nations covenant to include a reference to racial equality, “a majority of delegations voted in favor.” Wilson, who was presiding, ruled the amendment out of order.

With Wilson, in large part due to his rigid Scots-Irish Presbyterianism — his father,  the Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister — it was “my way or the highway.”

Wilson’s obduracy at Versailles led to the resignation of diplomat William C. Bullitt, who in the 1960s published a very controversial psycho-biography of Wilson – in collaboration with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Bullitt was the first ambassador to the Soviet Union and, as ambassador to France, helped spirit Freud out of Vienna in 1938.

Patler, a native of Wilson’s hometown of Staunton, VA, focuses his book – subtitled “Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century” – on the broken promises of Wilson and the ensuing protests, which brought together blacks and whites, Jews (the fledgling NAACP at the time was headed by a Jew named Joel Spingarn) and gentiles against the degrading policies of the Wilson administration.

There is clearly a hero in this well-documented, very readable volume: William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), the Boston-born founder and leader of the National Equal Rights League. Patler’s admiration for Trotter – a close-up photo of Trotter adorns the cover of the book — shines through and Patler, who has contributed op-ed pieces to Huntington News Network, told me he is currently writing a screenplay based on the life of Trotter. I can see Don Cheadle or Will Smith in the role of the outspoken rights leader. (As long as I’m casting, how about James Cromwell as Wilson?)

Trotter was a Phi Beta Kappa – the first ever black man to be so honored — magna cum laude graduate of Harvard (class of 1895) at a time when Wilson’s beloved Princeton wouldn’t even accept black students – and didn’t particularly care for Jewish ones, either.

On page 77, Patler writes that Princeton under Wilson’s presidency “was one of the few colleges in the North that did not admit African Americans…When a black seminary student from Lynchburg, VA …wrote Wilson expressing his interest in attending Princeton…Wilson responded ‘it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton’ and he recommended that the student try  “Harvard, Dartmouth, or Brown.’”

At first, I couldn’t understand why blacks in 1912 would desert the party of Lincoln to vote for a man of the South whose racial views were no secret. Patler says part of the reason was the way the Republicans were treating their African American voters – as well as the racist Brownsville, Texas incident of 1906 when black soldiers of the 25th Infantry were falsely accused of rioting and were discharged by President Theodore Roosevelt. Patler notes (Page 23) that “almost exactly one year after the alleged Brownsville riot, only 14 of the 167 soldiers discharged were declared eligible for reinstatement.”

Still, under the Republicans, Trotter tells us, blacks rose to positions of power and prestige strictly through their merit — often outscoring whites in civil service exams. The racists in Wilson’s administration – including his son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo Jr. of Marietta, GA and Knoxville, TN, secretary of the treasury, and yet another Southerner, virulently racist Texan Postmaster General Albert Burleson — quickly reversed the relatively fair treatment of black government workers – once Wilson was elected – with the help of black voters.

Trotter led a group of protesters who sought, and obtained, meetings with Wilson, demanding – in the case of Trotter – that the man who was elected with the help of blacks (1912 was, like 1992, a three-way race with Wilson, “Bull Moose” Teddy Roosevelt and incumbent GOP president William Howard Taft vying for the office).

Never one to mince words, Trotter more than once was rebuked by Wilson for his “tone.”

The protests against Jim Crow in the federal government and the humiliations that ensued for loyal black workers, were the largest since the days of abolition 60 years before and were not to be equaled until the days of the FDR administration in the 1940s, Patler says.

In some respects, the protests were a failure, as Wilson became increasingly embroiled in military adventures in the Western Hemisphere and the ill-advised entry of the U.S. in the European charnel house. The illegal segregation continued and the number of blacks in the government declined and continued to decline at least until the New Deal more than 20 years after the protests of Trotter, Spingarn, Oswald Garrison Villard, Ida Wells-Barnett and many others.

Anyone reading Patler’s book will have no doubt that the “warts and pimples” of Wilson’s character were of boulder-size proportions. I recommend the book without reservation.

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