The presidency of Woodrow Wilson deepened the struggle of African Americans in the age of Jim Crow. The rights that black Americans earned during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era had been under attack since the mid-1870s, and white supremacy began to find its way into southern state constitutions and federal law in the 1890s. By the time Wilson was inaugurated as the nation’s twenty-eighth president in March 1913, much of the structure of de jure Jim Crow was in place across the South. Yet Wilson was the first Democrat to inhabit the White House since Grover Cleveland left in 1897, and he was the first southern-born president since the Civil War. Wilson entered the White House carrying decades of patronage debts for the Democratic Party and the white South. His disregard for black rights was apparent earlier in his life, such as in his academic publications and in his actions to keep Princeton University white during his tenure there. His presidential administration nationalized the Jim Crow regime by threading discrimination and segregation into the federal bureaucracy and the nation’s capital. When making presidential appointments, Wilson did not fight to overcome his party’s objections to appointing African Americans, even in minor positions long held by black politicians in previous administrations. Instead, black administrators disappeared from Washington, DC, ending not just their federal jobs but a national network of black politicians and civil servants. Wilson’s white appointees leaned southern, and they quickly ensured that government policies and federal jobs would no longer protect or support black Americans. Wilson did little of the “dirty work” personally, but he approved of the actions of his administrators. When pressed to defend the growing segregation and limitation of black federal workers, Wilson deployed progressive reform arguments, declaring that “good government” required white leadership and the separation of white and black public workers. During World War I, the Wilson administration ensured that black soldiers were segregated into separate units and were generally denied critical roles in the war. Black soldiers showed great valor, nonetheless, but they returned home to violence, discrimination, and no federal protections. Dozens of race riots across the country in 1919, including in the nation’s capital, underscored that prospects for black Americans had indeed worsened under the Wilson Administration.
The Wilson Administration’s relationship with African Americans reflected broader trends in American political, cultural, and social history. As Lears 2009, McGerr 2003, and Painter 1987 show, the nation’s politics were awash with visions of renewal and reform. For Lears, that need for “rebirth” grew out of the white tragic view of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era (rather than the emancipatory view held by black Americans) and the excesses and harms of emergent industrial capitalism. McGerr details the various reform causes embraced by the insurgent progressives, including racial segregation as a means to establishing racial and social order. For Painter, the class, racial, and gender issues attendant to rapid industrialization and urbanization came to a head in this era, pressing the nation’s leaders to act against what many saw as a coming apocalypse of American civilization. Gerstle tracks the racial categories that supplied ways of understanding and talking about the fast-changing American “nation” in an era of black migration and European immigration. Those racial categories, articulated by leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson, bound the nation around a white identity that “melted” white ethnics, separated out African Americans, and gave the United States a mission in world affairs. Link 1947, Logan 1997, and Yellin 2013 track these political winds directly into the Wilson administration. For Link’s landmark study of Wilson’s campaign and domestic affairs, they become apparent in Wilson’s “New Freedom” campaign to bring democratic, progressive reform to national politics. The New Freedom was indeed progressive, ushering in powerful changes from currency reform to new labor laws. While Link acknowledges that most of Wilson’s reforms were for “whites only,” Yellin provides the first comprehensive accounting of the impact of Wilson’s politics on African Americans in his government and around the nation.
Gerstle, Gary. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
A synoptic look at the relationship between racial thinking and citizenship across the 20th-century United States, particularly in questions of immigration and nationalism. Organized around a theme of the rise and fall of Theodore Roosevelt’s understanding of American civic nationalism, the book provides a useful analysis of Woodrow Wilson’s views on race.
Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920. New York: Harper, 2009.
A well-written synthesis of the politics and culture of the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Locates the origins of progressives’ hopes and plans for a better world in their view of the Civil War as a cataclysm requring a spiritual “rebirth.” Empire, segregation, moralism, and capitalism were woven together in a new vision of the regenerated nation.
Link, Arthur S. Wilson: The New Freedom. Vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Now superceded by more recent biographers of Wilson. Link was the first “dean” of Wilson scholars. His study of the 1912 campaign and Wilson’s presidency still provides guideposts for scholars. Link acknowleged Wilson’s racism but did not incorporate it into his full vision of the man or his administration.
Logan, Rayford W. The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. Boston: Da Capo, 1997.
Originally published in 1954 and expanded in 1965, this is the classic text on the federal government’s involvement in the rise of Jim Crow. A rich if now superseded source on the racism of the Wilson administration.
McGerr, Michael E. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.
A synthesis of progressive politics at the turn of the 20th century. One of the best analyses of the relationship between progressive reform and racial segregation.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: United States, 1877–1919. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.
The best book on the relationship between progressive politics and class and racial politics. Centers the labor movement in the era’s political movements and in the experiences of immigrants, African Americans, and women.
Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Employees and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Details the Wilson administration’s practices and policies regarding African Americans.
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