Scholars Discuss Wilson’s Complex Legacy, As University Strives for Greater Inclusion
DEMOCRACY DEMANDS DIALOGUE: Scholars discuss Woodrow Wilson’s legacy in a forum at Princeton University’s Wilson School of Public and International Affairs last Friday — (L to R) Chad Williams, associate professor and chair of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis; Eric Yellin, associate professor of history and American studies at University of Richmond; Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, history PhD candidate at Rutgers; and A. Scott Berg, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.
By Donald Gilpin
A panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs last Friday brought together four distinguished scholars to “provide an educational and panoramic view of the many aspects of Woodrow Wilson’s life and career.” Earlier in the week a trustee committee, charged with examining the Wilson legacy, had announced that Wilson’s name would not be removed from the Wilson residence college or the School of Public and International Affairs, despite a recent outcry over Wilson’s views and actions on race. The Board did, however, call for “an expanded and more vigorous commitment to diversity and inclusion at Princeton,” in pursuing several specific initiatives.
Last Friday’s panel included Chad Williams, 2004 Princeton alumnus and associate professor and chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis; Eric Yellin, 2007 Princeton alumnus, and associate professor of history and American studies at University of Richmond; Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, history PhD candidate at Rutgers; and A. Scott Berg, 1971 Princeton graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.
Describing his undergraduate experience “at Princeton but not being of Princeton,” Mr. Williams welcomed the candid discussion of Woodrow Wilson, but called for “a bigger conversation on how we think about history and how we think about the place of black people in this history.”
Mr. Williams, author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era, emphasized the importance and the difficulty of dealing with Wilson’s mixed legacy. “How we reckon with Wilson, with the history of that period, with the legacy of racial violence — and that history is still with us today,” he said.
Focusing on Wilson’s impact on African Americans in government during his presidency, Mr. Yellin described Wilson as worse than an “ordinary racist” of his time. Wilson’s policies, according to Mr. Yellin, author of Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America, “declared war on the nation’s most prominent middle class community of African Americans” and, although Wilson claimed to be a progressive, he “wrote black people out of the progressive vision.”
Ms. Lawrence-Sanders described Woodrow Wilson’s view of African Americans as “paternalistic” and “racist.” He ”saw African-Americans,” she stated, “as unprepared for freedom, and not as full citizens.” She emphasized the importance of “the long tradition of protest for African Americans in understanding Wilson’s legacy.”
Referring to the Princeton controversy over the honoring of Wilson’s name, she asserted, “It’s not just about the name. It’s about individual African American students. Not just about taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina. It’s about what’s next.”
Author of a 2013 biography of Wilson, Mr. Berg claimed that the current controversy has given rise to many misconceptions about Wilson. “I’ve been alarmed to hear a lot of misinformation,” he said. “He was a racist,” Mr. Berg acknowledged, but not an anti-semite or a misogynist or anti-catholic. “I don’t think he was a hater or a bigot. He did not support the KKK.’” Mr. Berg described Wilson as a centrist for his time.
Mr. Berg, who is a Princeton trustee and a member of the Wilson Legacy Committee, pointed out the different nature of the United States 100 years ago and emphasized, “I’m not trying to justify him. I’m trying to contextualize him.”
Last week the trustees committee recommended and the board approved new initiatives in four areas: to establish a new pipeline program to encourage more students from under-represented groups to pursue doctoral degrees; to create a more multi-faceted understanding and representation of Wilson on campus and to focus attention on aspects of Princeton’s history that have been neglected; to diversify campus art and iconography to reflect the diversity and inclusivity of today’s Princeton; and to change Princeton’s motto from Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”