Racism chiseled on our walls — and the fight at Princeton and Yale to erase it
PRINCETON, New Jersey — On campus tours, Princeton University junior Charlesa Redmond takes prospective students to historic, ivy-covered Nassau Hall, where she passes along a bit of college lore about the weathered bronze tigers that flank the entrance. Nicknamed “Woodrow” and “Wilson,” they were a gift to the school from the graduating class of its most cherished alumnus, and, legend has it, if you rub their heads, the admissions gods will smile on your application.
At another stop, Redmond points out the sleek, white Modernist building that’s home to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—“Woody Woo,” as students affectionately call it—another nod to the graduate who eventually led the college, transforming it from little more than a finishing school for sons of the elite to a national research university before going on to become the 28th president of the United States.
There’s more the petite, Atlanta native could say. She could mention lesser-known facts about Wilson: that as Princeton’s president, he told African Americans like herself they need not apply; that as U.S. president, he rolled back many post-emancipation gains of former slaves and their descendants and spread segregation throughout federal agencies.
But in an hour-long tour, when students are typically most interested in what the food is like and how they can get into the Ivy League school, there’s too little time. It’s one of the challenges that Redmond, a history major, says she finds in every public narrative of bygone days.
“If you only have so many minutes, or so many letters you can carve into a statue, what’s the story you’re going to tell?”
That’s the very question the Princeton community is taking up this semester as its board of trustees considers whether to accede to the demands of a black student group and strip Wilson’s name from the acclaimed public-affairs school as well as from a residential college because of his dismal record on race. Should the university continue to recount the story that school officials told in decades past when they memorialized Wilson for his progressive ideals and statesmanship at home and on the world stage? Or, in erasing the name, should Princeton tell the story that resonates loudly today as colleges and other institutions—inspired largely by the Black Lives Matter movement—reexamine honors bestowed upon celebrated figures whose views and actions on race are abhorrent by today’s standards?
The debate at Princeton—sparked by the school’s Black Justice League, which was formed in 2014 in response to the events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri—mirrors protests of racial inequities and insensitivities throughout the nation and beyond. In many cases, these tensions boil down to uncomfortable clashes between the values of yesterday and those of today. And they are playing out against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which some Republican candidates have dismissed a number of race-related grievances as nothing more than political correctness. Still, the protests have ignited fierce debates about the proper standards by which historical figures should be judged, and whether rescinding honors bestowed upon these figures by earlier generations leads to dangerous distortions and omissions of history or valid repudiations of values long since discarded.
“Our symbols represent who we take ourselves to be,” says Princeton religion professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who chairs the Department of African American Studies. “So it means a lot when we embrace them or interrogate them or reject them.”
Protests spring up nationwide
Barely a day goes by without a new dispute, especially on college campuses, related to buildings, landmarks and other symbols of commemoration named for figures now seen as divisive and racist.
At Yale, students have demanded a new name for a residential college whose namesake, John Calhoun, was a leading defender of slavery in the antebellum South. At the University of Texas, statues of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis and of Woodrow Wilson were removed from the main mall in late summer, while students at the University of Missouri have sought a similar fate for a statue of Thomas Jefferson. At the University of Maryland, Byrd Stadium, named in 1950 for a former university president who opposed admitting black students, is soon to become Maryland Stadium.
Georgetown University is renaming two buildings that were named for past school presidents involved in the slave trade in the 1830s. After student complaints, the trustees at Amherst in Massachusetts recently voted to stop using the school’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, because his namesake, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, was said to have proposed giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.
So numerous are these campaigns that a new website, thedemands.org, documents calls for race-related reforms, from diversifying faculty to renaming buildings, at more than 75 U.S. colleges.
College students aren’t the only ones reexamining the landscape. Last summer, the Iowa Democratic Party voted to change the name of its famed Jefferson-Jackson dinner, an annual fundraising affair featuring presidential candidates, because of the slave-owning legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, for whom the dinner is named. More than a half-dozen other state Democratic committees either have changed or are considering changing the names of their “J-J” dinners.
Jackson’s racial attitudes and forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands now overshadow his reputation as founder of the Democratic Party and have provoked calls for his well-coiffed image to be replaced on the $20 bill.
And from Virginia to California, parents, students, and school officials are rethinking public schools named for Confederate leaders and segregationist politicians. School names have become such a thorny issue that, according to a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study, schools are increasingly being named for lakes, creeks, and hills or local flora and fauna rather than for presidents or other historic figures. In Florida, it noted, more public schools are named for manatees than for George Washington.
Judging past behavior by today’s standards
After years of protest, Confederate flags, seen by many as an embrace of the South’s segregationist past and little else, finally came down from a number of public venues last year—but only after broad consensus in the wake of the massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The debate over Wilson at Princeton and the dozens of similar disputes over building names and statues is muddier terrain for historians and for those wrestling with these decisions. For one thing, even Wilson’s own biographers differ on the degree to which his bigotry, reprehensible as it was, was typical of the Virginia native’s times and locale—a common defense of slaveholders like Washington, Jefferson, and others, especially Southerners.
What’s more, Wilson’s record on race, which includes keeping African Americans out of the body politic, re-segregating workplaces throughout the federal government, and allowing a White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, stands next to major accomplishments in other areas. He’s lauded for presiding over one of the greatest periods of progressive reform in U.S. history up to that point and skillfully navigating the nation’s involvement in World War I. By articulating principles for peace—his “Fourteen Points”—and advocating a League of Nations after the war, he pressed for a new internationalism and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
Former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, who now leads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says her institution, a living memorial to the 28th president chartered by Congress, has dealt with the troubling aspects of Wilson’s legacy head-on, including thorough examinations of his views and actions on race. “Our bottom line is we are unflinching about this man,” says Harman. “We don’t sugarcoat or whitewash anything. We consider ourselves not just nonpartisan, but straight-up.”
She declines to weigh in on the events at Princeton but says: “We have a memorial to all kinds of presidents in this town. Most of the human beings I know in this town have mixed records.”
Many historians and scholars believe the push to erase names or images risks minimizing important historical figures or blocking off discussions about their complexities and contradictions.
“The danger is that you reject the fact that Woodrow Wilson was a significant president in the 20th century, and that’s part of our history,” says presidential historian and biographer Robert Dallek. “You take a full account of the history and you certainly don’t ignore the fact that he instituted segregation in Washington, D.C., but you don’t write him out of history because of that.”
Georgetown University law professor David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, called the campaign to rename Calhoun College at Yale and similar efforts a “sideshow.” “John Calhoun was a racist, and students should confront the fact that he is part of Yale’s legacy (as of our nation’s), not have his name erased from public memory,” Cole wrote. “That route has few stopping points.”
In fact, those on both sides of the naming debate acknowledge the problem of a slippery slope since so many of America’s early heroes, from Washington and the other Founding Fathers to emancipator Abraham Lincoln, were slave owners or would be considered racist by today’s standards.
“If you start with Wilson, where do you go?” asks American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman. “How many erasures would you have to do to get rid of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson? Half the place names in America. I think the value is in the debate, not in the erasure.” (The Wilson School at Princeton happens to be on Washington Road.)
Others caution against reducing complex historical figures to a single dimension and considering only current-day concerns.
“The lens we’re using at the moment is that of race to evaluate,” says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. “Race is and was an important issue in American life and shouldn’t be neglected. But it’s not the only issue. Limiting the discussion of history to one subject stacks the deck.”
READ: How Wilson pulled off an ‘exceedingly difficult stunt’ Judging Wilson solely on his record on race, Greenberg says, would be like evaluating Franklin D. Roosevelt only on his internment of Japanese Americans. “All our leaders are flawed, contradictory,” he says. “History is not just about heroes and villains. My feeling is the students now want to replace the hero Wilson with the villain Wilson rather than acknowledge a more nuanced understanding of him.”
Two sides of Wilson: Insidious racism and progressive politics
Princeton history professor David A. Bell says he believes the students have a legitimate gripe. “It’s easy to say we shouldn’t judge figures from the past by the moral standards of today,” says Bell. “But if we have the confidence to say our moral standards are actually an improvement over those of the past and that they are right—which we would hope to be able to say—then why shouldn’t we?”
With so much on the positive side of the Wilson ledger, Bell and others say they favor preserving the honors but adding prominent public displays where Wilson’s full record can be considered, the solution proposed by the student newspaper the Daily Princetonian.
More than 100 Princeton faculty members, fellows and lecturers signed a letter to university officials supporting the student protesters and calling for reforms to address an overall sense of alienation students of color say they feel. But even some of those supporters are not insisting that Wilson’s name be erased.
Says history professor Joshua B. Guild, one of the Black Justice League’s advocates: “Wilson’s name goes up [on the public-policy school] in 1948—that’s a product of a post-war historical moment, and moments change. There are Martin Luther King boulevards all across the country that were something else before. At the same time, I don’t think changing a name is the only way to engage these questions.”
He, too, says the university could, at a minimum, offer a counter narrative to note the injustices of Wilson’s racist policies as well as the pain some feel in seeing him honored.
Glaude, another vocal supporter of the protesters, sees a distinction between the kinds of erasures that amount to whitewashing history—referring to slaves as “workers,” as a McGraw-Hill textbook in Texas did, or redacting the “n-word” from “Huck Finn”—and a rethinking of symbols intended to commemorate the nation’s ideals. “If Wilson represents our best selves, our best angels, for people like me, what are we supposed to say? What are we supposed to do?”
But Glaude, too, refrains from demanding Wilson’s name be removed: “If we decide as a community to take Wilson’s name off the Woodrow Wilson school, I will smile. And if we decide for the right reasons to leave his name up there, then I’ll smile. The point is to confront honestly who we are.”
Martha A. Sandweiss, a Princeton history professor who teaches a seminar on Princeton and slavery, hasn’t taken a side in the name debate but notes that memorials often tell stories, not just about the person being honored but also about those who bestowed the honor. “I completely understand how monuments that honor people who did evil things can be bad. I understand how they can offend people and be destructive to the social fabric,” Sandweiss says. “But I also understand that sometimes seeing those and understanding that our fathers or our grandmothers put that up can be a very powerful historical moment, too.”
Sandweiss says the contradictions of Wilson’s life—insidious racism intertwined with progressive politics—echo throughout American history and throughout Princeton. The school was the site of a Revolutionary War victory and, in 1783, a convening of the Continental Congress. But missing from narratives of that proud legacy, she says, is the fact that the first eight university presidents held slaves, that slaves lived and worked on campus, and that African Americans didn’t graduate from the university until 1947, more than 200 years after it was founded as the College of New Jersey. (The first women graduated 23 years after that, in 1970).
“The paradox of American history is all over the Princeton campus,” Sandweiss says. “I see the Wilson issue as the big question writ small.”
The college’s fifth president, Samuel Finley, planted sycamore trees on campus in 1766 to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, she notes. When he died months later, his six slaves were auctioned off in the shade of those trees that still stand, gray-barked and grand, casting long shadows just inside the university’s wrought-iron gates.
Wilson’s ubiquitous presence at Princeton ‘feels like a haunting’
Princeton students say they encounter Wilson’s legacy at every turn, starting with Freshman Week when members of the school’s musical comedy troupe, the Triangle Club, dressed in three-piece suits and glasses, often perform a song mocking the school’s veneration of its former leader.
For Ozioma Obi-Onuoha, a senior studying politics and a Black Justice League member, the Wilson presence “feels like a haunting, like there are people the university still holds to this God-like standard who really did not want me here, did not want me walking these halls.”
“Of the 80,000 alumni that Princeton has, they can’t find someone else who was not a racist and who also did something great for the university?” asks Princeton junior Asanni York, another BJL member, who is majoring in public policy at the Wilson school. “I’m sure they can.”
BJL students, who staged a sit-in at the president’s office last November to call for the removal of Wilson’s name and two other changes related to diversity and inclusion, say they simply want the university to confront the question of whom it chooses to venerate, not to rewrite or erase history.
“Wilson’s legacy will stand,” says Trust Kupupika, a junior studying anthropology. “Woodrow Wilson, similar to Jefferson, Washington…they all have a legacy that extends far beyond simply having their name on a building. We as a private institution have to choose who we want to honor and respect.” Destiny Crockett, a junior and English major, says she’s heard of lot of people make the case that, ” ‘Yes, Wilson, did some racist things, but …’ There needs to be a message sent that there is no ‘but’ when there’s that level of hatred toward people who are now members of the Princeton community.”
Outside the BJL, the Princeton student body seems divided, with many sympathetic to the protesters but reluctant to do away with the Wilson association.
“I’m not a black student. I’m a Hispanic student—Wilson wouldn’t have been very fond of me, either—but I don’t have a problem with his name staying around,” says Theodore Tamayo, a freshman history major, wearing a sweatshirt with “Wilson College” emblazoned on the back. “A lot of people have a lot of pride in him, and I respect that.”
Tamayo says he and others were “rudely awakened,” even disillusioned, by the disturbing facts about Wilson that their classmates brought to light. And he applauds the group for educating fellow students.
The BJL began its crusade last semester with a poster campaign of Wilson’s racist quotes in which he called segregation “not a humiliation but a benefit,” extolled the existence of “a great Ku Klux Klan . . . to protect the Southern country,” and assumed “no negro” would ever apply for admission to Princeton, given the school’s “temper and tradition,” among others.
“I thought, ‘What is this?’ ” says chemical engineering graduate student Andrew Santos. “I almost didn’t believe it. I thought maybe there was another Woodrow Wilson.”
Studying with buddies in the campus center last month, Santos alone among his small group thought renaming the Wilson School and Wilson College was a good idea. “If you’re coming here and seeing all these positive things about a person who thought you were less equal, it might make you feel less worthy.”
One of the strongest voices for change has come from Gordon J. Davis, who wrote in the New York Times last November about his grandfather, a self-made black man who’d risen to a midlevel management position in the federal government only to be demoted—eventually reduced to a messenger—right after Wilson’s inauguration as president. Wilson, Davis wrote, “ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”
Chris Myers Asch, editor of Washington History, a scholarly journal, says Wilson’s racist policies did extensive damage, especially in Washington, where public-sector jobs had led to a thriving black middle class. Wilson’s actions, including expanding Jim Crow laws in the capital, “choked off one of the few avenues for economic advancement and was tremendously demoralizing,” says Asch, who has argued that the District of Columbia should rename his alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School.
Kupupika says the BJL focused on Wilson in part because of the long-term effects of his policies. “It’s not just one person losing a job and then history moves on,” she says. “That one person didn’t have access to wealth to pass down, and the next generation grows up in poverty. It’s something that is forever going to be impacting the lives of black people even alive and present, here and now.”
The New York Times cited the lasting impact of Wilson’s racist policies in calling for Princeton to rescind the honors it bestowed upon the president decades ago.
Finding the right balance
The history of regime change in other countries has made the scrubbing of names and symbols a common occurrence. When democracy was restored in Spain in 1978, statues of dictator Francisco Franco were brought down and streets renamed. After the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, his image and name—along with his wife’s—were removed from all public places, including more than 500 schools named for them. Leningrad, of course, has been renamed again and again.
Historians draw parallels to ancient Rome, when the government would banish any trace of disgraced rulers, chiseling their faces off statues or erasing them from portraits, so they would be completely forgotten. This punishment of damnatio memoriae, Latin for “condemnation of memory,” was considered a fate worse than death.
U.S. politicians would likely concur. But with relative political stability in America, and no wholesale regime change, erasures of major political figures have been less common—and often temporary.
A portrait of Spiro Agnew was taken down from the Maryland State House some years after the former Maryland governor pleaded no-contest to federal income-tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency in disgrace. But 15 years later, in 1995, then-Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening restored the portrait, saying he believed it was “not up to any one of us to alter history.” He said: “This is not the Orwellian future where history can just vanish or change. This is not Stalinist Russia where people become non-persons. . . . We learn from history—warts and all.”
A portrait of Richard M. Nixon that hung at the Duke University School of Law met a similar fate, being smuggled off the wall by students after the Watergate scandal forced the 1937 law-school alumnus to resign the U.S. presidency—but restored decades later.
While significant players are rarely banished completely from history books, some may fade, as perspectives and priorities change, Dallek says. These days, presidents and other official leaders are less a focus of historical writing than are social movements, ethnic groups, even ordinary citizens. “That doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater and stop writing about American presidents because they’re dead white males,” he says. “But a different balance comes into play.”
Changing priorities have also led to continual re-evaluations of presidential legacies—as the 15,000-plus books about Lincoln would suggest. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt extolled Jefferson as the hero of the Democratic Party and broke ground for his memorial. But with the spotlight in recent times turned to Jefferson’s slave ownership, especially his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, memorials to the third president are more likely to be coming down than going up, as is the case with Jackson.
On the flip side are presidents whose legacies have brightened as priorities have changed. Today’s post-Iraq/Afghanistan isolationist mood may account for a kinder assessment of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former general who kept the nation out of major wars.
And while only a smattering of institutions are named for Lyndon B. Johnson—most of them in Texas—his legacy has improved with greater distance from the Vietnam War and increased focus on his domestic achievements, including the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
Roosevelt’s legacy has long been fraught with controversy, especially his response to the Holocaust, and is still a work in progress. “The hardest thing I had to do as a historian on the topic of FDR and the Jews was not to rewrite history based on what we know and believe today,” says American University’s Lichtman, co-author of “FDR and the Jews.” “That doesn’t mean you can’t judge and evaluate historical figures. But you’ve got to be careful.”
Princeton’s Bell, who teaches European history, says the United States has been idiosyncratic in its uncritical veneration of the Founding Fathers and other figures, usually in the name of fostering patriotism and national cohesion. He notes that other countries have found ways to distinguish between recognizing contributions of historic figures and honoring them.
The reluctance in the United States to criticize canonical figures or events has shown up in political battles over textbooks, exams, and curricula, even museum shows. Fierce opposition by veterans groups and a Republican-led congressional coalition to the Smithsonian’s planned exhibition on the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, resulted in the shelving of the exhibit and the ousting of the director of the National Air and Space Museum in the mid-1990s.
More recently, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz waded into the Princeton debate, calling the students at his alma mater “pampered teenagers” engaged in a “bizarre process of erasing history because it offends our ears.” Other conservatives have blasted as “political correctness run amok” efforts to illuminate the darker sides of the nation’s heroes. At the other end of the spectrum are activist historians like the late Howard Zinn whose famous book, “A People’s History of the United States,” casts a critical eye on key leaders from America’s past.
‘We can hold two opposing ideas in our mind and not explode’
A 10-person committee of Princeton board members, including Wilson biographer and Princeton alumnus A. Scott Berg, is meeting with the Princeton community council today, holding a public forum on Friday, and spending the next few weeks in small-group discussions with students, faculty and alumni before deciding Wilson’s fate.
Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber has already agreed to take down a mural of Wilson in a dining hall and, in a letter to the university community, wrote that Wilson’s disturbing record on race makes it appropriate to reexamine how Princeton recognizes him.
His counterpart at Harvard, President Drew G. Faust, has pushed back against such reexaminations, saying that such name changes make it “too easy to feel innocent” about disturbing chapters of the past instead of learning from them. “Someone 200 years from now is going to wonder something about us—why we’re eating meat, why we’re doing things that we’re doing,” Faust told the Harvard Crimson. “And we have to be self-critical enough not to just assume that we’re so much better than people who had to make decisions under different circumstances and in different times.”
Princeton alumni, for their part, have flooded their website with comments of all kinds, many in the vein of, “Have we all lost our minds?” from a 2001 alumna in Boston.
Still, a number of those supporting the protesters are already claiming victory.
“Regardless of what the university and board of trustees decide to do, the students have shifted the culture and the conversation,” says history professor Guild. “That, to me, is the great takeaway, the great victory.”
Wilson will remain a key part of the institution, whatever the outcome, says African American Studies chair Glaude. “President Wilson was important to what Princeton was. We will determine what Princeton will be,” says Glaude, “and that will involve a reckoning with the past.”
Charlesa Redmond joined the sit-in at Nassau Hall last semester and thinks it’s important for Princeton to start telling the Wilson story in its entirety. For her part, she says, she’d prefer to keep Wilson’s name where it is and add displays that present the good and the bad. “The cool thing about this university is that we can live in contradictions,” she says. “We can hold two opposing ideas in our mind and not explode.”
If she leads campus tours again this summer, there may be more to say about Wilson as she walks her groups toward the public-policy school. Either way, she feels she can offer a counterpoint to the laudatory portrait of the iconic figure that, until recently, has been as much a part of the Princeton campus as its Gothic stone buildings.
“It’s almost even more powerful to serve as a testimony—like a living testimony,” says Redmond. “Even though Wilson himself might not have wanted me to be at the university, I still am.”