He was a brilliant scholar. He was the President of Princeton University. He was also Governor of New Jersey. And as President of the United States he saw the country through the First World War, and was a prime mover behind the League of Nations. But now he has become persona non grata at the University he led for 9 years. During Woodrow Wilson’s term as president of Princeton he introduced many academic reforms and raised a lot of money for the institution. He appointed the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty, but at the same time the southern-born Wilson worked to keep blacks out of the university, at a time when they were gaining acceptance (in small numbers) to other Ivy League schools. When he became President he not only refused to end the rampant segregation in the federal public service that saw blacks at separate eating tables, dressing rooms, restrooms, lockers, and “especially public toilets in government buildings,” he defended the practice saying the separation “would prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.”
In announcing the removal of Wilson’s name from a school for public policy and one of its residential colleges Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said in a statement that Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms. Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” Mr. Eisgruber said.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856.] He grew up in a home where slave labour was utilised. Wilson’s earliest memory was of playing in his yard and standing near the front gate of the Augusta parsonage at the age of three, when he heard a passerby announce in disgust that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and that a war was coming. By 1861, both of Wilson’s parents had come to fully identify with the Southern United States and they supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. From 1870 to 1874, Wilson lived in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father was a theology professor.
Wilson attended Princeton, which, despite its location in the North, attracted a number of southern scholars. A number of former Princeton Presidents had been slave owners. He graduated in 1879. He taught at elite schools in the northeast while publishing several scholarly works, and came back to Princeton as a professor in 1890, rising quickly through the ranks until his appointment as president of Princeton in 1902. He served briefly as Governor of New Jersey before running for president and winning handily in 1912.
When the First World War broke out Wilson maintained American neutrality, but in 1917 Germany threatened to wage unrestricted war on all ships, including American vessels in the waters around Britain. After a number of American ships were attacked the United States entered the war and sent a large expeditionary force to France, which tipped the scales in the Allies’ favour.
Wilson traveled to France for the Paris Peace talks. His main goal was the establishment of the League of Nations, and he was successful in getting international agreement. Back home however, he faced strong opposition from the Republicans who controlled congress and Wilson suffered the humiliation of seeing America reject joining the organization he had worked so hard to create. He suffered a stroke in 1919 and was rejected for his party’s nomination in 1920. He died in 1924.