Student protests at Princeton University have raised questions about why that school continues to honor Woodrow Wilson, our deeply racist 28th president. But if there is anywhere that Wilson’s legacy should be challenged, it is in the District. The people here bore the brunt of his racism.
While Wilson has a complicated legacy that includes genuine accomplishments, his record in the District is unambiguously negative. In a diverse area with a rich black history, we should not have the name of an unabashed white supremacist atop one of the District’s few public high schools.
When Wilson arrived in 1913, he found that the District offered black people more opportunities than anywhere else in the South. It may not have been “the colored man’s paradise,” as some contemporaries claimed, but the District had the nation’s largest black community — about 95,000 people, nearly 30 percent of the city’s population — and boasted a rich array of black-run schools, businesses, churches, newspapers and civic organizations. Schools were segregated, but many public institutions were not. Black people of all classes could freely read in the majestic Carnegie public library, ride the city’s streetcars, dine in federal cafeterias and stroll along the Mall without restriction. Black Washingtonians even could challenge white authorities in court and win.
The federal government played a key role in the development of the District’s black community. With steady work and decent pay, federal agencies gave black men and women a chance to buy homes and provide a stable life for their families. By the turn of the 20th century, 10 percent of the federal workforce was black (though many black workers toiled in low-level jobs). Federal jobs, appointed or merit-based, sustained the city’s black middle and upper classes.
Wilson and his Southern allies in Congress sought to roll back many of those hard-won gains and impose more segregation in the District. Soon after his inauguration, Wilson replaced all but two of his predecessor’s black appointees with white men, and his administrative appointees isolated black workers in “Negro corners,” forced them to use “colored” toilets and even erected a few “Whites Only” signs in federal buildings.
Emboldened Southern Democrats in Congress attacked the District’s integrated folkways, introducing bills to segregate streetcars and prohibit interracial marriage. Sen. Francis Newlands (D-Nev.), the founder of Chevy Chase, proposed sending all black people out of the United States, perhaps back to Africa. The persistent attacks undermined black morale in the city. “I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time,” Booker T. Washington wrote in August 1913.
But black Washingtonians did not simply accept the new restrictions. They fought back, uniting behind the leadership of Archibald Grimké, head of the D.C. branch of the NAACP and a founding member of the national organization. Grimké is one of D.C.’s extraordinary figures. Born a slave in 1849, he was the nephew of Angelina and Sarah Grimké, perhaps the most prominent Southern abolitionists in the antebellum era. He graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a lawyer, an author and U.S. consul to Santo Domingo before moving to the District. With snow-white hair and a trim, matching mustache, Grimké was among D.C.’s most recognizable and effective leaders, black or white, in the 1910s.
Grimké seized the issue of segregation within the federal government as an opportunity to build a national, interracial movement for racial equality akin to the abolitionist movement. He coordinated a series of protests and mass meetings, including one October 1913 rally that attracted a crowd of nearly 10,000 to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church just a few blocks from Wilson’s White House. Highlighting Wilson’s campaign slogan of “New Freedom,” Grimké called the president’s racial policies an attempt “to insult, to humiliate, to degrade, and to reduce [black people] to a new slavery.”
The NAACP’s efforts helped prevent passage of many anti-black measures in Congress, but they failed to stop the spread of segregation within the federal government.
Throughout Wilson’s two terms in office, white administrators refused to hire or appoint qualified black applicants, wrote negative personnel reports on black employees and denied promotions to longtime workers. These efforts had a crippling effect on the community, narrowing one of the few avenues for economic advancement and job security available to educated black people.
Given Wilson’s concerted attack on the District’s black community, the city should take steps to change the name of Wilson High. Doing so would not erase history; rather, it would acknowledge and respect a fuller, richer local history. Instead of honoring an aggressive white supremacist, we should embrace his nemesis, a man who articulated a sharply different vision of a democratic, egalitarian city that all of us can appreciate. Let’s call it Archibald Grimké High School.
The writer, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, is editor of Washington History.