Racism an Election Issue 100 Years Ago
As Woodrow Wilson prepared to launch his 1916 reelection campaign from the Shadow Lawn estate on the Jersey Shore, he planned to ask the American public to trust him as he ran on the campaign promise “he kept us out of war.” But there was one group who had supported him four years earlier and now felt his pledges were worthless. Although he had been the governor of New Jersey, Wilson was a Southern Democrat born in Virginia, and this fact made many African-Americans nervous.
One of the most prominent was William Trotter, the editor and publisher of the Boston Guardian, who later recalled, “Our delegation went to Sea Girt in 1912 to inspect the candidate of the Democratic party. We went with fear and misgiving, because the candidate was of southern birth, but our reception was cordial. A crowd of Non-Afro-Americans were left outside, while we were ushered in and shown to seats. The candidate held my hand in his while he told me what he would do.”
And what had Wilson said to Trotter?
“That if elected he intended to be a President of the whole nation – to know no white or black, no North, South, East or West.”
Wilson won the presidency in 1912 in a three-way race with a minority of the votes. In December, W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP wrote an open letter in that organization’s paper, The Crisis.
“It is a source of deep gratification to The Crisis that William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt have been defeated in their candidacy for the presidency of this nation. … We are gratified that at least 100,000 black votes went to swell the 6,000,000 that called Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. We do not as Negroes conceal or attempt to conceal the risk involved in this action. … (O)ver his own signature he has expressed:
“1. His ‘earnest wish to see justice done them (the colored people) in every matter; and not mere grudging justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good.’
“2. Their right ‘to be encouraged in every possible and proper way.’
“3. I want to assure them that should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing, for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United States.”
Shortly after Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913, at a cabinet meeting, he approved of a new federal program that would segregate government offices by race. An editorial in the Birmingham News explained.
“During the early days of this administration, Mrs. Wilson was reported to have observed with her own eyes some of the hardships of white women in having to work beside Negro men. Naturally, with her refined breeding (and) Southern rearing, she perceived the dangers of that situation. It had grown more and more aggravated during various Republican administrations, when that Party’s leadership was so abject in its submission to Negro dictation arising out of political conditions in the East and West.”
That same month Du Bois reminded Wilson, “We want to be treated as men. We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on street cars and railroads. We want the right to earn a living, to own our own property and to spend our income unhindered and uncursed … in the name ... of that common country for which your fathers and ours have bled and toiled, be not untrue, President Wilson, to the highest ideals of American Democracy.”
When the NAACP protested Wilson’s actions, he replied in a letter on July 23 saying, “It is true that the segregation of the colored employees in the several departments was begun upon the initiative and at the suggestion of several of the heads of departments, but as much in the interest of the negroes as for any other reason, with the approval of some of the most influential negroes I know, and with the idea that the friction, or rather the discontent and uneasiness, which had prevailed in many of the departments would thereby be removed. It is as far as possible from being a movement against the negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest. And what distresses me about your letter is to find that you look at it in so different a light.
“I am sorry that those who interest themselves most in the welfare of the negroes should misjudge this action on the part of the departments, for they are seriously misjudging it. My own feeling is, by putting certain bureaus and sections of the service in the charge of negroes we are rendering them more safe in their possession of office and less likely to be discriminated against.”
A week later Wilson wrote to author and supporter Thomas Dixon.
“I do not think you know what is going on down here. We are handling the force of colored people who are now in the departments in just the way in which they ought to be handled. We are trying – and by degrees succeeding – a plan of concentration which will put them together and will not in any one bureau mix the two races.”
When the NAACP asked for a commission to investigate the new segregation policy in the federal government, he replied on Aug. 21, “It would be hard to make any one understand the delicacy and difficulty of the situation I find existing here with regard to the colored people. You know my own disposition in the matter, I am sure, but I find myself absolutely blocked by the sentiment of Senators; not alone Senators from the South, by any means, but Senators from various parts of the country. I want to handle the matter with the greatest possible patience and tact, and am not without hope that I may succeed in certain directions. But just because the situation is extremely delicate and because I know the feeling of irritation that comes with every effort at systematic inquiry into conditions – because of the feeling that there is some sort of indictment involved in the very inquiry itself …”
On Sept. 8, Wilson wrote to H.A. Bridgeman, the editor of the Congregationalist.
“I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments. I have not always approved of the way in which the thing was done and have tried to change that in some instances for the better, but I think if you were here on the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves that they should be organized, so far as possible and convenient, in distinct bureaus where they will center their work. Some of the most thoughtful colored men I have conversed with have themselves approved of this policy. I certainly would not myself have approved of it if I had not thought it to their advantage and likely to remove many of the difficulties which have surrounded the appointment and advancement of colored men and women.”
Meanwhile, Trotter had launched a petition campaign to protest federal segregation. Signed pledges of support from 20,000 people in a majority of the states were returned to Trotter, who, with petitions in hand, asked for an audience with the president. Author Christopher Booker wrote of the meeting for the African-Americans and the Presidency website blacksandpresidency.com.
“In November 1913, African Americans finally received their opportunity to personally confront President Woodrow Wilson over his policies toward their interests. Trotter presented a lengthy statement to Wilson hammering away at the injustice and inequality of segregation. Trotter told the president the reason for segregation ‘can only be that the segregated are considered unclean, diseased or indecent as to their persons, or inferior beings of a lower order, or that other employees have a class prejudice which is to be catered to or indulged.’ No other of the nation’s ‘racial elements’ are segregated in this manner. Trotter declared, ‘If separate toilets are provided for Latin, Teutonic, Celtic, Slavic, Semitic, and Celtic Americans, then and only then would African Americans be assigned to separation without insult and indignity.’ Trotter continued to say that segregation damages black opportunity for promotion.
“President Wilson claimed that he had been misrepresented and that no one in his Cabinet displayed any of these attitudes. Wilson denied that ‘the spirit of discrimination has been shown in any essential matter; certainly not in the matter of promotions. There is not a single instance of that sort, and there will not be.’ The president contended that the segregation order shown to him by the delegation was the first such ‘order of segregation’ that he had seen. He assured the delegation that ‘there is no policy on the part of the Administration looking to segregation.’”
According to Trotter, they were “protesting against the segregation of employees of the National Government whose ancestry could be traced in whole or in part to Africa, as instituted under your administration. We then appealed to you to undo this race segregation in accord with your duty as President and with your pre-election pledges to colored American voters. We stated that such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, and entirely unmerited and far-reaching in its injurious effects, a gratuitous blow against every loyal citizen and against those, many of whom have aided and supported your elevation to the Presidency of our common country.”
Wilson agreed to look into the matter, and Trotter returned to Boston and waited for Wilson to act. After a year of no action, Trotter again visited the White House, and this time he wasn’t looking for justice, but a fight!
Next Week: Who do you think you’re talking to?