Princeton University

Princeton to remove Wilson's name over racist history

Woodrow Wilson believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress


Ivy league Princeton University has announced it will remove president Woodrow Wilson’s name from the institution’s School of Public and International Affairs due to his history of racism. In a statement, the university president, Christopher Eisgruber, said the decision came after a “thorough, deliberative process” five years after a group of student activists occupied his office in protest against the faculty’s dedication to the controversial 28th president.

The removal of Wilson’s name from the faculty – which will now be known as the School of Public and International Affairs – comes as many institutions across the US are facing protests and campaigns over controversial dedications and monuments.

The movement, which has seen statues of Confederate figures targeted as well as those of figures like Christopher Columbus and Spanish conquistadors, is part of a wide-ranging national debate over racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, who was African American, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

In a statement, Princeton’s trustees said they had considered “whether it is acceptable for this University’s school of public affairs to bear the name of a racist who segregated the nation’s civil service after it had been integrated for decades”.

It was, they added, “a question … made more urgent by the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, which have served as tragic reminders of the ongoing need for all of us to stand against racism and for equality and justice”.

Wilson is credited with improving educational standards at Princeton and he was honored with the creation of a faculty dedicated to public and international affairs studies, as well as a residential complex.

While he is remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, Wilson’s reputation is clouded by his racist policies in other areas of government when he was president from 1913 to 1921.

Wilson segregated federal workers in Washington DC, blocked a proposal to include racial equality as a founding principle in the League of Nations, and hosted White House screenings of the racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the founding of the Klu Klux Klan. He was seen as accepting of brutal racial segregation in the south as a way of keeping the peace.

In the New York Times in 2015, the lawyer Gordon Davis, whose grandfather was demoted in his civil service career as part of a systematic purge of the federal government, wrote that Wilson “was not just a racist”.

“He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families,” Davis wrote.

In his announcement, Eisgruber said the steps – Wilson’s name will also be removed from halls of residence – were a necessary reckoning, but only part of the picture of dealing with racism, both past and present.

“These are not the only steps our University is taking to combat the realities and legacy of racism, but they are important ones,”’ Eisgruber said, adding that he hoped the changes would provide “a firm foundation to pursue the mission of teaching, research, and service that has defined our highest aspirations and generated our greatest achievements throughout our history and today”.

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