The below article is a submission from our call for papers: “Amplifying Black Authors & Racial Justice in International Affairs.” The series includes written submissions on the international implications of the Black Lives Matter movement, of the ongoing fight for racial justice in the United States, and of related issues.
In a remarkable about-turn, Princeton University recently decided to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth President of the United States (1913-1920) and President of Princeton University (1902-1910), from its School of Public and International Affairs, as well as from the residential Wilson College. The Board of Trustees reconsidered its earlier decision to not remove Wilson’s name as the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks drew renewed attention to racism’s detrimental and pervasive history in the United States. Princeton’s president stated that “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” Prompted by a five-year student-led campaign by the Black Justice League, Princeton’s decision was perhaps the most significant dismantling of an emblem of American racism and empire in the current national conversation on racial injustice and racist symbols. It provides an opening to connect America’s racist and imperial pasts, frequently omitted in contemporary debates surrounding the movement for Black lives.
Liberal scholars and contemporary adherents of Wilsonianism have sought to excuse his racism by citing his impact on international affairs and arguing that his diplomatic vision “was more racially enlightened than Wilson himself.” Princeton’s actions offer an opportunity and hopefully reflect a willingness to demythologize the dominant history that glorifies Woodrow Wilson as a visionary and proponent of self-government while obscuring the fact that his racism and racial paternalism drove much of his policies at home and abroad. Such historical accounts erase the central role of racism and white supremacy in international relations as well as the alternative, oppositional histories forged by Black Americans and communities of color throughout the world at the time. They center the discourses and ideas of white thinkers while denying importance to the place and actions of people of color.
Woodrow Wilson was born a decade before the Civil War in the heart of the South. His family owned slaves and were defenders of slavery on biblical grounds. Wilson went on to earn a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and published nine books on American politics and history. He is touted as the most intellectually accomplished American president.
Wilson, however, exhibited racist ideologies and practices throughout his career. As president of Princeton University, Wilson is credited with fundamentally reconstructing the faculty and campus into the premier institution it is today. It is no exaggeration to say that Wilson’s intellectual and operational imprint is firmly ingrained in the University. But Wilson also refused to admit Black students and kept Princeton segregated far longer than its counterparts Harvard and Yale. It is a shameful stain, particularly for the African American community in the town of Princeton, that Paul Robeson, a highly accomplished African American son of Princeton, attended segregated grammar schools in Princeton but in 1915, had no chance of attending the University.
Perhaps Wilson’s most egregious racist act as president of the United States was to authorize cabinet members to allow Jim Crow segregation back into federal government departments in Washington DC after they had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period. Ironically, however, Wilson’s ascendency to the Presidency relied on Black voters, who traditionally voted for the Republican Party until this time. Many Blacks were persuaded to switch parties by prominent Blacks including W.E.B. Du Bois who believed Wilson’s campaign promises that, if elected, he would aid the Blacks’ cause. In a letter to Bishop Alexander Walters, candidate Wilson stated he wanted to “assure my colored fellow-citizens of my earnest wish to see justice done them in every matter, and not mere grudging justice, but justice executed with liberality and cordial good feeling. Every guarantee of our law, every principle of our Constitution, commands this, and our sympathies should also make it easy.”
However, as Du Bois put it, “Wilson was elected but we were disappointed.” In an open letter to President Wilson dated September 1913, Du Bois wrote:
Sir, you have now been President of the United States for six months and what is the result? It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful…not a single act and not a single word of yours since election has given anyone reason to infer that you have the slightest interest in the colored people or desire to alleviate their intolerable position.
Wilson was further upbraided in 1914 by William Monroe Trotter, the African American editor of the Boston-based newspaper The Guardian. While visiting the White House, he told the president, “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race. What a change segregation has wrought!”
Wilson’s racism bled into his international diplomacy, and American race relations figured as part of a global pattern anchored by imperialism. Far from progressive or precedent-setting, Wilson promoted a racialized notion of the principles of democracy and self-determination that were fully compatible with imperial rule. Racist, paternalistic gradualism informed Wilson’s conception of self-determination and the League of Nations mandate system, with the clear aim of preserving racial hierarchy and the norm of white supremacy in the international system.
Wilson’s rhetoric certainly raised expectations in the colonized world that, like Black Americans, would only be dashed by his and his European allies’ actions. His ideas were also challenged by Black American scholars and anti-colonial thinkers who articulated their own revolutionary conceptions of self-determination, democracy, and the international system. DuBois’ outspoken opposition to Wilson’s policies and ideas put him under U.S. government surveillance during his time in Europe, and he was forbidden from making any public addresses to black servicemen.
After World War I, the battleground of American racism was becoming increasingly international in scope, with the expansion of military and cultural power of the United States under President Wilson. African American thinkers, including Alain Locke who would go on to found the Howard School of International Relations intellectually anchored on the campus of Howard University, understood that the stakes of American race prejudice were no longer simply of domestic concern. Locke and his contemporaries regularly wrote on the follies of the League of Nations Mandate system, the exportation of US race relations, and the geopolitical international order. Their theorizing of cosmopolitanism as a space not beyond difference but rather beyond the hierarchization of difference stands in stark contrast with Wilson’s imperial internationalism that defines the principle of self-determination in racially differentiated terms.
Such alternative histories serve to problematize the notion that the principle of self-determination had its origins in the Wilsonian moment and instead centers other actors including an animated Black Atlantic world of scholar-activists. Thus, as efforts to dismantle tributes to a racist past continue, it must be linked to a robust agenda of demythologizing difficult themes of history while recovering disappeared voices, discourses, ideas and actors whose contributions offer a more complete rendering of history.
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Krista Johnson is an Associate Professor and Director of The Center for African Studies at Howard University. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University and has published on a wide range of topics including health policy, gender and HIV prevention and global health governance in Africa. She is a Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship recipient. She is currently working on a book manuscript on Howard University scholars’ unique contributions to International Relations.
 The author grew up and attended K-12 public schools in Princeton, New Jersey.
 W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, “My impressions of Woodrow Wilson, May 19, 1939” Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to Paul A. Hill.