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Do Woodrow Wilson's racist views negate his progressive accomplishments?

Princeton launches a website where academics discuss President Woodrow Wilson's complex legacy with students and staff, after protesters called to rename buildings and schools that honor him. 

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A woman walks into the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, December 2015. The Ivy League school has begun to re-examine the legacy of alumnus and former University President Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, after students brought attention to his views on segregation. Many students have pushed the administration to rename schools and buildings that honor him.

Mel Evans/ AP/ File

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Woodrow Wilson: progressive visionary or unrepentant racist?

If the 28th president of the United States were all one or the other, Princeton University would have decided long ago whether to change names and monuments on campus that honor former President Wilson, a Princeton alumnus and the Ivy League school's 13th president.

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But the reality, historians and students agree, is that Wilson was both.

So do Wilson's views on race and segregation warrant stripping his name from the campus? Some say it amounts to erasing history and overlooking the positive aspects of his legacy.

The debate resonates far beyond the Princeton campus, as many US schools and communities grapple with the complicated legacies of prominent historical figures.

In the South, the debate over on-campus Confederate monuments reached a fever pitch after a self-professed white supremacist confessed to murdering nine black parishioners attending a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

But such discussions are taking place north of the Mason-Dixon line, too. In Connecticut, Yale University faced controversy around the Calhoun residential college, named after a white supremacist who promoted slavery as a public good. The intellectual debate taking place at Princeton could inform these and other discussions.

In November, the Princeton administration agreed to consider a broad range of innovations requested by students concerned with racial bias on campus, from diversity training for faculty to renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs.

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This week, the Board of Trustees launched a website dedicated to investigating Wilson's legacy as members debate whether to approve name changes. Many other initiatives are detailed in a letter from the school's Office of Campus Life.

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The site includes nine essays from scholars with diverse views on Woodrow's achievements and shortcomings

"We are going to see a greater degree of sophistication in the discussion than we have seen thus far," said emeritus literature professor John Fleming, a Princeton alumnus and former master of the school's Wilson College, in a December interview with the Daily Princetonian. "It’s been pretty simple-minded until now."

As most of the essays emphasize, Wilson was a man of contrasts, at least when viewed with today's moral lenses. He helped usher in progressive policies like differentiated income tax, and he pushed to create the League of Nations, which won him the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. But the federal government segregated African-American workers on his watch, and his White House held a viewing of "Birth of a Nation," a silent film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. 

For many, Wilson's segregationist legacy cancels his positive accomplishments. Referring to his seemingly split legacy, Smith College Professor Paula Giddings writes that "one was the corollary, not the antithesis, of the other," meaning that "they cannot be viewed separately but must be weighed as a single and ultimately ruinous heritage." 

Professor Giddings, who supports renaming the Wilson School and Wilson College, told the Daily Princetonian that "by honoring an unapologetic white supremacist," Princeton tells minority students "you are inferior, too."

But even Wilson's attitudes towards minorities are ambiguous.

John Milton Cooper, a Princeton alum and Wilson biographer who taught history at University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted in his essay that the former president also supported minority rights, albeit perhaps in less significant ways, such as speaking out against lynchings and opening university positions for Catholics, Jews, and poorer students.

The goal of the essays is to inform a more nuanced campus debate, keeping in mind both today's liberal arts values and older, relative definitions of "progress."

"We have to consider the entirety," said Robin von Seldeneck, the chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in his hometown of Staunton, Virginia. "I cringe how I'd be judged 100 years from now."

But more information may not be enough to help Princetonians accept the Board's eventual decision about renaming buildings and schools.

"History includes people and events that make many of us uncomfortable," University of South Carolina's Emeritus professor Kendrick Clements writes in his essay for the website. "Since we cannot eradicate the past, the question is what use we should make of it."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.


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