Wiping away the stain
12/11/2015, 7:04 a.m.
E. Faye Williams
Despite racist vitriol characterizing African-Americans as “dirty,” most of us were reared in an environment where “cleanliness was next to godliness.” Many, if not most, of us know the virtues of keeping our minds, bodies and belongings clean. With the hectic pace of our world, these lessons still guide our behaviors.
While we can wipe away the dirt that will work its way into our lives, the same cannot be said for the “dirt” that crept its way into our national history and traditions.
In this tradition of “historical dirt” is the story of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the current initiative to remove his name from Princeton University, where he also served as president. President Wilson is credited with the task of leading America through World War I and as the architect of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.
Now, through the efforts of student activists, a true picture of President Wilson emerges. History accurately recounts him as an ardent racist and segregationist. These student activists have launched an active campaign to remove his name from the record of Princeton University. I understand, but have mixed feelings about this effort.
His record as POTUS was dramatic in efforts to eliminate black people from the federal workforce. As a native Virginian, he was an ardent segregationist, who made segregating black people a priority when he could not fire them. As president of Princeton, he discouraged a prospective African-American student from applying with the warning that it was “altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.”
By any standard, then or now, President Wilson was a racist. The current issue is whether his name should remain on Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Reared in the South, I know the pain and insult one feels in response to the obvious and insidious symbols of racism. I can imagine the disgust felt by Princeton students as they move past the edifice named for a blatant racist, former president or not. Using the current vernacular, “I feel them!”
With the breadth and depth of racism in this country, my personal conflict comes from a desire to eliminate the insult of racism versus acknowledging the problem and working toward reconciliation and/or recompense as a goal.
Most who know our history think it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to pull down every statue or rename every road, street or building that bears the name of a traitor to the nation or an avowed racist. The number of names is simply too great to accomplish that purpose — and they continue to grow.
Instead, I believe we should identify known racists, highlight the injury they have caused and find a vehicle of recompense. Using the Princeton example, establishing a perpetual scholarship for black students majoring in government or public policy may right more wrongs than removing a name. Establishing a mandatory course for all students of the Wilson School focusing on the political and social damage caused by the “Wilson Effect”would give students reason to question the racist decisions of the past and amplify their understanding of the ignorance upon which it’s based and the negativity it brings to our lives.
In a past organized effort to rename the Russell Senate Building in Washington, we were unable to convince a sufficient number in the U.S. Senate to support that effort. All acknowledged Richard Brevard Russell’s racist dictums, but few were willing to open the door of conflict a renaming of the building would open. We were, instead, able to leverage Mr. Russell’s racist image into concessions that brought us a Senate apology for slavery.
We cannot eliminate the dirt of our nation’s past by trying to forget. We must use the injustice as a starting point to clean house.
The writer is president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women.