1913 April 11

President Wilson Segregates Federal Agencies

 

At a Cabinet meeting on this day, early in in Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president, the Cabinet debated segregating federal agencies by race. The initiative came from Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson. Wilson, a Virginian by birth and upbringing, did not disagree, and the policy quickly went into effect. The NAACP and others protested, and on November 12, 1914, Boston civil rights leader Monroe Trotter was asked to leave the Oval Office after angrily confronting Wilson over the issue.

With respect to race issues, Wilson was granted a special showing of the film Birth of a Nation in the White House on February 18, 1915. The film was and still is notorious for its racist portrayal of the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, and Wilson is reported to have enjoyed it immensely. Wilson also refused to speak out about the East St. Louis race riot that began on July 2, 1917, and which involved the failure of the police to protect African-Americans from attacks by white mobs or to arrest the white assailants. Many prominent Americans urged him to speak out or take some kind of action, but he never did.

Learn more about Wilson, race and civil liberties: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

Read about Princeton University students protesting Wilson’s racist legacy here.

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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