“It was no accident that some people had the ability to pursue opportunities to make their lives better in Washington, DC and others had their hopes and dreams dashed”

William S. Preston

“Dear PoPville,

In case you haven’t seen them, I encourage you to read the NY Times op-ed “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather” and the follow up op-ed from the Times’ Editorial Board “The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.” Both of these articles are important in putting the economic struggles of some African-Americans in Washington, DC in context. Woodrow Wilson’s actions prevented many African-Americans from being able to hold onto their jobs, stay in the middle class and build wealth through home ownership in Washington, DC.
While this story pales in comparison to the one in the op-ed, my great grandfather was an elevator operator in the Court of Claims in DC. Woodrow Wilson came to that building to see Judge Booth. He entered my great grandfather’s elevator.  A photographer took a picture of Wilson in the elevator with my great grandfather. Wilson ordered that the film be destroyed because he didn’t allow himself to be photographed with African-Americans.
When commenters write harshly about African-Americans, education and crime, for me this history provides important context. It was no accident that some people had the ability to pursue opportunities to make their lives better in Washington, DC and others had their hopes and dreams dashed. “

53 Comment

  • Thanks for sharing. Wow. More shameful history.

  • Blithe

    Thank you for posting this! My grandparents, who lived and worked in DC since the early 1900’s, were directly affected by Wilson’s policies and the impact of his efforts to make DC and the federal government even more segregated and oppressive for Black Americans. In some ways, it was a horrible irony that while I had educational options that were not open to my parents, in order to get them, I attended a school that was named to honor someone who was an avowed racist.

  • I was shocked to learn of this history when I read that Op-Ed last week and disappointed that my previous education on early 20th century America had not included this substantial chapter. I draw the line, however, at renaming streets and buildings, tearing down statues, and erasing names from the history books. The histories of America should be expanded to include their legacy of racism rather than erased. While I agree Wilson’s full legacy should be recognized, I don’t think renaming institutions is the answer.

    • +1. Using that logic, you’d have to pretty much change the names of almost every building throughout the world. History is history and the lesson is to improve upon it, not erase it.

    • I generally agree with this. While I’m aware the slippery slope is a logical fallacy, I don’t know that this is a road we want to get too far down. If we only (re)name things after historical figures with unblemished records, we’re going to have an awful lot of unnamed buildings and other structures. “That obelisk on the Mall” and “That building that kinds looks like the Pantheon on the Tidal Basin” spring immediately to mind. Also, Georgetown, GW, and Howard Universities all will need new names.
      Wilson was obviously a flawed man and President, and we should learn about the flaws in our historical figures. In fact, it’s arguably more important to learn about their flaws than their accomplishments.

      • Well stated.
        However, what happens if the flaws become widely known? Won’t popular opinion DEMAND the removal of statues and re-naming of schools and parkways and all?

        • justinbc

          It’s up to those in charge to determine when to listen to popular demand and when it’s best left ignored. They do it all the time with gun control legislation, marijuana legalization, abortion, etc. (for better or worse)

        • Yes, perhaps – there certainly is a crush of greater-awareness going on. I’m aware that this is not an easy question to answer, and that the decision of who is honor-worthy is entirely subjective. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, and I fully admit that I’m a hypocrite here. I generally believe people shouldn’t be judged solely by their worst actions, and their entire life and accomplishments should be weighed and judged accordingly . . . yet I fully supported, applauded, and advocated for the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State. That said, I think EVERYONE is a hypocrite in some way on this question – no one has a perfectly consistent position. So, I’m not too troubled by my own (or others’) hypocrisy – as Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

          • One of my favorite quotes. 🙂

          • Did you just implicitly compare Joe Paterno to Woodrow Wilson?

          • Not really, no. Perhaps in the sense that each is a public figure about whom there has been a fairly recent controversy regarding whether they should continue to be honored given certain distasteful actions on their part, but I didn’t compare the men or their actions. Not sure why you thought that, or the larger point you’re trying to make . . . ?

          • The point he/she tried to make was that Woodrow Wilson is more like Bill Cosby than Joe Paterno.

        • Blithe

          I doubt it. Why aren’t the “flaws” widely known?” I’d argue that people who benefited from the flaws, and people who were not directly and negatively impacted by the “flaws” are content to allow things to remain as they have been and are — because “history” and “tradition” trump (ouch) the sensitivities of the much smaller, much less powerful minority groups who advocate for changes in what and who get publicly honored.
          Many Americans advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples — in other countries, but not in our own; fail to look at how centuries of racist policies affect present day accomplishments and options; and don’t seem to know that America had internment camps during WWII. I don’t think that popular opinion will DEMAND changes — because I doubt that making such changes will ever be “popular”. I hope I’m wrong though.

          • “I hope I’m wrong though.”
            Blithe, do you support renaming the Wilson School at Princeton? How about anything Jefferson or Washington-related? How about Howard? It’s interesting where people come down on these questions – where their own personal lines are drawn.

          • Blithe

            Personally, for most private institutions like Princeton, and for most, if not all public ones, I would prefer adding a prominent plaque describing some of the more egregious concerns, making the issues and the context a part of the memorial. I disagree with petworther — I think many people either don’t know or don’t care about the complex moral history of America’s founders — and more recent historical figures such as Wilson. How many of us were taught that part of Wilson’s legacy was re-segregating the District and many aspects of the federal government in school? I certainly wasn’t — and I went to school in DC — where the impact was, arguably, the greatest and the most negative.

          • Blithe

            Just to add — I certainly understand the demands for re-naming. My personal preference, however, is in the direction of making it as clear as possible what and who we are choosing to honor.

          • why do we name our streets, schools and monuments after conquerors? why not poets/writers, artists, musicians, philosophers?

          • or humanitarians?

        • I think the flaws of many of the founding fathers are already well known. Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and fathering of children by slaves in particular was taught at my (mostly white) high school. Americans are capable of understanding the complex moral legacy of America’s founders.
          There is also a fuzzy but important line between historical figures who had a rich contribution to American history that was tarnished by racism, or misogyny, or whatever, and those who’s greatest contributions are inexorably linked to slavery, racism, etc. What, for example, did George Wallace do besides fight for segregation? Not much.

      • Not to mention both
        and the
        District of Columbia.

      • I don’t know if renaming institutions will end racism. If there is any chance it might help in any way, then we should do it. It is a serious problem if white people have trouble understanding why naming things after slaveowners and segregationists is a so hurtful. They must be unable to empathize. Going on a full renaming binge is education. No one is going to forget presidents, but the seemingly meaningless step of renaming streets and institutions will help educate the white majority about the daily racism of America.

  • I do think that at some point, we have to ask ourselves what we are commemorating when we have a school or street named after someone. You only have to cross the Potomac to find streets and schools named after traitors. If we are going to better educate people about some of the crimes of these honorees, isn’t the next logical question “then why do we have a school named after this jerk?”

  • You could argue that we’re learning about these shameful aspects of Woodrow Wilson’s past precisely because we have buildings named after him, and leaving them named as they are ensures that future generations aren’t allowed to forget about our complicated and highly imperfect history.

  • I think this article is powerful because it tangibly shows how privilege and wealth can transcend both the success and the mediocrity of future generations. Mr. Davis lost his farm. A farm that – had he been able to pay off the note and pass it along to future generations – would certainly help provide a passive income to the Davis family today. Pretty crazy when you think about how that inter-generational wealth basically disappeared from the Davis family overnight….and all the people who can take advantage of the inter-generational privileges they’ve been afforded solely due to their ancestors’ white skin color.
    I can see why the hard questions being posed by young people of color are making lots of white people angry and nervous.

    • justinbc

      In terms of sheer population, not percentages, I would bet there are more white people in America today without “inter-generational” wealth than black people. They could be asking why someone took it from them, or working to earn their own. It’s up to every individual to own their future, but it’s really hard if you’re stuck in the past.

      • Ahh love to hear how the minorities should act/feel from a white person.

        • justinbc

          So my race makes my statements of less value to you? I hope you realize the hypocrisy of that sentiment.

          • I hope you realize how ignorant and arrogant you sound, trying to lecture someone on how minority groups/people of color should feel, especially equating white peoples’ vs. PoC’s “lack of inter-generational wealth.” It’s offensive, tiresome, and a great example of why some people have a lot to learn about history and systematic oppression.

        • Coming from a *minority* (because this matters apparently) – justinbc is absolutely correct.

          We only get one life. The opportunities are there if anyone is willing to work for them. Do some have to work a bit harder than others to get there? Well yeah, that’s life. But making excuses and blaming politicians that have been dead for over 100 years is vastly less difficult.

      • Asking why something was “taken from them” and “working to earn their own” are hardly mutually exclusive. Moreover when institutional racism and regular old racism have hardly gone away, surely you acknowledge that “working to earn your own” as a person of color can be materially different and indeed require even more effort than it does for a white person. I’m a white person with very little inter-generational wealth, and I’m grateful that I didn’t make it too far into adulthood without realizing this.

        • justinbc

          I never made the claim that it wasn’t more difficult, that would be silly. Of course if you’re white the system is inherently weighted in your favor, but that shouldn’t stop you from focusing more on your future than on your past (especially a past that you almost certainly weren’t alive for), which many people seem unable to do.
          FWIW my post was directed specifically at this remark:
          “I can see why the hard questions being posed by young people of color are making lots of white people angry and nervous.”
          I think it’s just as silly to think that white people are “angry and nervous” about questioning the past of a former President, especially one that many of them likely know little about to begin with. If those in power cared all that much about the poor questioning inter-generational wealth they would likely heed it coming from their own people, but they don’t really care about them either.

      • Blithe

        Justin, you might be right — which is exactly why people often use percentages instead of sheer numbers, particularly when the populations of interest have unequal numbers. How many white families benefited from GI bill policies that supported higher education and real estate investment? How many black….oh, that’s right, we didn’t get that particular set of benefits. How many black people have been excused from paying taxes because we didn’t have access to the privileges of full citizen ship? Zero? How many people benefit directly and indirectly from things like the education their great grandparents had, or the investments that gammy made that supported generations in large and small ways because of financial security, or being able to buy property anywhere that they could afford to do so? It must be nice to talk about being “stuck in the past” if you’re on the side that potentially benefited from that past. It also must be nice to ignore the pervasive impact of systematic discrimination. I’m guessing about that one though, because that’s a luxury that I don’t get to share.

        • Why are East Africans who immigrate to the DC area — many fleeing war or drought and arriving with little — doing so well here? In short order, they’re dominating parking garages, taxis/ubers, coffee shops, busting ass, pooling resources, saving and getting their kids educated. It’s a familiar pattern we’ve seen with other immigrant groups (see: southeast asians).

          Maybe they’ve learned that wallowing in the past isn’t as helpful as choosing to crank in the present and build a future.

          • HaileUnlikely

            A big factor is likely selection bias, in the purely statistical sense of the term.

          • Haile is spot on. There is a lot of literature in economics about this, if you’re the type to go looking for peer-reviewed articles. If you aren’t, the short of it is as follows: a) immigrants from East Africa in the DC area typically fall into two categories: asylees from Ethiopia and Eritrea who tend to be rather highly educated (university diploma or higher) and of a white collar background, or diversity visa recipients who by definition of their eligibility for the program have a high level of education or a high level of technical skills vis a vis the general population in their countries of origin. b) there is seemingly a personality type that is more prone to taking risks, which is also the personality type more likely to engage in migration (both domestic and international) there is a lot of economic data to support the idea that these particular types of people are generally speaking more successful than the majority of the population that is too risk averse to migrate, and c) immigrants from Africa and much of the black Caribbean are treated considerably better by Americans and American institutions than their African-American counterparts. I have seen this empirically with friends who are dark-skinned refugees from central Africa who will tell you they are treated better as soon as they open their mouths and people realize they have an accent. That’s not to say they don’t suffer from other stereotyping, but in terms of harm on an individual level, the “help the starving African” stereotype is better for integration and materially less harmful than the stereotypes harbored about African Americans.

          • Blithe

            anonn, I’d be happy to respond to your comment if your provide some statistics and first-hand commentary that specifies exactly what you mean by “doing so well” and what it took and is taking to get there. It is interesting that the examples that you’re giving are all in service industries — which is not what most people who post in PoPville would regard as “doing so well for themselves and their families.” As to what they’ve “maybe…learned”, I have no idea, but again, perhaps first-hand commentary rather than observations and assumptions could clarify this point.

          • For every Joe Mamo or an Ethiopian-born baron of a fleet of taxis, there’s hundreds (or even thousands?) of African immigrants making barely minimum wage pumping the gas or actually driving those taxis.
            But sure, trot out those “model minority” tokens that help support your insipid points.

        • justinbc

          Blithe, thank you for helping me make my point with a poignant example. You bring up the GI Bill, and how many people weren’t able to take advantage of it. Well, it still exists, and has been open with full benefits to black citizens for more than an entire generation, possibly two. Black enrollment in the military is somewhere between 15-20%, which is above their population in the United States, which means that many of them have realized the potential benefits that military service can have on their financial standing and future. I personally know several who have served and made out quite well for themselves after, coming from virtually nothing. I know plenty of white people who’ve done the same. Those of us who have struggled through a lack of inter-generational wealth to actually succeed know that it’s possible, regardless of your race, to achieve something in this country. That’s the dream that we’ve all heard sermons on since we were kids, but it can take a mountain of work to get there. It’s all a matter of whether you’re willing to put in the effort.

          • Blithe

            Effort coupled with opportunity. If the opportunities are not available, all the effort in the world won’t pay off. I’m glad that I was able to help you illustrate a point. I’m also glad that you’ve acknowledged that if you’re white, the system is inherently weighted in your favor.

          • Surely you recognize the benefits of compounding interest and long term investments? A family that was able to take advantage of the GI Bill in the 1940s and 1950s will easily have a net worth significantly higher than a family that was blocked from it. Those advantages translate into generations of benefits – higher starting points on the property ladder, down-payment assistance to future generations, ability to pay college tuition, etc.
            The benefits of today do not mitigate the fact that a lot of people were born on 3rd base today due to the racist policies of yesteryear. This stuff accrues.

          • Blithe

            Anonymous 11:36, thank you for emphasizing this critical point!

        • Wait – when discussing societal ills, we’re now permitted to generalize using percentages (“people often use percentages instead of sheer numbers”)? How many X people did this, how many Y people did that? I hope this methodology will be as readily accepted during our next discussion about crime in DC.

          • Blithe

            If the numbers of the groups are very different, in many instances comparisons using percentages will be more meaningful, as long as you’re clear what those percentages represent.

          • Blithe

            Sorry — a clearer way to put that is: if the group sixes – i.e. The numbers in each group — are very different from each other, many comparisons will be more meaningful if percentages are used.

          • Blithe

            Argh – group SIZES.

      • Justin, I don’t know if you’ve already read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” but — as I was saying in a post in April — the article is “really eye-opening. I knew beforehand about restrictive covenants, but I didn’t realize that black people couldn’t get regular mortgages and were stuck in these high-interest arrangements that were sort of like ‘rent-to-own’ and essentially meant that they had no equity until they made the last payment.”

          • justinbc

            Thanks, that’s a well written piece. A similar story is being written right now with Monsanto going across the country robbing (mostly white) farmers of all of their land through basically government enabled corporate extortion.
            As I said above, I am fully aware it’s more difficult for a black person to reach the same level of success as a white person due to the longstanding hurdles left behind, but to act as if black people are the only ones who suffer from a lack of inter-generational wealth is absurd. The comment above “I can see why the hard questions being posed by young people of color are making lots of white people angry and nervous” is based out of pure ignorance. If “lots of white people are angry and nervous” here in DC it’s because every time we see a crime report it’s a black male age 15-25, it’s not because they’re digging into the history of Woodrow Wilson.

        • Blithe

          Textdoc – I applaud your plug for this article. It’s excellent!

  • Good reads. Thank you. I don’t know the answers, but I’m glad we’re asking the questions.

  • Every day I get to walk past the Trump International Hotel, being built on public property. Think we could maybe work on erasing that racist’s name off a public monument? I wish.

  • amen,
    white american system based on sub-human treatment of others hasn’t changed much. now it is global.

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