It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the Kennedy assassination, both in their way notable events in the history of African American civil rights. But it is also the hundredth anniversary of a different, equally notable event: the racial segregation of the US government in 1913 under newly elected president Woodrow Wilson.Wilson did not, himself, order the segregation of the civil service; rather, it began because his subordinates found in Wilson’s administration an environment conducive to racist innovations. Wilson won office largely as a result of Theodore Roosevelt’s splitting the Republican Party; he garnered fewer votes than the perennial loser William Jennings Bryan had done in his head-to-head contests with Republicans. As a result, the Oval Office now housed a Virginian and states’ rights enthusiast uninterested in, when not hostile to, African American civil rights.
Wilson appointed a fellow southerner, William Gibbs McAdoo, as Secretary of the Treasury and in July 1913, on McAdoo’s authority, the Auditor of the Treasury ordered the establishment of segregated toilets in the department.1 Other departments followed Treasury’s example, introducing racial separation to dining areas and washrooms.
In bringing Jim Crow to official Washington, the Democrats were importing a practice they had only recently imposed in the southern states. Around 1890, along with laws removing black citizens from voting rolls, southern states began to pass laws to remove black persons to separate railway carriages, leading to a series of statutory experiments with separating the races. Civil rights organizations sought to resist this new tendency.
Wilson agreed to meet a small delegation of black leaders who objected to the policy. Five men led by William Monroe Trotter went to the White House to plead their case. Trotter, like many other African Americans, had supported Wilson in 1912, in part on the ground that black citizens could get more from their government if they showed they were independent voters not always pledged to the party formerly known as Lincoln’s.
Wilson began the meeting by defending segregation. When he had done, Trotter said, “you were heralded as perhaps a second Lincoln,” but the segregation policy would mean blacks returning entirely to the Republicans. Wilson interrupted Trotter, saying politics did not belong in the discussion. Trotter thought they did, and pursued the point. Wilson finally declared, “Never before have I been addressed in such an insulting fashion,” and told Trotter and his colleagues they had to leave.
After being ejected, Trotter told reporters on the White House lawn that the president had claimed – as was the fashion in those days – that segregation was only a device to reduce racial conflict. Trotter pointed out that race had never seemed a problem until the Democrats gained control of the executive branch in 1913.
Suppose Theodore Roosevelt had kept his hat out of the ring in 1912, made peace with Taft, and prevented a split in the Republican Party: racial segregation would not have come to official Washington until much later. If it had to wait, it might have seemed an even more fragile and foolish innovation than it was. We like of course to think that the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice but incident, and a small group of opportunists, can readily force it back the other way.
1A native Georgian and later Tennesseean, McAdoo would soon marry Wilson’s daughter and later, in 1924, became the Ku Klux Klan’s preferred candidate for the presidency at the deeply divided Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden.