Segregation centennial

by Eric on October 15, 2013

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.



Palindrome 10.16.13 at 2:30 am

Never elect a political science PhD for your executive office. Especially a Princeton grad! See also: Syngman Rhee.


Pete Mack 10.16.13 at 3:28 am

Just when I thought I knew all the reasons to distrust Woodie Wilson… Man, the two parties have changed a lot in 100 years. TR would surely be a Democrat, today!


chris y 10.16.13 at 9:12 am

TR would surely be a Democrat, today!

TR would be an Islamofascist Marxist Kenyan usurper today.


bad Jim 10.16.13 at 9:42 am

Why does everyone dwell on the downside of segregation? Because of it, the Pentagon has twice as many bathrooms as it would have otherwise.


Douglas O'Keefe 10.16.13 at 3:18 pm

“In bringing Jim Crow to official Washington, the Democrats were importing a practice they had only recently imposed in the southern states. Around 1890 . . . southern states began to pass laws . . . ”
Maybe someone can help me understand something I’ve long wondered about. We hear that Jim Crow began in the 1890s, but Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877. Are we to believe that the South, prior to the 1890s, was NOT segregated? Or put another way, how did the Jim Crow laws actually change the lives of Southern citizens, as opposed to changing what was written on the law books? Inquiring minds want to know.


Thomas Nephew 10.16.13 at 10:37 pm

I don’t fully buy Erik Loomis’s rather well-worn moral that Teddy Roosevelt and splitters generally are to blame for the ills that befall the country. The point was never so much desegregated toilets as lynchings, race riots, and organized vote suppression — and that was going on before, during, and after Wilson’s presidency. What happened in DC in 1913 was very wrong, and of course very symbolic — but representative of much worse that was already badly wrong with the country.


LFC 10.16.13 at 11:02 pm

TR would surely be a Democrat, today!

Can one imagine any Democrat today (or any Republican today, for that matter) giving TR’s “Strenuous Life” speech? No. The terms of discourse have changed so much that it makes relatively little sense to ask whether he wd be a Dem or Rep today. But if you have to, then: on foreign policy, a Repub (of the McCain/Kristol variety); on domestic policy, prob more a Dem.


LFC 10.16.13 at 11:12 pm

On TR, one could do worse than read Christopher Lasch’s “The Moral and Intellectual Rehabilitation of the Ruling Class,” in his The World of Nations (Vintage, 1974).


Phil 10.17.13 at 10:07 am

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

Could liberal Republicanism of the Andrew Carnegie, Planned Parenthood, NAACP, ACLU variety have survived a bit longer if the Progressives hadn’t split? (Carnegie funded Helen Keller till the day he died – and Helen Keller was a Wobbly.) Course, even liberals like Carnegie took what we’d now recognise as a Republican approach to labour issues, so things wouldn’t have been sweetness and light if progressive Republicanism had won the day. But then, I doubt Woodrow Wilson was partiuclarly soft on the unions either (he certainly wasn’t soft on the Communists).

It’s not a complete pole reversal, but looking at the big left/right touchstones in contemporary American politics, then looking at the way the two big parties lined up pre-1919, is a strange and instructive experience.


bjk 10.17.13 at 12:02 pm

John McCain gives the “strenuous life” speech every day of the week. So no, that’s not very hard to imagine.


LFC 10.17.13 at 2:55 pm

actually he doesn’t
only way to resolve this wd be to quote from the speech, which i don’t have time to do rt now


Meredith 10.18.13 at 6:27 am

Douglas O’Keefe@5. One way to explore your question is through music and through dance (clogging, buckdancing, stepdancing, all that). Poorer whites and blacks together, then driven underground. Re-emerging together in the 1950’s and 1960’s.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.18.13 at 5:11 pm

Bathrooms are still segregated, just by a slightly different criterion: managers vs. workers. And, I’ve read here recently about segregated elevators. And this doesn’t seem to be related to any party politics whatsoever.

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