[Marxism] At Princeton, Addressing a Racist Legacy and Seeking to Remove Woodrow Wilson’s Name

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 22 20:13:27 MST 2015

NY Times, Nov. 22 2015
At Princeton, Addressing a Racist Legacy and Seeking to Remove Woodrow 
Wilson’s Name

PRINCETON, N.J. — Few historical figures loom as large in the life of an 
Ivy League university as Woodrow Wilson does at Princeton.

As the school’s president in the early 20th century, Wilson initiated 
its expansion into a full-scale university. He lifted educational 
standards, created academic majors and introduced the small-group 
classes, often led by professors, known as precepts.

To honor him, Princeton created the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and 
International Affairs — an elite institution within an elite institution 
— and a residential complex, Wilson College, where quotations from the 
revered leader have been displayed on a TV screen in the dining hall.

So central is Wilson, an alumnus, to Princeton’s identity that a 
theatrical revue performed for freshmen pokes fun at the obsession. 
“Come into our Wilsonic Temple, a sacred space devoted entirely to our 
28th president!” a fervent Wilsonite tells visitors in a skit.

But until posters started appearing around campus in September, one 
aspect of Wilson’s legacy was seldom discussed: his racist views, and 
the ways he acted on them as president of the United States.

The posters, put up by a year-old student group called the Black Justice 
League, featured some of Wilson’s more offensive quotes, including his 
comment to an African-American leader that “segregation is not 
humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you,” and led 
to a remarkable two days at this genteel campus last week.

After a walkout by about 200 students, and the presentation by the Black 
Justice League of a list of demands, about 15 students occupied the 
office of the president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, overnight on 
Wednesday. On Thursday, Mr. Eisgruber agreed to begin discussions on 
campus and with trustees about the demands.

At the top of the group’s list was a demand that the university 
“publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” and take 
steps to rename the public policy school and residential college.

While naming decisions are up to the university’s board of trustees 
(which includes Mr. Eisgruber), Mr. Eisgruber promised to push for 
removing a large mural of Wilson from the residential college’s dining 
room and to direct the trustees to survey “the campus community’s 
opinion” on the Wilson School name and then vote on it.

The protesters also called for mandatory courses on “the history of 
marginalized peoples,” for “cultural competency training” for the staff 
and the faculty and for the creation of dedicated housing and meeting 
space for those interested in black culture.

But as Princeton takes its turn in the national roll call of college 
campuses where long-festering issues of race have burst into the open, 
spurred by events in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Charleston, S.C., it 
is not surprising that the conversation would pivot around Wilson.

“In some ways, that’s the role that symbols play in American politics 
and culture,” Mr. Eisgruber said in a phone interview on Sunday before 
sending an email addressing the issue to the university community. 
“People become very invested in symbols. And one of the benefits of 
having a genuine public discussion, informed by scholarly opinion, about 
some of these questions is that it can help educate people about 
problems that go beyond the symbol in our society.”

In the wake of the sit-in, students were divided on the renaming; even 
many sympathetic to the Black Justice League’s other demands said that 
expunging Wilson’s name went too far, or was unlikely to serve a 
constructive purpose, or both.

A counterpetition circulating on Change.org called the proposal a 
“dangerous precedent” for future students who “seek to purge the past of 
those who fail to live up to modern standards of morality,” as well as a 
bid to erase Wilson’s positive contributions.

But one Black Justice League member, Wilglory Tanjong, rejected that 

“We don’t want Woodrow Wilson’s legacy to be erased,” said Ms. Tanjong, 
a sophomore who was born in Cameroon and grew up near Washington. “We 
think it is extremely important that we understand our history of this 
campus. But we think that you can definitely understand your history 
without idolizing or turning Wilson into some kind of god, which is 
essentially what they’ve done.”

Perhaps best known for leading the United States during World War I and 
for trying to start the League of Nations, Wilson as president rolled 
back gains blacks had made since Reconstruction, removing black 
officials from the federal government and overseeing the segregation of 
rank-and-file workers.

Raised in the South, he wrote of “a great Ku Klux Klan” that rose up to 
rid whites of “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the 
votes of ignorant Negroes.”

During Wilson’s tenure as president of Princeton, no blacks were 
admitted — “The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no 
Negro has ever applied,” he wrote — though Harvard and Yale had admitted 
blacks decades earlier. Princeton admitted its first black student in 
the 1940s.

At Princeton today, Black Justice League members said they have often 
felt excluded and continually if subtly called on to justify their 
presence at one of the nation’s top schools.

They protest the fact that only about 2 percent of the faculty is black 
(the student body is around 8 percent black).

And for students like Ozioma Obi-Onuoha of the Black Justice League, 
Wilson’s name and image around campus feel like constant reminders that 
they are not entirely welcome.

“It’s a haunting,” said Ms. Obi-Onuoha, a senior majoring in politics 
who grew up in North Carolina.

Online, under the cloak of anonymity, many people have mocked the 
group’s efforts.

“Will the proposed Black Cultural Space have its own water fountain?” 
asked a commenter on a Daily Princetonian story.

But in the dining hall of Wilson College on Friday, against the backdrop 
of the Wilson mural, made from a photograph of the president throwing a 
first pitch at a baseball game, students took the debate seriously.

“I’m a little bit torn,” said Takim Williams, a senior majoring in 
philosophy who is black. “My race has never been a disadvantage to me — 
at least that’s how I view it — so I haven’t had the same visceral 

He said he found the renaming idea “drastic.” His tablemate Calvert 
Chan, a sophomore who is Asian-American, said, “If the criteria for 
naming a building for someone was that they’d be perfect, we shouldn’t 
name buildings.”

Nearby, Amina Simon, who is white and took part in the protests, said 
Wilson’s name did not belong on a dorm complex “where you’re expected to 
have residential college spirit and cheer for Wilson College.” For black 
students, she said, “having to identify yourself with the name of 
someone who did not build this place for you is unfair.”

Across campus on Friday evening, as she walked out of the soaring atrium 
of the public policy school, the school’s dean, Cecilia Rouse, who is 
black, declined to take a position.

“I think we have to look at what it means to change the name of an 
internationally known school,” she said. “Our alumni are identified with 
the Woodrow Wilson School, so it’s not an easy decision.”

But she added: “I think it’s an important conversation for our students, 
for our faculty, for our staff, to really understand the many dimensions 
of Princeton’s legacy with race. I actually think it’s a very good thing.”

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