[Marxism] At Princeton, Addressing a Racist Legacy and Seeking to Remove Woodrow Wilson’s Name
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Sun Nov 22 20:13:27 MST 2015
NY Times, Nov. 22 2015
At Princeton, Addressing a Racist Legacy and Seeking to Remove Woodrow
By ANDY NEWMAN
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
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
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
“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
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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