[Marxism] What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather
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Tue Nov 24 07:39:30 MST 2015
NY Times Op-Ed, Nov. 24 2015
What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather
By GORDON J. DAVIS
OVER the last week, a growing number of students at Princeton have
demanded that the university confront the racist legacy of Woodrow
Wilson, who served as its president before becoming New Jersey’s
governor and the 28th president of the United States. Among other
things, the students are demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from
Wilson, a Virginia-born Democrat, is mostly remembered as a progressive,
internationalist statesman, a benign and wise leader, a father of modern
American political science and one of our nation’s great presidents.
But he was also an avowed racist. And unlike many of his predecessors
and successors in the White House, he put that racism into action
through public policy. Most notably, his administration oversaw the
segregation of the federal government, destroying the careers of
thousands of talented and accomplished black civil servants — including
John Abraham Davis, my paternal grandfather.
An African-American born in 1862 to a prominent white Washington lawyer
and his black “housekeeper,” my grandfather was a smart, ambitious and
handsome young black man. He emulated his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, in
style and dress. He walked away from whatever assistance his father
might have offered to his unacknowledged black offspring and graduated
at the top of his class from Washington’s M Street High School (later
the renowned all-black Dunbar High School).
Even as the strictures of Jim Crow segregation began to harden in the
South, Washington, and the federal Civil Service, offered
African-Americans real opportunity for employment and advancement.
Thousands passed the civil-service exam to gain coveted spots in
government agencies and departments. In 1882, soon after graduating from
high school, the young John Davis secured a job at the Government
Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position
in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his
employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in
Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary — for an
African-American — of $1,400 per year.
But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913,
my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to
department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in
the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.
By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a
self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the
turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a
broken man. He died in 1928.
Many black men and women suffered similar fates under Wilson. As the
historian Eric S. Yellin of the University of Richmond documents in his
powerful book “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” my grandfather’s
demotion was part of a systematic purge of the federal government; with
Wilson’s approval, in a few short years virtually all blacks had been
removed from management responsibilities, moved to menial jobs or simply
My grandfather died before I was born, but I have learned much about his
struggle — and that of other black civil servants in the federal
government — from his personnel file. What is most striking is his sense
of humiliation; after all, he had spent his career in a time and place
where, whatever was happening in the South, African-Americans were able
to get ahead. And then, suddenly, with Wilson’s election, that all changed.
Consider a letter he wrote on May 16, 1913, barely a month after his
demotion. “The reputation which I have been able to acquire and maintain
at considerable sacrifice,” he wrote, “is to me (foolish as it may
appear to those in higher stations of life) a source of personal pride,
a possession of which I am very jealous and which is possessed at a
value in my estimation ranking above the loss of salary — though the
last, to a man having a family of small children to rear, is serious
And the reply he received? His supervisor said, simply, that my
grandfather was unable to “properly perform the duties required (he is
too slow).” Yet there had never been any indication of this in his
Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as
government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial
progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in
doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans
and their families.
It is this legacy of humiliation that the Princeton students demand the
university, and the country, confront.
We must listen to them.
Gordon J. Davis is a partner at the law firm Venable.
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