[Marxism] What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 24 07:39:30 MST 2015

NY Times Op-Ed, Nov. 24 2015
What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather

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 
university facilities.

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 
Printing Office.

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 
personnel file.

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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