Gordon J Davis’s first encounter with the political writings of Woodrow Wilson was as a student at Columbia University. “I’m reading this stuff and saying: ‘That’s a great man,’ and mentioned it to my father who said: ‘Well, he wasn’t such a great man to us,’” recalls the 78-year-old Davis, who is a senior lawyer in New York. “He didn’t say much more about it but then, all these years later, you find out how totally corrupt and racist he was.”
There is no shortage of tributes to Wilson in Washington – a leading thinktank, a high school, a house museum – and he is the only US president buried in the nation’s capital. But in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and a mass awakening to systemic racism, his legacy of white supremacy is under scrutiny as never before.
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In the US capital, adorned with its many monuments to American history, he is also far from alone.
The same revisionism is also happening for numerous other presidents whose names and likenesses adorn the 230-year-old city. From grand boulevards and soaring memorials to tree-lined suburbs and sports stadiums, nowhere does America’s current reckoning with its racist past resonate more profoundly than in a place named after George Washington, a founding father who owned slaves.
For Davis, it is very personal. His grandfather, John Davis, was a high achieving African American student who went on to a job at the Government Printing Office, rose to manage an office of white staff and earned enough money to own a home in Washington and farm in Virginia.
But when Wilson, a Virginia Democrat, became president in 1913, he oversaw resegregation of the federal civil service after decades of racial integration. The purge of management positions dealt a bitter blow to Washington’s growing black middle class. John Davis was demoted, had his pay cut and was eventually forced to auction off the family farm.
Gordon J Davis was born after his grandfather’s death in 1928 but has studied his personnel file in depth. “He was a very self-made man, very successful in terms of the black community in those days, and then Wilson became president and all of a sudden, his life was crushed,” he said.
Wilson is still revered by many as a progressive, internationalist statesman who led America into the first world war with a statement seen as foundational for a century of US foreign policy: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” A street in Paris is named after him. His tomb resides at the Washington national cathedral.
But he was also an unabashed racist who screened the white supremacist epic Birth of a Nation at the White House. The silent film includes a caption quoting Wilson’s writing: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the south, to protect the southern country.”
We’ve reached a reckoning point of history, of reconciling the truth of American history
Last week Ivy League Princeton University in New Jersey announced that it will remove Wilson’s name from its public policy school after concluding that his racist thinking and policies “make him an inappropriate namesake”. In Washington, the Wilson Center thinktank held a special session on Thursday to “endorse a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, announce specific actions to enhance diversity and inclusion, and address President Wilson’s legacy on race”.
The President Woodrow Wilson House, where he retired from the White House in 1921 and which is now a museum nestled close to the luxury home of Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, now has a banner on its website that reads: “We Believe Black Lives Matter. We Believe Black History Matters.”
And nearly 20,000 people have signed an online petition urging that the name of Woodrow Wilson high school in the Tenleytown neighborhood be changed to one that “better reflects the school’s values of diversity, inclusion and equality of aspirations for students of all colors and backgrounds”. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the District of Columbia, has signaled her support.
Tim Hannapel, a member of the DC History and Justice Collective, which started the petition, said: “We’ve reached a reckoning point of history, of reconciling the truth of American history. People of color but also many white people are saying, how did we get here, and many people are coming to realize that Woodrow Wilson played a large role in that.
“I like to channel James Baldwin and say we have to reject the lies of history in order to make progress on addressing systemic racism. That is the amazing thing of this moment. For better or worse in America, we are doing that right now. If there is any silver lining to this, it’s a hinge moment.”
Since Floyd’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on 25 May, more than 60 statues of figures who fought for the slave-owning Confederacy in the civil war have been removed or are set to be taken down across America. The sole example in Washington, Gen Albert Pike, was toppled by protesters last month; its sole high-profile defender was Donald Trump, the current occupant of the White House, itself the product of enslaved labour.
Perhaps now more than ever, the US capital is a meeting place of complexities and contradictions.
A memorial to Thomas Jefferson faces one commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King across the Tidal Basin. Another statue of Jefferson is displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, but this time with stacks of bricks painted with the names of some of his slaves in an exhibition called The Paradox of Liberty.
A statue of former president Andrew Jackson, a demagogue who signed the Indian Removal Act, on horseback is currently fenced off in Lafayette Square outside the White House after failed attempts to yank it down. Members of Congress are pushing for Confederate statues to be removed from the US Capitol. The Washington Redskins football team announced this week that it will conduct a review of the team’s name.
Some alterations are morally clear cut and overdue; others are thornier and more ambiguous. In 1876, for example, a bronze monument was unveiled in Washington to honor Abraham Lincoln. It shows the president who won the civil war holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. An unshackled African American man in a loincloth kneels at his feet.
Much of the funding for the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park was donated by freed enslaved people, but protesters have been gathering nightly to demand its removal, arguing that it denies black people a sense of agency in winning their freedom.
Counter-protesters have put the opposite case, as have some historians. Sidney Blumenthal, a Lincoln biographer and former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “That memorial may offend certain contemporary sensibilities because it may appear condescending. The slave is kneeling; Lincoln stands over him.
“But you need to understand what that symbol is, those figures and why they’re arranged that way, and why they were completely acceptable to the entire black community of its time, which celebrated the dedication of that monument. Frederick Douglass [an abolitionist] praised the monument in his formal remarks.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting member of Congress and a key figure in its campaign for statehood, believes the statue now belongs in a museum, however. “Although formerly enslaved Americans paid for this statue to be built in 1876, the design and sculpting process was done without their input, and it shows,” she said. “The statue fails to note in any way how enslaved African Americans pushed for their own emancipation.”
America and its symbolism, if you’re African American, is full of contradictions
Gordon J Davis
That such debates are happening at all is a measure of the heightened national consciousness of racial injustice and of the paradoxes at the heart of the city’s, and the country’s, short history.
Davis, a partner at the law firm Venable in New York, reflected: “America and its symbolism, if you’re African American, is full of contradictions. It’s a world where you have to live with the contradictions of on the one hand, oh, this guy is a great American president and, on the other hand, the person as he relates to black people was a racist son of a bitch.
“You grow up with that stuff and you don’t think anything will ever change it and then you look up one day and the world is moving in a way that makes it urgent that the legacy of these people be called out and made public in a way it’s never been made public before.”