PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) – African American students Kristen Coke and Jameil Brown enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University not knowing much about the school’s namesake aside from his oft-touted positive accomplishments, from the changes he made as the university’s president to elevate the school’s stature to his progressive record during his two terms as a U.S. president.
It wasn’t until their junior year that they began to learn more about his record on race and his views toward African Americans and women. Now seniors, both students were among the first to see a new exhibit Princeton is launching Monday that will more fully explore who Wilson was – openly and publicly acknowledging his bigotry alongside the progressivism for which he is so revered.
“When we were freshmen here, there definitely was not really any conversation about what Woodrow Wilson’s legacy was as a whole,” said Coke, 21, who is Black. “There’s lots of things that we do here on campus to exalt his name … When I started critically looking at his legacy, it made me start to think, ‘Who are we celebrating?”’
“In the Nation’s Service? Wilson Revisited” will run through Oct. 28. An interactive version is also available online, inviting viewers to tweet their reactions. The exhibit features about a dozen panels outlining highlights from Wilson’s life, putting him in context of his era while emphasizing that he was a man apart from it.
“What we were trying to do here is take the line that separates ‘Wilson good’ and ‘Wilson bad’ and expand it,” said Daniel Linke, archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton and curator of the exhibit. “There’s a nuanced debate to be had. He’s still affecting us today.”
Princeton was challenged to take a deeper look into Wilson’s life in the fall, when a group of students raised questions about his racist roots and their impact on his worldview and policy. The Black Justice League held a 32-hour sit-in inside the president’s office at Princeton, demanding Wilson’s name be removed from programs and buildings, and for other changes to be made on campus to make the university more diverse and inclusive. A Princeton University committee’s decision whether to change the name is imminent.
Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Wilson School, said the students have opened a helpful dialogue that is part of a national conversation.
“It’s important for students to understand great people are complicated,” Rouse said. “Rarely is someone black or white. We have to learn to live with that complexity. It’s what we’re grappling with on campuses across the country. We can sandblast a name from the building, but to actually change how we operate, and what our community is like is much harder.”
The panels explore his achievements, including his transformative role as president of Princeton from 1902 to 1910, and his years as the country’s 28th president from 1913 until 1921. Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. But he also supported segregation – including in the federal government – rolling back progress for the emerging Black middle class in the nation’s capital.
Wilson’s faults are laid bare from the beginning. One states plainly: “Among Wilson’s most serious failings was his racism and the damage it did to individual lives at home and abroad.” Another quotes him in his own words: “Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Particularly illuminating is a panel of quotes from his contemporaries, who single him out for his prejudices during his lifetime. Pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells said of Wilson that segregation “has been given a new meaning and impetus under President Wilson, and members of the (Black race) have been snubbed, degraded and humiliated during this administration as never before since freedom.”
As Brown, 23, prepares to graduate in May, he said he is thankful to be leaving with a better understanding of a person whose example, in many ways, he has been taught to emulate.
“It would be a disservice for Princeton to not give us a whole picture of one of its most venerated leaders and expect us to go forward and be thoughtful about the way we move in the world,” said Brown, who is also Black. “At Princeton, a large amount of people go into esteemed positions in the world … We have a good chance of being the next Woodrow Wilson.”