Let me first relate that it is truly exhilarating to see African-American collegians so active in fighting for their rights; such activism reminds me of my time on the campus of The Ohio State University where the Black student body would not only mobilize, but also address perceived racial slights in the strongest manner possible. We felt that it was not a right, rather a duty to meet any challenge, large or small, intentional or unintentional, with a unified front.
There is absolutely no doubt that for African-American collegians attending either a Historically Black College or a Predominantly White Institution that there is always something to protest. However, as a Historian, I must share that there is one thing that can not and should not be tampered with, that being, the history of the institution that you have willfully chosen to attend.
The historical record of an institution, whether positive or negative, is quite simply a recording of the people and events that make-up that institution. Although this thought may make you cringe, once you matriculate and become an alumnus of that institution, you will forever be associated with that history, no matter how many issues you have with it; it is yours forever.
I state that as a round about way of entering a discussion about the recent brouhaha African-American students at Princeton University caused as they sought to have Woodrow Wilson, a man who has been associated with that Ivy League institution for nearly a century, and his contributions totally erased from the school’s history.
There is no doubt that the Black students at Princeton University are particularly serious about this matter as a group calling itself The Black Justice League recently staged a 32 hour ‘sit-in’ inside of the President’s office. Their issues with Woodrow Wilson is that he was an ardent segregationist and should therefore neither be associated with nor have a School named after him at the institution that they have apparently come to love. The Black Justice League is demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from Princeton’s Public Policy School.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Woodrow Wilson is deserving of having his name adorn the aforementioned School as he served not only as Princeton’s President from 1902 to 1910, but also served as the 28th President of the United States of America; not to mention his winning the Nobel Peace Prize (1919) and serving as the primary architect of the League of Nations. I am certain that members of The Black Justice League would tell me that Wilson’s accomplishments are not the issue, it is his segregationist position.
One has to wonder several things about the Black Justice League’s foolhardy attempt to sandblast Woodrow Wilson from the annals of that vaunted Ivy League institution, the most prominent one is why are they shocked that Wilson, a man of his times, was an avowed segregationist.
Ida B. Wells, also known by her pen name of Iola, once penned that under Wilson’s leadership, segregation “…has been given a new meaning and impetus…members of the Race have been snubbed, degraded and humiliated…as never before since freedom.”
Although I understand the shock that many Black students attending this Ivy League institution must have felt when they learned that Woodrow Wilson, an individual whose name has been associated with Princeton University for nearly a full century, was a segregationist, the truth of the matter is that no amount of historical revisionism will change that fact; and it is indeed a ‘fact’ that they should not attempt to erase.
Instead of focusing upon what amounts to insignificant symbolism and minutiae such as whose name adorns a building, department, or school, if provided the opportunity I would encourage the Black Justice League, and groups like it, to focus less upon symbolism and more on substance.
In fairness to the student protesters, they did demand other concessions that are from my perspective much more substantial than having Woodrow Wilson’s name removed. It is while pursuing these other demands, such as forcing Princeton to establish a pipeline to facilitate African-American students’ pursuit of doctoral degrees, that the activism of African-American collegians is most powerful as such efforts are the only means of making gains within institutions that have historically made discrimination against African-Americans standard operating practice.
It would have been a failure if The Black Justice League were able to force Princeton to remove Wilson’s name, yet failed to secure increased access to funding, admissions, and graduate school for those African-American collegians who would later walk that campus. I say that to hopefully drive home the point that, it is truly imperative that young activists dedicate their energies toward addressing the steak (the operation of the institutions that they are associated with) and ignoring the symbolic sizzle (whose name is adorning a building) because the former is exponentially more important than the latter.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2016.