Discrimination as Reform: Wilson's Federal Segregation


Woodrow Wilson, 1919

by Eric S. Yellin

Progress is never inevitable, even in reform eras. The United States at the turn of the twentieth century was in a progressive mood. It was a time in which the nation’s leaders tackled some of modern life’s most vexing problems: from taming rapacious industrialization to ensuring a clean food supply to cleaning up political corruption, American progressives were seeking a more harmonious and salubrious national life. But for African Americans, even those closest to progressive national leaders, this was a period of disappointment and devastation.

John Abraham Davis, for example, experienced declining fortunes in the Progressive Era. In 1912, the year of the presidential election that pitted Progressive Theodore Roosevelt against progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Davis was earning $1200 a year supervising federal clerks in the Government Printing Office. At 50 years old, he owned valuable real estate in Virginia and the District of Columbia, and he was so confident of his rising status that he chose the inimitable Roosevelt as his personal model. Two years later, Davis was ferrying letters as a low-level messenger, his pay a paltry $500 a year. In order to continue to educate his brilliant children (at the elite colleges Williams and Wellesley), Davis was forced to liquidate his wealth and take on debt. He died in 1928, 66 years old and financially ruined.

What happened? Woodrow Wilson won in 1912, and when he arrived in the nation’s capital in March 1913, he brought with him an administration loaded with white supremacists. His lieutenants segregated offices, harassed black workers and removed black politicians from political appointments that had been held by black men for more than a generation. Though racism had always been a part of life in Washington and its government buildings, the U.S. civil service had never been formally segregated prior to Wilson’s inauguration. Thousands of African Americans like Davis had taken the national civil service examination after the Civil War and pulled political strings to land good jobs with decent pay in federal offices. That route to social mobility for educated and hard-working black Americans was closed off by the time Wilson convinced Americans to fight for democracy in World War I.

Historians have long known that Wilson was a racist whose administration wreaked havoc on the government careers of African Americans in the 1910s. These scholars have sought to inject this fact into a broad consensus that Wilson was a progressive president. They have largely succeeded in revealing Wilson’s racism but not in deepening and complicating the history of the Progressive Era.

To focus on Wilson’s personal racism is to miss a much larger story about the American state, progressive politics and the racial regime in twentieth-century America. What ended in Wilson’s administration was not merely a few careers of black Republicans nor was one man’s prejudice the only fetter on the prospects of black Americans. Instead, in its attack on a nationally known and symbolic black middle class, “federal segregation” signaled the U.S. government’s support for a national racial regime in which African Americans were not only politically disfranchised but also professionally and economically hobbled. Particularly damaging was the progressive justification given by Wilson and others, whose ideas about black corruption and the inevitability of racial “friction” allowed them and others to portray discrimination as reform.

To appreciate this broader meaning of “federal segregation,” we must begin fifty years earlier, in Abraham Lincoln’s Washington. Lincoln was a savvy politician, not just a visionary leader. As he girded the United States for battle against secessionist southerners in 1861, he sought not only to protect the Union but also to consolidate his young political party through the careful doling out of public jobs. “The sweep made by the Republicans in 1861 was the cleanest in our history,” explained the great political historian Carl Russell Fish in 1901. Lincoln used patronage to drive as many Democrats as possible from Washington, D.C., turning his administration into a treasure chest of “spoils” for his party’s supporters. Over the next few years Republicans flooded into a federal government swollen permanently by war and Reconstruction.

Within a decade, two political shifts had brought dramatic change to the complexion of the American state. First, the Democratic Party had been vanquished from national government, destroyed first by a disastrous 1864 campaign against the increasingly beloved Lincoln and then by the political neutering of white southerners during Reconstruction. Ten of the twelve presidential elections between 1860 and 1912 went to the Republicans, and Democrats controlled Congress for just four of those years.

Second, the enfranchisement of the freed men sent black men not just to the polls but also into the state apparatus. Lincoln’s partisan manoeuvering ensured that patronage schemes were endemic in postwar government, and savvy African Americans exercised their democratic right to the spoils. In Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and elsewhere in the postwar South, African Americans became essential spokes in the wheels of state management. In Washington, D.C., federal offices employed black men and women at every level: John Abraham Davis was managing both black and white workers. Even as violence and disfranchisement in the 1880s and 1890s began to demolish black citizenship in the South, Republican Presidents Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley supported and promoted black politicians, who turned the District of Columbia into a safe haven from Jim Crow.

This island of possibility in the nation’s capital survived the resurrection of the white southern oligarchy. Republicans in Congress always had enough power over the District to ensure the color line would not be drawn there: Washington, for example, remained the southern-most city in the United States that did not segregate its public transportation. To be sure, there was discrimination there: D.C. residents lacked the right to vote in part because white leaders had feared the political power of the city’s black masses. Poverty and residential segregation placed thousands of black families into rotten alley dwellings. But African Americans everywhere saw Washington as the pinnacle of black progress. The elite families in grand mansions, the strivers in college classrooms, the powerful in presidential appointments, the middle managers in federal offices: it all made for a real-life vision of what black America could be with genuine opportunity. And for all of the damage racists were inflicting elsewhere, the number of jobs and promotions for black government workers had grown steadily since emancipation.

When the 1912 elections handed Democrats executive and legislative control over Washington, many administrators and congressmen arrived with the specific goal of redeeming the capital for white supremacy. “Long ago we determined that [the Negro] never should be our master,” explained one of Wilson’s administrators, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury John Skelton Williams. Williams vowed “stern, final, definite prohibition” of any “social or political equal[ity].” Wilson appointed white men to important executive positions usually held by leading black politicians, and racist bureaucrats went out of their way to humiliate ordinary black clerks. “The reputation, which I have been able to acquire and maintain at considerable sacrifice of time and effort,” John Abraham Davis told his supervisors, “is to me (foolish as it may appear to those in the 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 enough.” In a few cases, long-serving black civil servants were dismissed entirely, sending them out into an employment market with no decent place for educated African Americans. It was the end of Washington’s heyday as the center of elite black America; the nation’s capital now stood for a nationwide ethic of white supremacy.

Crucial to that ethic was not merely a belief in black inferiority but also the presumption that “racial mixing” caused corruption in American institutions. African Americans needed to be kept down because they were troublesome to the proper functioning of American society. Equality and efficiency for white Americans was predicated upon racial segregation. “We are all practical men,” Wilson told the civil rights pioneer William Monroe Trotter in 1914. “We know that there is a point at which there is apt to be friction, and that is in the intercourse between the two races.” Removing such friction, progressives argued, enhanced American democracy.

Wilsonians erased, at least from white minds, fifty years of black accomplishments in Washington, and in doing so, managed to provide the justification for progressive racism for decades to come. Even when Republicans returned to power in 1921, administrators continued to explain away discrimination under the mantle of “good government” and administrative necessity. State power, progressive reform and white supremacy combined to ensure that segregation meant more than separation: it meant that African Americans would be denied the social mobility progressives hoped to underwrite for all hard-working Americans. It meant turning the cultural construction of racial conflict into an unalterable truth. “We must strip this thing of sentiment and look at the facts,” Wilson had demanded. These were facts that, in the eyes of the white majority, required the separation of African Americans not just from their neighborhoods but from the levers of American political and economic power. African Americans resisted and protested against federal discrimination, but they could not overcome the Wilsonians and their “progressivism.”

About the Author:

Eric S. Yellin is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at University of Richmond. His first book, Racism in the Nation’s Service chronicles the rise and fall of a community of African American public servants whose success reveals the lie of white supremacy and whose demolition illustrates the power and practice of American racism.