The recent protests at Princeton University regarding Woodrow Wilson have been of particular interest to many of us in Staunton and beyond. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, we share the full story of Woodrow Wilson with visitors.
We discuss his many domestic achievements and his support of global democracy. We talk about his leadership during World War I and his plan for world peace after the war through his Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also the first President to nominate a Jewish member to the Supreme Court. As we address his achievements, we also discuss his failures and flaws, including Wilson’s views on race and his role in segregating federal government offices during his presidency.
The mission of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library is to educate on the life and times of Woodrow Wilson. To study history, one must understand the time in which the subject, in this case Woodrow Wilson, lived. It is unwise, even wrong to judge an historical figure based on today’s standards. A true study of history requires us to consider the culture, attitudes and conditions during the time in which the subject lived.
Wilson’s views on race are deplorable but very common in his day. Wilson was a child of the South during the Civil War, and he saw first hand the devastation and carnage. During the war, his father, a Presbyterian minister in Augusta Georgia, had the pews removed from his church to convert the space into a Confederate hospital. Wilson resided in four southern states by the time he was seventeen, and he experienced the reconstruction of the South after the war was over. Does this make his racism okay? Absolutely not, but by understanding his background, we learn a little more about his later actions and attitudes.
Woodrow Wilson was not the first president to hold racist beliefs and he certainly was not the last. Our founding fathers who owned slaves and held racist beliefs built our nation. It is a slippery slope when we begin renaming buildings and institutions. What comes next? Must we hide the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and refuse to discuss them? After all, we cannot truly understand these documents without studying the beliefs and motivations of the authors and the signers.
History is not always pretty because our ancestors were human beings with flaws — just like each one of us. We cannot remove someone from our history simply because we have judged parts of their legacy as unworthy by current standards. If we were to eliminate every historic figure deemed offensive in some way, we would have no one left — and nothing to learn from their lives.
As uncomfortable as it can be, we cannot hide our history and pretend it did not happen. Rewriting history is not the answer. As a gentleman recently asked my colleague “How will my children learn history if that history is taken away?” We must study our past, warts and all, to understand and appreciate who we are, where we have been and what we can learn from it.
By studying our shared history, we learn how we have evolved as a society. We learn about human nature and how a hero can also be a villain. Good people can be capable of horrible things and horrible people can do great things. We also learn from our failures to avoid repeating the past. History teaches us, it inspires us, and hopefully, helps us become better people.
Robin von Seldeneck, CEO Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum