Princeton University announced on Monday that Woodrow Wilson’s name will stay on the school of public policy despite calls for its removal amid claims he was a racist, The Associated Press reported.
The announcement follows impassioned calls — especially by a student group called the Black Justice League (BJL) — for the removal of all references to former US president Wilson because of arguments that he was a racist and segregationist.
Wilson took office in 1913 and took great steps to demote or drive out African-Americans who had previously been appointed to well-paying government jobs, as The New York Times has pointed out. He filled the government with segregationists who shared his views, according to The Times, which pointed out that Wilson admired the Ku Klux Klan.
Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Wilson School, told the AP that students have started an important conversation by protesting the use of Wilson’s name.
“It’s important for students to understand great people are complicated,” Rouse told the AP. “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.”
Last year, the BJL led a 32-hour protest outside of university President Christopher Eisgruber’s office that drew more than 200 students, according to the Daily Princetonian.
But opinion on campus was split over the right course of action to address Wilson’s segregationist attitudes.
The editorial board of Princeton’s student newspaper — The Daily Princetonian — argued against renaming Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College in an editorial called “
Woodrow Wilson and the Black Justice League.”
“The Board acknowledges that Woodrow Wilson was a racist who espoused hateful views and rolled back the tides of racial equality,” the board wrote in an editorial that four members did not participate in. “However, we do not believe that the University should remove Wilson’s name from campus buildings.”
Rather than remove Wilson’s name from buildings, the board proposed telling a more honest story about Wilson’s legacy, without ignoring his shortcomings.
The board’s response, particularly its opposition to the renaming buildings, echoes other arguments that Princeton students were setting a dangerous precedent in their demand to whitewash history by renaming buildings on campus.
Edward Luce, a columnist for the Financial Times, wrote an op-ed in November arguing a similar point:
“Logic would demand the renaming of Washington, since America’s first president owned slaves. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were guiltier. Should they be judged solely on that? Winston Churchill was an unabashed imperialist. Yet history judges him kindly for standing up to Nazism. What about Franklin Roosevelt? America’s 32nd president did not lift a finger to advance civil rights. He also interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans in the second world war. There is no such thing as an uncomplicated historic figure.”
The editorial board of The New York Times, however, agreed with BJL in November and wrote that Princeton should have rescinded the honour it “bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist.”