How Woodrow Wilson Stoked the First Urban Race Riot

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tags: Woodrow Wilson, Urban Race Riot



Tom Lewis is an English professor at Skidmore College in New York and author of Washington: A History of Our National City.

On Monday, July 21, 1919, Washington, D.C. became a battleground. That day hundreds of black men, provoked by indiscriminate attacks from whites, bought guns from pawnshops and dusted off the military rifles they had brought home from World War I. That night they­ took their stand in and around Seventh and U streets, the black district in the capital’s northwest. Sharpshooters perched on the roof of the Howard Theater, then the tallest building on the street, while others erected crude barricades at the perimeter of the neighborhood. By dawn on Tuesday ten whites and five blacks lay dead. 

Twentieth-century America had witnessed its first urban race riot. The riots brought into stark relief the ever-present racial tensions in American life and undid decades of (albeit halting) progress for blacks in the nation’s capital. And they capped off years of racist policies and increased racial tensions in Washington, D.C, many of which can be traced to the man in the White House, a former Princeton University professor who, despite the progressive reforms for which he is most often remembered today, once referred to Reconstruction-era blacks in an Atlantic Monthly article as “a host of dusky children untimely put out of school”: President Woodrow Wilson.

During his 1912 campaign, Wilson had promised a “New Freedom” for the nation. Black voters—who cast more ballots for him than for any previous Democratic presidential candidate—trusted the assurances Wilson gave to them. But in the first weeks of his presidency, it was clear that Wilson was going to fall far short of those black supporters’ expectations. In April 1913, his postmaster general, Albert Sidney Burleson, himself the reactionary son of a Confederate major from Texas, brought the subject of segregating federal departments to the president’s cabinet meeting. He had “the highest regard for the negro and wished to help him in every way possible,” he said, but “segregation was best for the negro and best for the service.”The president, who was said to prefer the role of moderator in cabinet discussions, stated that he wished only to do “Negroes . . . justice,” but wanted “the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction.” 

Cabinet members interpreted Wilson’s timid stance as a tacit approval to segregate their departments. Burleson and the secretary of the treasury, Georgia-born William Gibbs McAdoo (who was also the president’s son-in law), ordered that their departments be segregated. “The federal government has set the colored apart as if mere contact with them were contamination,” W. E. B. Du Bois protested. “Behind screens and closed doors they now sit as though leprous. How long will it be before the hateful epithets of 'Nigger' and 'Jim Crow' are openly applied?”

The effect of Jim Crow practices in Washington was particularly stark. Before Wilson, blacks could hold jobs as clerks or assistants in federal offices and take their place among the city’s burgeoning black middle class. For them, Washington was not only the capital of the nation but also the citadel of black American intellectual and cultural life. By this time the historically black Howard University boasted serious dental, medical, architecture and law schools. Segregated Dunbar High School, which ranked with the best white school in the District, sent many students to Howard or the best eastern colleges. (Williams College in Massachusetts gave a full scholarship each year to the Dunbar graduate who ranked first in his class.) The frequent meetings of the Bethel Literary and Historical Society featured speakers like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and professors from Howard. Now, the return to segregation in federal offices was a barrier to decent, middle-class jobs for the city’s 100,000 black people—a sharp rebuke to the belief that skills and education would necessarily lead to advancement. ...





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