Princeton University’s decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school because of the former president’s “racist thinking and policies” points to the complexity of Black-Jewish relations in the United States, and to problems in our definition of greatness. The man whom African Americans revile as a villain turns out to have been a hero to the Jewish people.
Jews long admired Wilson for his intellect and political liberalism, as well as for the warm appreciation he displayed toward Jews at a time when so many other Americans were overtly anti-Semitic. When Wilson first ran for president, in 1912, a remarkable political ad in Boston’s Jewish Advocate urged readers to join with “practically all the great Jewish leaders throughout the country” in supporting him, citing his progressive views on immigration and his willingness to abrogate a trade treaty with Russia as punishment for its violations of Jews’ human rights. In large black letters, the ad listed famous Jews who supported Wilson, including financier Jacob H. Schiff, philanthropist Nathan Straus, and ambassador Henry Morgenthau. It urged all “thinking Jews” to join them.
As president, Wilson, frequently consulted with attorney Louis Brandeis, and in 1916, courageously nominated him as the first Jew ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He continued to back him in the face of widespread opposition from prominent businessmen and lawyers, and succeeded in pushing the nomination through the Senate. The appointment marked a turning point in American Jewish history.
Wilson’s championing of both Louis Brandeis and Zionism elevated him to the status of a hero in Jewish history books. Alfred J. Kolatch and David G. Dalin, for example, conclude in their book, “The Presidents of the United States and the Jews,” published in 2000, that “perhaps more than any other president, Woodrow Wilson had the utmost respect and admiration for the Jewish people.” They recount that Jews of his day considered him “a hero and a savior, a man of principle and ethical uprightness.” The twenty-eighth president’s legacy, they predicted, “will loom large in the annals of Jewish history.”
Students of African American history, of course, learn a totally different narrative concerning Woodrow Wilson. He was a child of the Deep South, raised in Georgia and South Carolina, and he absorbed the prejudices of his surroundings. He staunchly defended segregation. He espoused racism, characterizing Blacks as “an ignorant and inferior race.” He sought to disenfranchise Black Americans, calling them “unfitted by education for the most usual and constant duties of citizenship.” As President, he dismissed as many Blacks as he could from government service.