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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Woodrow Wilson

As Jim Crow laws mushroomed in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson , African-Americans saw hope in the presidential campaign of Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey in 1912. According to Wilson biographer Arthur S. Link, African-Americans strongly supported Wilson for President in the hope that he would treat them with compassion. In supporting Wilson, African-Americans had to overlook the fears raised by his Virginia birth. They also had to overlook the fact that as president of Princeton University he had prevented African-Americans from enrolling and that as a professor, university president, and Governor of New Jersey, he had never "lifted his voice in defense of the minority race," as Link put it.

At one point, he released a statement to the National Colored Democratic League assuring the members that he opposed "unfair discriminating laws against any class or race" and believed "that the qualifications for voting should be the same for all men." He added:

I want to assure them through you that should I become President of the United States, they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing and for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United States.

When Oswald Garrison Villard, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), visited Wilson shortly after the inauguration, the President seemed interested in Villard's idea of a National Race Commission to study race relations. A few months later, however, Wilson tried to avoid meeting with Villard again, but finally wrote to him. Link summarized:

Wilson had to tell him that the political situation was too delicate for any such action, that the appointment of the Commission would incite the resentment of Southerners in Congress, whose votes he needed for the success of his legislative program.

Villard's disappointment over Wilson's abandonment of the Race Commission was nothing, however, compared with his consternation at the way in which Southern race concepts gained ascendancy in Congress and in the administration. Southerners were riding high in Washington for the first time since the Civil War, demanding segregation in the government departments and public services and the dismissal or down-grading of Negro civil servants.

In 1913, Wilson took no action to stop his departments from segregating African-Americans from their white counterparts, dismissing those who objected, and downgrading others. Link quoted the Collector of Internal Revenue in Georgia as announcing, "There are no Government positions for Negroes in the South."

Here is Link's view of Wilson:

The truth is that, although he never shared the extreme anti-Negro sentiments of many of his contemporaries, Wilson remained throughout his life largely a southerner on the race question. He had an extravagant and romantic love for the South, which increased in direct ratio to his absence from the region . . . . As a matter of fact, [the first] Mrs. Wilson [who died in August 1914] felt much more strongly about drawing the color line than did her husband, but both were opposed to social relations between the races

Link offered a limited defense of Wilson:

Throughout his incumbency, Wilson stood firm against the cruder demands of the white supremacists, but he and probably all of his Cabinet believed in segregation, social and official.

Citing some of Wilson's writings on the subject before he became President, Link said:

This is not to argue that Wilson during this period was an ardent champion of civil and political rights for the Negro. It is only to say that he held views very advanced in the South at this time and that he absorbed these views, not from the South, but from the nonsouthern academic environment in which he matured.

And again:

The last area in which southern influence was decisive in determining the policies of the Wilson administration was the federal government's policy toward Negroes. Here the southern contribution was definitely retrogressive and proved that it was impossible for white southerners of all shades of opinion to get much beyond the rationale of slavery. Suffice it to say that Wilson practically sacrificed the Negroes on the altar of political expediency, by allowing segregation in the government departments, dismissal and downgrading of Negro civil servants in the South, and the like, in order to win southern support for his program. [Link, Arthur S., "The Negro as a Factor in the Campaign of 1912," The Higher Realism of Woodrow Wilson and Other Essays , Vanderbilt University Press, 1971, and Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era 1910-1917 , Harper and Brothers, 1954, pages 64-66.]

Author Jerrold M. Packard provided a less measured view of Wilson. He "wasn't a particularly vicious racist, but rather an intellectually convinced white supremacist who practiced the racial mores of his upbringing." Although he had courted the African-American vote and received more than any previous Democrat, he brought with him "not racial justice but instead Southern power and with it Southern racial mores." His segregation of the Federal workforce "resulted in weakening this exceptionally hard-won black presence in government." He appointed racist southerners to his Cabinet who "zealously followed their boss's lead." The entire workplace-work stations, cafeterias, rest rooms-was segregated. [Packard, Jerrold M., American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow , St. Martins Griffin, 2002, p. 124]

President Wilson would sign the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 on January 11, 1916, launching the Federal-aid highway program. The bill illustrated the dominance of southern officials. The draft of the bill had been crafted by a committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials meeting in Oakland, California, on September 11, 1915. The members were

  • George P. Coleman, Chairman, Virginia.
  • W. D. Sohier, Massachusetts.
  • Thomas H. MacDonald, Iowa.
  • E. A. Stevens, New Jersey.
  • Lamar Cobb, Arizona.
  • Joseph Hyde Pratt, North Carolina
  • Henry G. Shirley, Maryland.

(President Wilson was a friend of Stevens and, while serving as Governor, had appointed him State Highway Commissioner.)

Logan Page, a Virginia native who headed the U.S. Office of Public Roads in the Department of Agriculture, brought the bill to Senator John H. Bankhead of Alabama, who was Chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. Bankhead, with Page allowed on the Senate floor to answer questions from other Senators, secured approval of the bill. In conference with the House to reconcile differences in their approved bills, Bankhead prevailed in securing passage of his bill, with some modifications.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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