Wrestling With Woodrow Wilson’s Complicated Legacy

Historians in the News
tags: racism, segregation, Woodrow Wilson, presidential history, international relations

So, Portsmouth doesn’t want Woodrow Wilson in the picture anymore. He’s a racist and banished from the kingdom.

Well, so it goes. Wilson High School becomes Manor High School. Go Manor!

Only, you sort of wish for a little nuance, some measured reflection on all this, that perhaps the name “Wilson” would come down and the listing of a new Manor class would go up. Call it “Wilson Basics: A study of a contradictory, confounding, complex American leader.”

You would absolutely get into all the shortcomings and deficiencies, the foibles and mistakes. You would drill down on Wilson’s racial views and might even discuss the geographic, cultural setting from whence such views were derived from, i.e. Staunton, Virginia.

Staunton, by the way, is worth taking in these days, even if you avoid Wilson and the museum abutting his birthplace. Nearly every Beverley Street storefront is filled with commercial activity or, at least, was prior the COVID onslaught. The town looks great.

Wilson’s birthplace — he entered this world in 1856 — occupies a former Presbyterian manse near the east end of Beverley, where Coalter Street climbs along a ridge toward Mary Baldwin University. It’s a hilly town, like Lynchburg, which adds to its considerable charm.

The Wilson abode no longer gets labeled a “birthplace” anymore, rather the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. I go by occasionally, just to root around and see what’s new. It’s modest by modern presidential library standards.

Portsmouth, obviously, would make it even more modest.

The Wilson Library is not oblivious to present thinking and now declares that the “mission of the institution is to promote an understanding of the life and times of President Woodrow Wilson, his impact on the world, and his relevance today and for the future.

“To that end, the staff of the museum and library present educational programs, curate exhibits, maintain archives, and guide tours of the former Presbyterian manse in which he was born. We make no excuses for Woodrow Wilson’s racist beliefs,” the library says.

Really, who would? There’s no serious dispute over Wilson’s mentality. A prominent and recent biographer, Scott Berg, writes that while Wilson was largely in-step with his countrymen, his “thoughts, words, and actions were, nonetheless, racist.”

Read entire article at Norfolk Virginian-Pilot