Monmouth University to Remove Woodrow Wilson’s Name From Building

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

June 21, 2020

Officials at Monmouth University in New Jersey said they were renaming Woodrow Wilson Hall to “foster a genuinely fair, inclusive and supportive community for all.”Credit...

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Monmouth University in New Jersey said it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its marquee building after administrators, professors and students said that the former president held abhorrent views on race and reinstituted segregation in the federal work force.

The decision contrasted with a vote by Princeton University’s trustees in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on campus buildings and programs, despite student protests that led to a review of his legacy there.

Monmouth’s trustees also voted in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on an elaborate 1929 mansion that is the campus’s crown jewel. But in the four years since, “the context has changed,” Monmouth’s president, Patrick F. Leahy, said on Saturday.

“Wilson was a controversial politician, and I think it has heightened awareness in 2020 about some of his racist policies,” he said.

The decision was a sign of the many ways that American institutions are being forced to confront their links to racism amid the worldwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd last month. Across the country, corporations, universities and government buildings have removed or reconsidered names, icons and symbols of racial oppression.

In Camden, N.J., officials announced they planned to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Our students will walk into a new building not tied to a building with a racist legacy,” Camden’s superintendent, Katrina McCombs, said.

Wilson served as president of Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey before he was elected president of the United States in 1912. While he is perhaps best known as the architect of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and is considered by some to be a founder of modern liberalism, his legacy has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Historians, including some at Monmouth, have said that Wilson believed in white supremacy and advanced policies to support his racist worldview. A Democrat, he appointed a cabinet that was heavy on Southern racists, including William McAdoo as treasury secretary and Albert Burleson as postmaster general, both of whom quickly pushed to segregate their departments, demoting and firing many black people.

“He was behind his own times on race and many scholars have concluded that,” said Hettie V. Williams, an assistant professor of African-American history at Monmouth, who was on a panel that recommended changing the building’s name.

The decision was a sign of the many ways that American institutions are being forced to confront their links to racism amid the worldwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd last month. Across the country, corporations, universities and government buildings have removed or reconsidered names, icons and symbols of racial oppression.

In Camden, N.J., officials announced they planned to rename Woodrow Wilson High School, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Our students will walk into a new building not tied to a building with a racist legacy,” Camden’s superintendent, Katrina McCombs, said.

Wilson served as president of Princeton University and as governor of New Jersey before he was elected president of the United States in 1912. While he is perhaps best known as the architect of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, and is considered by some to be a founder of modern liberalism, his legacy has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Historians, including some at Monmouth, have said that Wilson believed in white supremacy and advanced policies to support his racist worldview. A Democrat, he appointed a cabinet that was heavy on Southern racists, including William McAdoo as treasury secretary and Albert Burleson as postmaster general, both of whom quickly pushed to segregate their departments, demoting and firing many black people.

“He was behind his own times on race and many scholars have concluded that,” said Hettie V. Williams, an assistant professor of African-American history at Monmouth, who was on a panel that recommended changing the building’s name.

The board’s decision came after it voted in 2016 to keep Wilson’s name on the building.

In 2016, Paul R. Brown, who was Monmouth’s president at the time, said that many alumni had expressed the view that while “Wilson’s racist views are abhorrent, he was a product of his time, and that judging the values of a previous era by our own standards could lead toward the path of erasing unpleasant facts of history, which is never an appropriate action for any academic institution.”

In 2016, Princeton’s board also voted to keep Wilson’s name on its programs and buildings, despite a student sit-in to protest racial injustice.

Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said at the time that the trustees had “rightly reached the conclusion” that the best way to pursue diversity and inclusion “is not by tearing down names from the past but rather being more honest about our history, including the bad parts of our history.”

Professor Williams said she was glad Wilson’s name will be removed from Monmouth’s most prominent building.

“It makes you question whether or not society cares about you or your life to elevate this individual who really had no direct connection to the physical space there,” she said. “It’s a history of racial trauma, and that will be removed just by the simple act of walking in that building.”

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