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How Woodrow Wilson Tried to Reverse Black American Progress

July 14, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

By promoting the Ku Klux Klan and overseeing segregation of the federal workforce, the 28th president helped erase gains African Americans had made since Reconstruction.

. “And when they arrive some of them are really in shock.”

Immediately, these cabinet members began to talk about segregating federal government employees by race. Wilson allowed his cabinet to do this despite protests by civil rights activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter—whom Wilson angrily threw out of the Oval Office during a 1914 meeting in which Trotter made the case against segregation. A transcript of that meeting reveals that Wilson had argued, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

During Wilson’s presidency, he allowed his cabinet to segregate the Treasury, the Post Office, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Navy, the Interior, the Marine Hospital, the War Department and the Government Printing Office. This meant creating separate offices, lunchrooms, bathrooms and other facilities for white and Black workers. It also meant dismissing Black supervisors, cutting off Black employees’ access to promotions and better-paying jobs and reserving those jobs for white people.

“The federal government was one of the few employers in the whole country that gave African Americans a shot; in particular a shot at career and social mobility,” Yellin says. In Washington D.C., where most of these federal jobs were based, this led to increases in homeownership among Black families. After Wilson’s presidency, Black homeownership fell in D.C., Yellin says, in part because Black federal employees no longer had access to those better jobs and salaries.

Even though these practices weren’t codified by federal law, segregation persisted in the civil service over the next several decades, preventing Black Americans in D.C. and throughout the country from obtaining better jobs and pay to support themselves, their families and their communities.

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