Recent student protests at Princeton regarding President Woodrow Wilson may seem far removed from Columbia, but Wilson’s views on race are part of our everyday conversations at the Woodrow Wilson family home. Since reopening the historic site in February 2014, Richland County and Historic Columbia have operated the museum as a place that explores the Reconstruction era, considers its impact on Wilson and promotes open dialogue on all aspects of Wilson’s presidency.
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The Wilsons moved to their home at the corner of Hampton and Henderson streets in 1871 when the future president was 14. This was in the middle of the Reconstruction era, a tumultuous period between the conclusion of the Civil War and the beginning of legally sanctioned segregation across the South. Race, inextricably interwoven into politics and power, was central to the experience of blacks and whites in Columbia in 1871. Racial matters structured lives in ways codified by law and negotiated through generations-old social customs. It was within this context that a white, privileged Southern teenager began to form his impressions of the world and grow intellectually.
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Woodrow Wilson is considered a successful two-term president, who led America to victory in the First World War. He is perhaps best known for laying the groundwork for the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. He is often held out as one of America’s most effective presidents. But missing from the usual narrative on Wilson’s legacy is a discussion of his domestic policies, particularly those involving racial segregation.
Wilson campaigned in 1912 on a platform of racial inclusion, but went in the opposite direction once in office. His actions to re-segregate federal offices that had been at least partially integrated took racial reconciliation backwards. His association with public figures who championed legal segregation of the races sent a message to white and black alike that he eschewed policies that would bring about more equal treatment of blacks and whites.
In photos: Touring the Woodrow Wilson House
The mindset behind these policies had its foundation within the very era in which Wilson grew into an adult in Columbia. Exhibits and guides at the Woodrow Wilson family home tackle these challenging issues and discuss the structural segregation in the post-Civil War era, as well as political terrorism carried out against blacks by the Red Shirts, and the apparent endorsement of Birth of a Nation in 1915 by then-President Wilson. Discussion of these issues has long been avoided but needs to be addressed in today’s world if we are going to be honest in our assessment of history and how it has shaped the world we live in today.
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As the country is engaged in dynamic and difficult conversations about race and specifically the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Historic Columbia offers a unique environment to consider how this national leader’s experiences and opinions shaped his later actions. More broadly, in opening the door to discussion about our complex past, we all may thoughtfully shape our shared future.
Ms. Waites is executive director of Historic Columbia, which manages the Woodrow Wilson family home; she oversaw the multi-year rehabilitation and re-interpretation of the site, which is the only museum of Reconstruction in the country. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.