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January 26, 2022

Reckoning over Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy continues; Camden district latest to rename school

The change follows other colleges and universities in the country that have also removed the former presidents name over his past

Education Woodrow WIlson High School
Woodrow Wilson Racist PhillyVoice

President Woodrow Wilson speaks outside Independence Hall in 1919. The Camden City School District recently renamed its high school named for the former president "Eastside High" due to a national reckoning over Wilson's racist values and legacy.

After 92 years, Camden's Woodrow Wilson High – one of the city's two main public high schools – will officially be getting a new name.

The former president's "racist values" were cited as the reason the Camden City School District's board of education voted to affirm a new name at their most recent meeting, according to Superintendent Katrina McCombs. The new moniker, "Eastside High School," will go into effect for the 2022-2023 school year.

The renaming process took about two months and included forming a ten-person committee and polling roughly 200 of the school's 600-plus students. The process was slated to start in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other namesakes considered were former President Barack Obama, the civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the district's late former school board president, Martha Wilson.

Camden's school district is not acting alone, joining a nationwide wave of schools dedicated to Wilson and other prominent but racist historical figures that are changing their names.

That includes Princeton University, which scrubbed Wilson's name from its School of Public International Affairs in 2020, even though he was president of the university for eight years.

Bryn Mawr College, where the former president briefly taught in the 1880s, removed a historical marker commemorating his time at the school last year.

Additionally, Washington D.C.'s city council voted last month to rename the city's Woodrow Wilson High School the Jackson-Reed High School in honor of the school's first Black teacher, Edna Jackson, and its first Black principal, Vincent Reed.

Renaming the school had become a local political football in the capitol, as there was disagreement over who the new namesake should be. Some believed the school should be renamed in honor of famous Black playwright August Wilson.

Camden seems to have avoided this sort of conflict by going with a more generic geographic name.

The School District of Philadelphia took similar action with the Fanny Jackson Coppin School, which was named after former President Andrew Jackson until this summer.

Although his face is still on the $20 bill, Jackson is now widely acknowledged as one of the nation's most bigoted and violent leaders. He was a slave owner and a main claim to fame of his was the horrific mistreatment of American Indian populations throughout the American South.

But the Philly district does still have a Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Northeast section of the city. A spokesperson said that while there are currently no plans to rename that school, there is a process for name changes in place. It would start with the submission of a school name request form to the district.

The former president is perhaps best known for guiding the nation through World War I, but he also had a strong distaste for African Americans.

Despite winning over some Black voters in the 1912 election, Wilson went on to re-segregate several federal agencies which had been integrated in the wake of the Civil War, including the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Postal Service.

Wilson also personally fired 15 of the 17 Black supervisors in the federal service in 1912 and replaced them with white appointees.

As a native white southerner descended from Confederate soldiers, he was known to be deeply sympathetic to the Confederate cause and openly supported the Ku Klux Klan.

He was even directly quoted three times in "The Birth of a Nation," one of the country's earliest films from 1915. The movie is a silent epic drama glorifying the Klan and led to a nationwide resurgence in the group's popularity.

Although Wilson was born in Virginia, raised in Georgia and South Carolina and died in Washington D.C., he spent much of his adult life in New Jersey.

Wilson transferred to Princeton University from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1875, where he studied history and political science. He became a member of the the Pi Kappa Psi fraternity and graduated in 1879, then returned to his home state to attend law school at the University of Virginia.

He became the president of Princeton University in 1879 after teaching as a professor at Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University for several years.

While he hired the first Catholic and Jewish professors at the university, he also worked to keep Black people out of Princeton, even as other Ivy League schools were accepting small numbers of African American students.

Wilson briefly served as the governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913, but in 1912 he decided to run for president

Although he won in a landslide and took New Jersey, the Progressive Party's candidate Teddy Roosevelt, who had already been president once at the time, won Pennsylvania. It wasn't until 1947 that Congress ratified the 22nd amendment, which limited presidents to two four-year terms.

The Progressive Party, sometimes called the "Bull Moose Party," had a platform which included labor reforms and limiting big business' influence over the government. Roosevelt had initially run in the Republican primary, but was narrowly beaten by then-President William Howard Taft, leading him to launch a third party.

Roosevelt had initially supported Taft after he left office in 1909, but he quickly took issue with the president and decided to pursue getting his old job back.

Before this, most African Americans voters had been Republicans. However, the party's poor record on enacting civil rights reforms led some to initially support Roosevelt. But Roosevelt's record on race was also suspect, leading many Black voters to consider the Democratic Party for the first time. In his campaign, Wilson reached out to these African American voters.

Although he never renounced his support for segregation or his racist pseudo-academic takes on Black people, many African Americans took his vague promises of equality as evidence that he would ultimately come down on the side of civil rights reforms.

Wilson quickly reneged on his commitments, and those civil rights reforms wouldn't come for another five decades. 

Still, this was the beginning of a demographic and partisan reorganization in the U.S. By the 1932 election, former President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party had the support of the vast majority of Black voters nationwide – a status quo Democrats still enjoy to this day.

In 1912, Wilson's Democratic Party took home four times as many electoral votes as the Republican and Progressive parties did combined. A socialist candidate named Eugene Debs also ran that year, but received zero electoral votes.