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Princeton Protests Highlight How America’s Racist History Is Overlooked

Ozier Muhammad Dec 2

"I am ashamed I am just learning of this now,” a former big city newspaper colleague of mine recently wrote on social media after learning of the racist legacy of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

That legacy has been in the news recently thanks to protesters at Princeton University demanding the name of the School of Public and International Affairs be changed.  The School is currently named after Wilson, an arch-segregationist who served as Princeton’s president from 1902-1910 before becoming New Jersey’s governor and then the 28th President of the United States.

However, that "shame" should not be with my former colleague, the "shame," or outrage should be directed towards our institutions of education, from primary school to the upper intellectual stratosphere of academia who deliberately condone distortions and gross omissions in the history of this country.

Over the long arc of history there have been great advances that have benefited all of us. There's no question about it. But, at what cost were these advances gained?

Many Americans tend to look at our history through rose-colored glasses, which sustains the myth of American exceptionalism.

In spite of the resilience of African Americans and our ability to find a way to survive and thrive in spite of great odds, this myth of American Exceptionalism has made it tougher for African-Americans to transcend the margins of American society.

When Wilson arrived in the White House in 1913 he moved quickly to segregate the federal civil service, demoting African Americans from positions of managerial authority to ones of menial laborers while outright firing many others. 

Wilson’s racially punitive policies are just an example of the many obstacles created to stymie the ambitions of newly freed slaves. It is just one illustration of why so many of the descendants of slaves are outraged by the enduring institutional celebration of the likes of President Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and Senator John C. Calhoun at Yale University.

The current focus on college and university campuses in which protesters address structural and institutional racism gives new life to the argument that the history of the United States is stillborn.

In September a high school student in Pearland, Texas came across wording in a geography textbook that stated: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The prevailing culture and political climate of Texas might have been the reason that McGraw Hill felt that it had to distort history to sell books in that region of the country.

"The shame" is not the fault of ours as individuals. It is the fault of the prevailing powers in the political realm that intimidate school systems throughout this country into limiting the educational richness of our children and ourselves, as adults. If we pretend that slavery never existed or was not the cause of the Civil War, it is a lot easier to attack affirmative action, quotas, and African-American Studies as exclusionary and unnecessary.

The responsibility of bringing truth and fidelity to American history has fallen on the shoulders of African American parents and culturally and politically progressive Caucasian Americans.

"The shame" is the need for the Griot (oral) tradition to endure. Former New York City Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis recently wrote in The New York Times of how his grandfather’s life was ruined when Wilson’s policies caused him to be demoted in 1913 to a bottom-rung position in the civil service after a successful career of more than three decades. You can be sure that the story of Gordon J. Davis was one told over and over among the Davises through generations.

The "shame" lies with us collectively, because we seem not to be able to face the truth of our history.

Ozier Muhammad has been a photojournalist for more than three decades. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1985 for his work on hunger in Africa.

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