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Missed Manners: Wilson Lectures a Black Leader

In 1912 Woodrow Wilson probably received more black votes than any previous Democratic presidential candidate, but his administration proved to be a bitter disappointment to African Americans. Black voters had abandoned William Howard Taft, Wilson’s Republican predecessor, in part because he had appointed or retained a mere thirty-one black officeholders. But Wilson made only nine black appointments, and eight of these were Republican carryovers. Worse still, Wilson extended and defended segregation in the federal civil service. Black workers were forced to use inferior and segregated washrooms, and screens were set up to separate black and white workers in the same government offices. African Americans protested Wilson’s policies. One of the most famous protest delegations was led in 1914 by Monroe Trotter, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and Boston newspaper editor. Wilson found Trotter’s manner “insulting” and dismissed the delegation. The encounter made front-page news, and subsequent rallies protested Wilson’s poor treatment of Trotter. But the segregation of the federal service continued.

Mr. Monroe Trotter. Mr. President, we are here to renew our protest against the segregation of colored employees in the departments of our National Government. We [had] appealed to you to undo this race segregation in accord with your duty as President and with your pre-election pledges to colored American voters. We stated that such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, and entirely unmerited and far-reaching in its injurious effects. . . .

President Woodrow Wilson. The white people of the country, as well as I, wish to see the colored people progress, and admire the progress they have already made, and want to see them continue along independent lines. There is, however, a great prejudice against colored people. . . . It will take one hundred years to eradicate this prejudice, and we must deal with it as practical men. Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation.

Mr. Monroe Trotter. It is not in accord with the known facts to claim that the segregation was started because of race friction of white and colored [federal] clerks. The indisputable facts of the situation will not permit of the claim that the segregation is due to the friction. It is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness, doing so even through two [President Grover Cleveland] Democratic administrations. Soon after your inauguration began, segregation was drastically introduced in the Treasury and Postal departments by your appointees.

President Woodrow Wilson. If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me. . . . Your tone, with its background of passion.

Mr. Monroe Trotter. But I have no passion in me, Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken; you misinterpret my earnestness for passion.

Source: The Crisis, January, 1915, 119–20. Reprinted in William Loren Katz, Eyewitness: The Negro in American History (New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1967), 389–90.