Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

When Woodrow Wilson Segregated the Federal Workforce

Library of Congress

This week, Woodrow Wilson became the latest historical figure to be drawn into ongoing battles over the legacy of racism at colleges and universities. A group of Princeton students demanded that Wilson’s name be erased from campus facilities and programs--a huge undertaking, given that there’s an entire school at the university (where Wilson served as president before entering the White House) named in his honor.

It’s tempting to dismiss this crusade as an exercise in political correctness, but, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews points out today, Wilson has a checkered past when it comes to race relations. Indeed, he was an ardent segregationist, even by the standards of his time--especially when it came to managing the federal workforce.  

Here’s how William Keylor, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, describes the atmosphere in government when Wilson took office in 1913:

Washington was a rigidly segregated town--except for federal government agencies. They had been integrated during the post-war Reconstruction period, enabling African Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies. Wilson promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service.

At a cabinet meeting in April 1913, Matthews writes, Postmaster General Albert Burleson made the case for resegregating the Railway Mail Service. Hearing no objection from Wilson, Burleson went ahead. Soon, the discriminatory policy expanded, according to a history of African Americans’ experience at the Postal Service published by the National Postal Museum:

Segregation was quickly implemented at the Post Office Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Many African American employees were downgraded and even fired. Employees who were downgraded were transferred to the dead letter office, where they did not interact with the public. The few African Americans who remained at the main post offices were put to work behind screens, out of customers’ sight.

Both the Post Office and the Treasury Department also created separate bathrooms and lunchrooms for African American and white employees.

Wilson’s predecessors in the post-Civil War era had appointed several African Americans to high-ranking government posts. He not only put a stop to that practice, but in 1914 instituted a policy requiring federal job seekers to attach photographs to their applications.

Despite protests from civil rights leaders during his administration, Wilson refused to budge on such measures. “I would say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted in several of the departments…,” he wrote at one point, declaring that it was in African Americans’ interest to be separate from their white coworkers.

That’s at best an inconvenient truth for Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which is supposed to be training students for service in federal agencies.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.