Institutional Racism in Woodrow Wilson’s America

This blog was written by Kierra Verdun, a rising senior at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan and is a summer intern in the Textual Processing Division at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Civic engagement is vital to the success of a representative democracy. By voicing concerns to elected officials, constituents ensure that their voices are heard. Representative democracy only benefits constituents when their elected officials are responsive in meaningful ways. Historically, some elected officials were not responsive to concerns expressed by constituents who were part of minority groups. The Wilson administration’s relationship with Black Americans proves this disconnect between ideology and reality.

In the Wilson Administration, the State Department routinely ignored and dismissed Black citizens’ pleas to speak out against lynching and other forms of discrimination. In fact, the administration was proactive in perpetuating segregation. Wilson and his cabinet actively worked to re-segregate federal offices and limit opportunity for Black Americans. A Postmaster within the Wilson administration once told reporters “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.” Documents in Record Group 59: General Records of the State Department at the National Archives provide proof of discrimination. The way in which the State Department responded to citizens concerned about racism is a clear indication of their attitudes.Alvee Adee, member of the Department of State, trivialized the effects of institutional segregation in response to D.L. Dartman, a Black citizen who was concerned about Jim Crow:

“Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of the 29th ultimo, concerning the alleged illtreatment [sic] of the colored race in the Southern states.”

govt reply 811.4013-21 Hartman

Letter from Alvey Adee to D. L. Dartman 5/5/1919

This is a loaded claim to make against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South. Jim Crow, a set of laws enacted by state and local governments in the former Confederate States of America, followed the Reconstruction period and mandated segregation of public education, public transportation, and most public facilities. This, of course, limited the opportunities afforded to Black people.  By implying that the mistreatment was alleged, and not proven, they turned a blind eye to the institutional forces that prevented black people from accessing resources essential to survival. Additionally, they minimized the impact of violence against Black Americans.

Dartman clearly did not reach a responsive member of the administration. The letter continued: “The Department regrets to have to inform you that this is not a matter for the consideration of this Department, but is rather one for national legislation.”  Curiously, conspiracies of Negro unrest were matters for the consideration of the State Department.

A document titled “Special Report No. 10,” which was forwarded to the State Department and made by the Directorate of Intelligence of the British Home Office, revealed American sentiments that “race prejudice” was nothing more than propaganda:

Spec Rpt 10

Special Report No. 10 “Unrest Among the Negroes” 10/7/1919, page 1

“It now seems clear that the riots were not the sporadic outcome of race prejudice, but the first fruits of the doctrine of socialistic equality preached by agitators to negro audiences throughout the country. . .It was hardly to be expected that colored troops could be employed in France without stirring up race-consciousness among returning soldiers.”

While there may be some truth to the claim that black socialism was gaining steam, this claim had at least one purpose: It served to de-legitimize the very valid concerns of a people who were being subjected to violence, such as lynching. According to this study, concerns were more invested in the private sentiments of a group of men than the burning and torturing of Black bodies. By framing Black organization (which was a response to violence against Black people) as a threat to democracy, this study showed little concern for the lives of Black people.

The response that addressing lynching lay outside of federal jurisdiction seemed to be a stock answer, as illustrated by the numerous responses to letters from constituents in Record Group 59. When Esther Haith, a black woman from Flint, Michigan, wrote to the Secretary of State about Jim Crow and mob violence against Black people, she requested that President Wilson issue a statement to the Associated Press condemning lynching.

Predictably, she received a stock answer:

govt reply 811.4016-13

Letter from Alvey Adee to Esther Haith, 11/27/1918

“…so far as the jurisdiction of the Federal Government extends no discrimination is shown in the protection of, and administration of justice to, American citizens of the African race.”

Ms. Haith was clearly not satisfied with this answer. As in most of their responses to concerned Black citizens, the government claimed that their hands were tied—lynching was simply not a federal matter. Ms. Haith eloquently countered this claim and pressed further in an impassioned follow-up letter.

She argued that the federal government did have jurisdiction over the issue because the state had no law against it. She took Wilson to the bridge, using the rhetoric of World War I to justify state intervention in domestic matters when she requested that someone remind President Wilson of the “private huns in his home country.” She continued,

“Since we have all had time to consider just what it means, for I admit that the Negroes had the same big idea President Wilson had when he formulated the fourteen points that Germany conceded to and asked for an armistice that everything was peaches, but we found peaches were not quite ripe so now we will have to get down to business.”

Haith closed the letter describing herself as a Christian woman. Throughout her letter, Haith demonstrated an astute understanding of the federal government and the politics of her resistance. Unfortunately, we do not have documentation of how the State Department responded. Perhaps they did not respond at all.

In writing this, I hope to shed light on the many ways in which African Americans exercised their right to free speech and practiced civic engagement. I also hope to emphasize the fact that representation in the political sense was not always accessible to minority groups. The aforementioned records provide evidence of this inequality.


Records used:

  1. Letter to Robert Lansing (Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson) from Esther Haith, and response, Nov 18, 1918. File 811.4016/13. Series: Central Decimal Files: 1910-1929 (NAID 302021). Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State.
  2. Letter to Alvey Adee (Second Assistant Secretary, Department of State) from Esther Haith, Feb 28, 1919. File 811.4016/19. Central Decimal Files: 1910-1929 (NAID 302021). Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State.
  3. Special Report No. 10, “Unrest Among the Negroes.” from the Directorate of Intelligence of the British Home Office, Oct 7, 1919. File 811.4016/27. Central Decimal Files: 1910-1929 (NAID 302021). Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State.
  4. Letter to D.L. Dartman from the State Department, May 5, 1919. File 811.4016/21. Central Decimal Files: 1910-1929 (NAID 302021). Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State
This entry was posted in Civil Rights, Civil Rights Protest & Issues, World War I Era and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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