Headdshot of a smiling William E. Jackson '57
William E. Jackson ’57

William E. Jackson Jr. ’57 (He/Him)

The August 27, 2021, bulletin sent to the Davidson College community from the chair of the Board of Trustees highlighted: “Special Committees’ Work Expresses College’s Foundational Values.” 

Alison Mauzé drew attention to two new “special committees”: the “Committee on Acknowledgement and Naming”—note: the power of naming—and the “Committee on Commemoration.” They will work to express the college’s “foundational values.” Both panels are headed by African-American alumni: Erwin Carter ‘79, of Greenville, SC, and Virgil Fludd ‘80 of Atlanta, GA.

On foundational values, Mauzé wrote: “Davidson is grounded in the Christian Reformed Tradition and therefore faithful to a God bound by no church or creed. We value religious and racial diversity and inclusion, deplore racism and bigotry, and advocate for a more just world.”

The year before, on June 27, 2020, Princeton University—to which Davidson has long had close ties—made a big announcement that made national headlines: “Princeton Renames Wilson School and Residential College, Citing Former President’s Racism.” 

The statement from Mauzé and the one from Princeton’s trustees are connected by a historical thread, as they bear upon Woodrow Wilson’s past associations with both institutions. 

In the Princeton statement, the trustees said of the Wilson School decision: “We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms.”

The Princeton changes had been recommended by President Christopher Eisgruber, who noted in a separate statement that Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential—“even by the standards of his own time.” Think about that!

Eisgruber acknowledged that “people will differ about how to weigh Wilson’s achievements and failures. Part of our responsibility as a University is to preserve Wilson’s record in all of its considerable complexity.” 

At Davidson College in my junior and senior years, Dr. Harold Ford, a Californian, was my professor of political science. He was on leave from a senior post in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1986, he retired from the Agency, as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). 

(A second progressive influence was professor of diplomatic history, Samuel R. Spencer, Jr., a South Carolinian who later, in 1968, became a reformist president of the college in regard to civil rights and racial attitudes.) 

Ford was a graduate of the Hans Morgenthau ‘political realism’ school in international relations theory at the University of Chicago. He was not enamored of Woodrow Wilson.

That is when I learned of the conflicting sides to the minister’s son, political scientist, president of Princeton University and the President of the United States, 1913 to 1921. 

Herewith: imperfect memories from the middle fifties:

Not long after the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision on desegregating schools in 1954, we one thousand male students were occasionally treated to guest speakers on Wilson—most notably Princeton historian Arthur Link—who heralded Wilson’s “14 Points” or guidelines for rebuilding the world after the First World War. Number 14 called for a “general association of nations” that would offer “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike.” 

But there was never a word about race relations in the United States during these visits; or President Wilson’s terrible treatment of African-Americans in the District of Columbia by the federal government. He had been a major party to ‘keeping them in their place.’

After a Wilson Foundation representative presented to Davidson College (in chapel, no less) 14 acorns from the trees on the Woodrow Wilson House estate, to be planted on the Davidson campus, students posted small signs that read “Woodrow Wilson slept here” at the base of a large oak tree; or “Woodrow Wilson held high office here” placed high up in a tall tree; or “Woodrow Wilson cut class here 14 times” posted outside Chambers.

A distinguished history professor would begin his well-attended course on the Civil War: “Gentlemen, I am well aware that the South lost the Civil War. But let us begin in the hope that we can arrive at a different ending, this time.” It was meant as humor, of course, to an audience mostly made up of students from southeastern states.

It was at Columbia University where I read up on Woodrow Wilson, including Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (1956)—an effort to study the life of Wilson in the light of psychoanalytic theory. As a political scientist, Wilson’s most original works were Congressional Government (1885); and Constitutional Government in the United States (1911). 

Yes, Wilson was a product of his time and place. On race, Woodrow Wilson did not escape “the burden of Southern history”—the title of C. Van Woodward’s 1960 classic. Even though, after Davidson, he went on to study at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, during Reconstruction, there is no record of any serious reconsideration of his racial attitudes. Quite the contrary.  Imagine Wilson showing the KKK film—“The Birth of A Nation”—in the White House in 1915!

Davidson College needs to establish greater distance between Woodrow Wilson and his first, brief (1873-1874) alma mater. The college should petition N.C. authorities to remove the historical marker on Main Street that bears his name, beneath that of Revolutionary War Gen. William Lee Davidson. 

It is not a matter of political correctness; but one of historical reckoning. For far too long, the prevailing approach to Wilson at Davidson has been — to borrow a phrase from Woodward’s book—“Look Away, Look Away.” 

William E. Jackson Jr. ‘57 (he/him) was an Assistant Professor of political science at Davidson from 1968-1973. He later served in senior posts in the US Senate and the State Department. Write him at 109 St. Albans Ln, Davidson, NC, 28036. 

ADDENDUM from William E. Jackson Jr. ‘57 : There were few African-American students at Davidson when I taught there. One was very prominent: NCAA Basketball All-American, Mike Maloy, from the borough of Queens, New York. The first black player for the Davidson Wildcats—recruited by Lefty Driesell–Mike enrolled in my course on “Southern Politics.” He played basketball in Europe; and taught at the American International School in Vienna. He was a citizen of both the United States and Austria. Mike died in Vienna in 2009.