Letter to Cornel West


Thomas Woodrow Wilson graduated from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, in 1879. In 1886, he was awarded a Ph.D. in history and government from Johns Hopkins University, then in 1890 joined the faculty of newly-renamed Princeton. In 1902, he was appointed President of the university. October, 1910 he submitted his resignation and in 1911, became governor of New Jersey. In 1912, he was elected President of the United States and served until 1921. In addition to his achievements mentioned in the letter following, during his U.S. presidency he sponsored the Nineteenth Amendment which gave all women the right to vote.
But at the same time, Wilson segregated black and white workers in the U.S. Postal Service and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and in writings and comments indicated great doubts about the mental equality between whites and blacks.

Because of the taint of Wilson’s racism, following the murder in 2020 of George Floyd, Jr. by police in Minneapolis, trustees of Princeton University ordered Wilson’s name removed from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

I wrote to Dr. Cornel West because for many years he was a professor of African American Studies at Princeton. After graduating from Harvard University, West became the first African American to attain a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton. From 1988 to 1994, he was director of Princeton’s program in African American studies, in 2006 helped found Princeton’s Center for African American Studies. At the time of my letter, Dr. West was on the faculty of Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary.

My letter is as yet unanswered.

12 June 2022

Dear Professor West,

I am a member of the Princeton class of 1951. After graduation, I served with the Marines in the Korean War. I then went to Columbia for a Ph.D. in English Literature, along the way teaching at Hamilton College and Columbia, finally ending up at Sarah Lawrence College for thirty-eight years. I once met you there when you came to give a seminar hosted by the late Bob Zimmerman. At that time, I asked you what you thought of John Henry Newman, and was very pleased with your positive response.

I write to you now about the Woodrow Wilson affair at Princeton. Wilson certainly provides an excellent case study for Critical Race Theory and resulting systemic racism. For many years I had been aware of Wilson’s Southern background and prejudices. I knew he approved of The Birth of the Nation. But I was completely unaware of his overt racism until the student protests at Princeton. Since then, I have read The Moralist, a recent biography of Wilson, and much more importantly, In the Nation’s Service: Woodrow Wilson’s America. I thought that book well researched, well written, and fair-minded.

Here is my problem. Wilson’s racism and its consequences should be fully recognized, but what about the good that he did? At Princeton, he threw out the eating clubs (who let them back in?), transformed the college into a world-class university, admitted Catholics. As President of the U.S., he created a modern Democratic party, established the Federal Reserve System, and appointed the first Jew to the Supreme Court. Internationally, he created the League of Nations, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is the father of all international organizations which foster peace among nations. Doesn’t the good mitigate the crimes of the past? Is it just to erase him from the School of Public and International Affairs?

Obviously, I am sympathetic to the first resolution of the crisis after the board considered the view of a dozen or more scholars and decided to keep Wilson’s name on the school with a display acknowledging his flaws.

I would like to hear your opinion about this. For this situation—or ones like it—now occur all across the nation. Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson’s white America, North and South, was filled with racism. I recently read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was shocked to discover that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and his Harvard cohorts who fought in the Civil War, to a man abhorred slavery and yet considered Blacks mentally inferior.

One can easily indict our whole history. Why stop with Wilson when Witherspoon and Madison are nearby?

The debates that follow have two poisonous results. First, they often end in win or lose solutions, as in the case of Wilson, and often backfire into fueling right wing and ultra-conservative reactions such as banning Critical Race Theory. Second, they also result in well-intentioned white responders who attempt to purify themselves from any taints of racism, transferring guilt onto the dead.

So, to my mind, Critical Race Theory should be handled like a fraternal correction, offered with love or at least understanding. It should involve some tempering of judgment with mercy. As you, above all public intellectuals, seem to understand this, I am seeking your thoughts about the Woodrow Wilson School and these issues in general. To me, the restoring of Wilson’s name will come only from African American scholars.

Please accept my great respect for your work.

Yours sincerely,

William Park

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