We welcome a guest post today from Eric S. Yellin, author of Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. Between the 1880s and 1910s, thousands of African Americans passed civil service exams and became employed in the executive offices of the federal government. However, by 1920, promotions to well-paying federal jobs had nearly vanished for black workers. Yellin argues that the Wilson administration’s successful 1913 drive to segregate the federal government was a pivotal episode in the age of progressive politics. Yellin investigates how the enactment of this policy, based on Progressives’ demands for whiteness in government, imposed a color line on American opportunity and implicated Washington in the economic limitation of African Americans for decades to come.
In today’s post, Yellin addresses the centennial anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration and the introduction of Jim Crow discrimination in government offices.
This year we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Marking these two occasions serves to commemorate struggles that, despite the work still unfinished, led to lasting change. The Emancipation Proclamation, the result of Lincoln’s resolve and the forceful actions of ordinary black men and women, turned slaves’ demands for freedom into executive action. One hundred years later, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin encapsulated a national movement for equality in their March on Washington. They introduced millions to Martin Luther King, Jr. and forced Americans, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, to seek a greater society.
But halfway between these chronological markers of progress lies a different anniversary in African American history this year: the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. Wilson’s arrival in Washington, D.C., in March 1913 was a bleaker moment for social justice: his progressive administration nationalized Jim Crow racial discrimination by institutionalizing it inside the federal government. Noting this anniversary can and should recall struggle and protest, but it cannot soothe us with overcoming. It is a reminder of the selectivity and fitfulness of American progress and the dominance of American white supremacy.
In 1912, thousands of black men and women were working in federal offices in Washington, D.C. Since Reconstruction, black civil servants in Washington had been treated as equals and moved up in the government to positions of decent pay and real responsibility. Federal employment was a powerful means of social mobility for African Americans. Washington was an island of possibility for ambitious black men and women at a time when racism cordoned them off from most of the economy and set ceilings on the jobs they could get. Never free of racism or hardship, D.C. and its federal offices offered nonetheless a promising future for African Americans in a nation in which disfranchisement, peonage, violence, and terror were becoming hallmarks of black life. Holding presidential appointments such as Register of the Treasury and Auditor of the Navy Department as well as hundreds of white-collar clerical jobs, black men and women were doing the nation’s business at the turn of the twentieth century. They were participants in the modern American state, and their full citizenship was providing both political and economic rewards.
All of this began to unravel during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, but neither Roosevelt nor his successor, William Howard Taft, shut down the patronage network. Both Roosevelt and Taft appointed a number of African American politicians to federal positions, and ordinary black civil servants in Washington were largely protected from the nation’s encircling Jim Crow racism. They lost those protections in March 1913, when Democrats took the reigns of Washington with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Wilson’s administrators were intent on whitening government as part of their progressive reform efforts. Wilsonians combined criticism of Republican corruption with calls for more efficient public administration, and they viewed black Republicans in federal offices as a key impediment to “good government.”
As Wilsonians finally destroyed the complex political and administrative network that had helped to mentor, promote, and support black civil servants, they played a crucial role in fusing racial identification and economic opportunity in the United States. The once-reliable path to status and stability for black civil servants ended. Promotions vanished, harassment and indignities multiplied, and in some cases, careers ended entirely. All that was left was low-wage work that lacked the status, pay, and dignity of the white-collar careers that Republican administrators had made possible.
It was not just careers that came to an end in Woodrow Wilson’s Washington. African Americans also lost a claim to their legitimacy as American citizens and participants in the national state. Marked as corrupt and untrustworthy, black Americans have struggled ever since to clear their names as honest and trust-worthy citizens, a struggle that continues into our own time.
As we observe more uplifting anniversaries, we cannot let our celebrations of overcoming allow us to forget the deliberate and tenacious work of racists. African Americans, of course, have never lost their will and agency in the face of such pervasive power. But for so much of American history, white supremacy has been an indomitable force. Remembering uglier moments frames other times when hard work brought justice. Black protest busted a crack in the white edifice to let through slaves pursuing freedom, citizens pursuing equality. Black agency made these moments, but the power of white supremacy made them necessary.
Eric S. Yellin is associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Richmond and author of Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America.