This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition inSpecial Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will runthrough December 18, 2017.
In the century that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow wormed its way into the heart of every American institution—including the military. Despite the illustrious tradition laid down by black servicemen in the Civil War, the racial norms of the post-war years worked to beat their successive generations back into the shadows. Many branches—including the Marine Corps—entirely banned African Americans from serving. Even traditionally inclusive institutions, such as the often short-handed Navy, relegated blacks to menial roles. Beginning in 1893, they could serve only as cooks and cleaners aboard U.S. ships.
On January 20, 2017, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the presidential oath of office to Donald Trump, making him the 45th President of the United States. Many Americans have variously perceived his election as “unprecedented,” “revolutionary,” and “terrifying.” Some historians found the turn of events leading up to and including Trump’s election to be rather familiar. In November, the Huffington Post ran a story titled “It Feels Like the Fall of Reconstruction.” In it, University of Connecticut professor Manisha Sinha outlined the parallels between 1877 and 2016. On Facebook, I have seen many of my liberal friends weigh in with similar analyses. This evaluation is misguided. To compare the rise of Trump to the end of Reconstruction is to undermine the chaos, violence, and widespread racial ambivalence that defined the Gilded Age.
In a broad scope, it is not difficult to see some similarities. By and large, the end of Reconstruction was brought about by rising indifference among white liberal Republicans toward continuing Reconstruction. Support for federal occupation of the South was growing stale ten years after Appomattox, and economic woes in 1873 distracted many business-minded Republicans from continuing to advocate for black civil rights in the South. In the election of Trump, perhaps we can see a parallel in many white voters’ ambivalence to candidate Trump’s pejorative statements on women, people of color, Muslims, and queer Americans as well as his prospective policies that would harm these groups. The majority of Trump voters likely did not vote for Trump because of these statements or policies, but they were at least indifferent enough toward them to vote for him anyway. Continue reading “No, Trump’s Election Does Not “Feel Like the Fall of Reconstruction””
For the past several weeks, students all across the nation have opened up discussions on race relations on university campuses and in American culture at large. The latest battlefield in the fight for greater inclusion is Princeton University, where protestors from the Black Justice League staged a 32 hour sit-in at the president’s office. Princeton University, traditionally viewed as a bastion of progressivism and liberal ideology, is coming under fire for its reverence for perhaps their most famous graduate, President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson graduated from Princeton University Class of 1879 and served as president of the school from 1902 until 1910, after which he was elected Governor of New Jersey and subsequently the 28th President of the United States.
At a superficial level, Princeton seems entirely justified in venerating their well-accomplished graduate. However, as the Black Justice League has pointed out, President Wilson has also left a legacy of racism in his wake. In July 1912, Wilson enlisted the help of African American civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter to increase his prospects among the black community during his campaign for the presidency. In exchange, Wilson promised to promote fairness for all Americans. During the first year of Wilson’s presidency, Trotter again visited Wilson to follow up on his promise. Trotter brought with him prominent civil-rights leader Ida B. Wells as well as documented proof of a policy of segregation in federal offices. Trotter and Wells were dismissed with “vague assurances” from the president. In a third meeting in the Oval Office in 1914, Trotter escalated his rhetoric, charging that the president himself was promoting Jim Crow policies in the federal government. Wilson responded by arguing that segregation was put in place to benefit blacks and should not be seen as a “humiliation” for the African American community. The conversation quickly took a turn for the worse and Trotter and his delegation were escorted out of the White House, tempers flaring. Continue reading “Lost Cause in the Oval Office: Woodrow Wilson’s Racist Policies and White-Washed Memory of the Civil War”