Roosevelt and Race
Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are criticized for their treatment of African-Americans during their time as president. For Roosevelt, who was president from 1901-1909, the Brownsville Affair especially aroused criticism of his treatment of African-Americans.
The Brownsville Affair, or the Brownsville Raid, was a racial incident that arose out of tensions between black soldiers and white citizens in Brownsville, Texas in 1906. When a white bartender was killed and a police officer wounded by gunshot, townspeople accused the members of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated black unit stationed nearby. Although commanders said the soldiers had been in the barracks all night, evidence was planted against them. As a result of an Army Inspector General's investigation, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, costing them pensions and preventing them from serving in civil service jobs. The administration withheld news of the discharge of the soldiers until after the 1906 Congressional elections, so that the pro-Republican black vote would not be affected.
Blacks and many whites across the United States were outraged at the actions of President Roosevelt. Prior to the Brownsville Affair, the black community had supported the Republican president. In addition to their loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln, blacks noted that Roosevelt had invited Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner, and had spoken out publicly against lynching. Roosevelt had also appointed numerous African-Americans to federal office, such as Walter L. Cohen, whom he named register of the federal land office.
After the Brownsville Affair, blacks began to turn against Roosevelt. Leaders of major black organizations, such as the Constitution League, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Niagara Movement tried to persuade the administration not to discharge the soldiers, but were unsuccessful. From 1907-1908, the U.S. Senate Military Affairs Committee investigated the Brownsville Affair, and the majority in March 1908 reached the same conclusion as Roosevelt. Another minority report by four Republicans concluded that the evidence was too inconclusive to support the discharges. In September 1908, W.E.B. Du Bois urged blacks to register to vote and to remember their treatment by the Republican administration when it was time to vote for president.
A renewed investigation in the early 1970s exonerated the discharged black troops. The government pardoned them and restored their records to show honorable discharges but did not provide retroactive compensation.
Wilson and Race
Wilson did not interfere with the well-established system of Jim Crow, and acquiesced to the demands of southern Democrats that their states be left alone to deal with issues of race and black voting without interference from Washington. Wilson brought many white southerners into his administration, and supported the introduction of segregation into many federal agencies (Figure 1).
While president of Princeton University, Wilson discouraged blacks from applying for admission, preferring to keep the peace among white students than have black students admitted.
Black leaders who supported Wilson in 1912 were angered when segregationist white southerners took control of Congress and many executive departments. Wilson ignored complaints that his cabinet officials had established official segregation in most federal government offices and in some departments, for the first time since 1863. New facilities were designed to keep the races working there separated. Wilson and his cabinet members fired many black Republican office holders in political-appointee positions, but also appointed a few black Democrats to such posts.
Du Bois campaigned for Wilson and in 1918 was offered an Army commission in charge of dealing with race relations; Du Bois accepted, but he failed his Army physical and did not serve. Wilson drafted hundreds of thousands of blacks into the army, giving them equal pay with whites, but kept them in all-black units with white officers, and kept the great majority out of combat (Figure 2). When a delegation of blacks protested the discriminatory actions, Wilson told them "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." In 1914, he told The New York Times, "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it."
Wilson was also criticized by such hard-line segregationists as Georgia's Thomas E. Watson, who believed Wilson did not go far enough in restricting black employment in the federal government. The segregation introduced into the federal workplace by the Wilson administration was kept in place by the succeeding presidents and not officially ended until the Truman administration.