How We Remember (and Forget) in Our Public History

How We Remember (and Forget) in Our Public History

shayla_nunnallyby Shayla C. Nunnally, University of Connecticut

The controversy surrounding whether to continue the ceremonious naming of institutions and honors in homage to the life of Woodrow Wilson cannot occur without a review of who Wilson was, of what his contributions were, and about what he represented. Such a review would be warranted if we were considering naming an award or edifice for any person. Three very general criteria (exclusive of a financial contribution to support funding an honor) come to mind when considering whether to bestow an edifice or honor in someone’s name:

  1. The outstanding contributions of the nominee;
  2. The nominee’s exemplification of a positive image and/or notable integrity; and
  3. Whether there is a conflict of interest concerning the nominee.

We are generally aware of Wilson’s numerous achievements, as noted in the first criterion. However, criterions 2 and 3 are the most contentious for his legacy, and thus deserve further review.

Wilson’s Image, Integrity, and Conflicts of Interest
Wilson, a native-born Southerner, was no stranger to the lifestyle of Jim Crow, and as a Democrat, this was his point of political vulnerability (Blumenthal 1963). Much of white southern politics in the early twentieth century rested upon one’s devotion to the New South and its redemption of white supremacy. Yet Wilson ran for the presidency on the “New Freedom” platform, which espoused government reform against patronage and an antidiscriminatory meritocracy that was part and parcel of Progressivism, whether it was a part of the Republican or Democratic Party. Wilson’s Progressivism stopped short of applying equally to black Americans (Logan 1965), and this is a point of departure from his “positive image” and “integrity,” despite his campaign promises to blacks. His commitment to white southern values of his day conflicted with the interest of broader democracy and inclusion of blacks.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 764-765