At Princeton, the debate over Wilson’s legacy rages on

By Berenice Davila and Katie Okumu
Texas City, TX and Berea, KY

In the basement of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, an exhibit tries to provide a fuller understanding of Wilson’s complexities: He was a U.S. president, a university president–and a bigot. One dimly lit section is dedicated to arguments scribbled on bright orange four-by-six index cards.

“Black Lives Matter, but not to Wilson,” reads one card.

“Way overblown, get over it,” says another.

It’s a sign of how the debate surrounding Wilson’s legacy refuses to die.

Last November, members of a campus group advocating for better treatment of  African-American students staged a 32-hour sit-in inside President Christopher Eisgruber’s office. The Black Justice League (BJL) demanded, among other things, the removal of Wilson’s name and image from campus.

“We are a part of the community, and we have the right to ask more from our university,” said Trust Kupipika, a BJL member.

In response to their demands, the university asked a committee of students to decide whether to take down a red-and-white mural of Wilson cupping a baseball. They voted to get rid of it.

“If one person feels alienated, there’s no reason to keep it,” said committee member Bennett McIntosh.

But to some BJL members, it wasn’t enough. They wanted all of their demands met, including cultural competency training for all faculty and staff.

“They chose to ultimately do nothing,” said BJL member Asanni York. “Students of color are not a priority on their list.”

The dispute rippled across campus, and students uncomfortable with the BJL’s tactics — and its attempts to erase Wilson’s name — formed their own group.

“A lot of the protesters were willingly stifling conversation,” said Josh Freeman, a member of The Princeton Open Campus Coalition. “They were tossing out the word ‘racist’ like it was a buzzword just to kill all discussion.”

Freeman said he saw Wilson in a more “multi-faceted way.” He added, “He was a bona fide racist but he led significant progressive reforms in the country.”

Darwin Labarthe, who graduated from Princeton in 1961, helped found a dining hall named after Wilson. At the time, Wilson’s legacy of racism had not come to light, but Labarthe continues to believe that the former president shouldn’t be erased from the campus.

“We risk losing a lot if we purge our history of the people who have been influential in our lives and the development of our institutions,” Labarthe said. “If we demanded perfection from all of our heroes there probably wouldn’t be any left.”

In the end, the administration settled on a controversial solution: removing the mural of Wilson cupping a baseball and setting up an exhibit.

“Why is this exhibit hidden in the basement? It should be in the main Lobby,” reads one of the orange cards.

“This exhibit is a modest start at best,” another says.

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