April 11, 1913 – President Wilson’s Administration Begins Government-Wide Segregation

During Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 presidential campaign, he promised fairness for blacks if elected, averring in a letter to a black church official:

Should I become President of the United States they may count upon me for absolute fair dealing for everything by which I could assist in advancing their interests of the race.”

However, less than a month after his March 4, 1913 inauguration, President Wilson’s Administration took the first steps towards segregating the federal service.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

As PBS reports:

He dismissed 15 out of 17 black supervisors who had been previously appointed to federal jobs and replaced them with whites. He also refused to appoint black ambassadors to Haiti and Santa Domingo, posts traditionally awarded to African Americans. . . . Throughout the country, blacks were segregated or dismissed from federal positions.

The President’s wife, Ellen Wilson, was said to have had a hand in segregating employees in Washington, encouraging department chiefs to assign blacks separate working, eating, and toilet facilities. To justify segregation, officials publicized complaints by white women, who were thought to be threatened by black men’s sexuality and disease.”

 Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, born in Savannah, Georgia

Ellen Louise Axson Wilson, born in Savannah, Georgia

On this day in history, a closed cabinet meeting was held in which Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson argued for segregating the Railway Mail Service. In their train cars, the workers shared glasses, towels, and washrooms. Like Ellen Wilson, he considered such exposure by whites to be anathema.  President Wilson expressed no direct objections to Burleson’s segregation plans.

Shortly after the April 11 cabinet meeting, cabinet members Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo and Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson proceeded to segregate employees in their departments. At Post Office Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. many African American employees were downgraded, fired, or transferred to the dead letter office, where they were out of public sight.

Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson

Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson

The segregation implemented in the Department of Treasury and the Post Office Department involved not only screened-off working spaces, but separate lunchrooms and toilets.

As soon as the Wilson Administration implemented federal segregation individuals and groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to lobby against the administration’s segregation policies. In response to NAACP protests Wilson replied that departmental segregation was “in the interest of the Negroes.” 

Wilson also defended the segregation policy in a series of letters in July and August to NAACP board chairman, Oswald Garrison Villard, claiming:

We are rendering them more safe in their possession of the office and less likely to be discriminated against”. He also added that “Some of the most thoughtful colored men I have conversed with have themselves approved of this policy.”


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