Equity & Diversity Opinion

How Woodrow Wilson Denied African-Americans an Academic Education

By Williamson M. Evers — December 08, 2015 6 min read
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Princeton University protesters against Woodrow Wilson captured headlines in mid-November. When he was the president of Princeton, Wilson expressed his pride that no African-American students had been admitted during his tenure. When he was the president of the United States, Wilson brought Jim Crow to the federal government’s appointive offices and its civil service.

In his academic work on American history, Wilson was friendly to the Ku Klux Klan’s mission of suppressing blacks, and he was forgiving of its terror tactics. Wilson showed the motion picture “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Klan members are the heroes, in the White House.

We have been reminded of all this by the Princeton protesters, who have called on the university to remove a dining-room mural of Wilson, and to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Wilson College dormitory complex.


But what hasn’t received attention is the role of the Wilson administration in national K-12 education policy. The Wilson administration backed the effort to deny an academic education to blacks. It published a report proposing to train blacks solely to be more efficient hewers of wood and drawers of water. In this project, the administration worked with a leading figure from the world of philanthropy, Thomas Jesse Jones.

Jones was a prominent educator from the Progressive Era and a white who had long been active in black education. His career included time spent teaching and developing curriculum at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a historically black Virginia college founded in 1868. Unlike Atlanta, Fisk, and Howard universities (founded in 1865, 1866, and 1867, respectively), which were academic in orientation, Hampton concentrated on vocational education. (Now named Hampton University, it today is a full-fledged institution of higher education.)

Jones worked for the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a family foundation that was well known for its progressive outlook. The fund was a leader in white philanthropic efforts aimed at improving education for African-Americans and Native Americans, among others. The foundation was also a pioneer in cooperating on projects with the federal government.

In Thomas Jesse Jones, a number of streams of thought converged. He had studied at a prominent theologically liberal Protestant seminary. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a proponent of the social gospel. He held a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University. He also was the author of the report “Negro Education,” which said that African-Americans should have only a vocational, nonacademic education. The black educational leader W.E.B. Du Bois termed Jones an “evil genius.”

“Negro Education” was published in 1917, in Diane Ravitch’s words, “with the prestige and authority of the federal government,” but in cooperation with and helped by a grant from the Phelps-Stokes Fund.

The report disparaged African-American parents and teachers who wanted academically serious colleges and college-prep curriculum available for black children who wanted to pursue higher education. Du Bois wrote that the federally promoted plan would “deliberately shut the door of opportunity in the face of bright Negro students.”

Jones, of course, was hardly the only progressive intellectual at the time to advocate a vocational-only education for African-Americans. Other prominent progressives who did so include Walter Hines Page, Ray Stannard Baker, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Dewey. In Schools of Tomorrow (1915), Dewey and his daughter Evelyn depicted an all-African-American vocational school in Indianapolis in which young people had an almost entirely nonacademic curriculum. The Deweys contended that such an education was appropriate for children from African-American and immigrant households.

The progressives sought to impose a program of only vocational education on virtually all blacks."

The federal report was the culmination of a war over black education that had gone on since Union troops began occupying the South during the Civil War. On one side were the proponents of academic education for eligible blacks, who included Howard University’s Dean Kelly Miller and Du Bois among African-Americans; and Northern missionaries and neo-abolitionists (like Moorfield Storey, the first national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) among whites. The opposite, pro-vocational side included Booker T. Washington among blacks; and Southern industrialists, progressive policy intellectuals like Jones, and progressive philanthropies like the Phelps-Stokes Fund among whites.

The progressives sought to impose a program of only vocational education on virtually all blacks. These progressives, in the words of academics-advocate Kelly Miller, thought “that every Negro ... should be taught a hand trade.” As Du Bois saw it, “the emphasis ... has to do mainly with the industrial work as such, and nobody knows or cares about the chief work for which the school ought to exist.” The result was a curriculum designed, Du Bois said, for future “servants and laborers and not educated men and women.”

Inside Jones’ federally published report were a multitude of photographs of African-American pupils who were acquiring the skills for tending a garden, caring for barnyard animals, laying bricks, milking a cow, cooking a meal, sewing clothes, bringing in crops, and plowing a field. In the report, Jones said that African-American children in the early elementary grades needed instruction in agriculture, manual training, “shuck mat work, simple sewing, patching and quilting for girls, repair of buildings and woodworking for boys.”

As for high school, Jones—like other progressives of that era—was an admirer of the 1910 Flexner Report. Abraham Flexner had written a report on medical colleges in which he evaluated them and suggested that a large number of them should be shut down. In its effect on public policy, the Flexner Report was, in the words of the 20th-century economist Reuben Kessel, “one of the most important reports ever written.” The number of medical colleges was reduced from 162 in 1906 to 76 in 1930. This winnowing restricted the supply of doctors, reduced competition in the field of medicine, and facilitated the permanent cartelization of the medical profession. The consequences of the report continue to be felt today and contribute to the high cost of health care in America.

Along the way, Flexner’s evaluations led to a reduction in the medical colleges that served African-Americans who wanted to become doctors—from seven such colleges (in 1906) to two (in 1944). Closing down these medical colleges decreased the number of black doctors and led to less medical care for the general population of African-Americans.

Jones wanted to follow in Flexner’s footsteps. In Jones’ report, he evaluated schools for African-Americans. He proceeded to try to change the schools with an academic curriculum into vocational schools, or to try to cut off the funding for those schools if they would not give up their academic mission.

Jones opposed making available a college-prep program for capable and talented blacks. He said that schools and colleges for African-Americans frittered away valuable resources on what he deemed socially inefficient academic instruction. His report, published by the Wilson administration, had malign effects on federal policy and private philanthropy for decades to come.

Protesters at Princeton have reminded us that Woodrow Wilson was a racist with regard to his scholarship, his tenure as the president of Princeton, and his two terms as the president of the United States. Wilson’s administration was top-down and technocratic. It tried to manage the K-12 curriculum for African-Americans, with consequences that are still with us today.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as How Woodrow Wilson Shut the Door on K-12 Education for African-Americans


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