(p. A25) In 1882, soon after graduating from high school, the young John Davis secured a job at the Government Printing Office.
Over a long career, he rose through the ranks from laborer to a position in midlevel management. He supervised an office in which many of his employees were white men. He had a farm in Virginia and a home in Washington. By 1908, he was earning the considerable salary — for an African-American — of $1,400 per year.
But only months after Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president in 1913, my grandfather was demoted. He was shuttled from department to department in various menial jobs, and eventually became a messenger in the War Department, where he made only $720 a year.
By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.
Many black men and women suffered similar fates under Wilson. As the historian Eric S. Yellin of the University of Richmond documents in his powerful book “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” my grandfather’s demotion was part of a systematic purge of the federal government; with Wilson’s approval, in a few short years virtually all blacks had been removed from management responsibilities, moved to menial jobs or simply dismissed.
My grandfather died before I was born, but I have learned much about his struggle — and that of other black civil servants in the federal government — from his personnel file.
. . .
Consider a letter he wrote on May 16, 1913, barely a month after his demotion. “The reputation which I have been able to acquire and maintain at considerable sacrifice,” he wrote, “is to me (foolish as it may appear to those in higher stations of life) a source of personal pride, a possession of which I am very jealous and which is possessed at a value in my estimation ranking above the loss of salary — though the last, to a man having a family of small children to rear, is serious enough.”
And the reply he received? His supervisor said, simply, that my grandfather was unable to “properly perform the duties required (he is too slow).” Yet there had never been any indication of this in his personnel file.
Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.
For the full commentary, see:
GORDON J. DAVIS. “Wilson, Princeton and Race.” The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 24, 2015): A25.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the title “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather.”)
The Yellin book praised in the passage quoted above, is:
Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Patler, Nicholas. Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2004.