Vail Daily column: Are students’ protests against Princeton’s racist past on target?
December 12, 2015
Princeton University reveres the tiger as its mascot. Two of these sculpted hunched beasts flank stairs leading to Nassau Hall's main entry. At its dedication, it ranked as one of the largest buildings constructed in colonial America. In 1783, the Continental Congress met here from July to November, with six alumni of Nassau Hall counted among its members.
Prior to Thanksgiving, students in the Black Justice League set up tents near the tigers flanking steps by Old Nassau's main doors. These protesters said they wouldn't budge from their sit-in until Princeton University's president Christopher Eisgruber took corrective action on their grievances.
Black Justice League protesters demanded the name of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton's former school president (1902 to 1910) and later America's 28th president (1913 to 1921) be removed from buildings. These students condemn Wilson for his racist legacy. They want visible architectural witness of his memory removed, most prominently displayed at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on campus.
During the 1970s, I studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and took courses from professors in the university's Religion Department. How Christian theology influenced and shaped colonial history perked my curiosity. Wilson's pre-eminent historian Arthur Link served on a committee that validated my academic credentials for ordained Presbyterian ministry.
During a decade of study there, Princeton University lauded Woodrow Wilson. Now charges of racial insensitivity tarnish his once-sterling reputation. As university president, he discouraged black students from applying. During his presidency, Wilson segregated federal offices.
Members of the Black Justice League who protest Wilson's name on campus buildings use a controversial historical measuring stick to validate their claims. It's called presentism. That is, we use here-and-now principles of what's decent and fair to judge there-and-then historical figures such as Wilson.
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Today's norms of what's right in racial relations have replaced segregationist standards that prevailed in post-Civil War Virginia where Wilson was raised. Wilson's critics use presentism as a sieve to filter his toxic racism and erase his name from buildings.
Part of Matthew's Christmas story shows King Herod using presentism against Jesus to justify infanticide. Persian astrologers told Herod about a Hebrew baby blessed with "Messiah credentials." Herod feared infant Jesus as a competitor for his throne. Jews under Herod's rule expected the arrival of a muscular Messiah to knock-out the Roman Empire.
Herod ignored softer images of this Jewish Messiah. Isaiah's prophecy depicts the Messiah as a suffering servant who identifies with the exiled Jews' plight. Zechariah sees the Messiah entering Jerusalem on a donkey, an ancient sign of peace. Herod's reliance on presentism, however," forced him to reject a gentle savior. He embraced the current popular notion of a macho figure towering over a beaten Roman Empire.
Herod's presentism blinded him from seeing the biblical Messiah as a mosaic formed from many conflicting views. He superimposed his here-and-now image of a Hebrew warrior on the then-and-there infant Jesus of Bethlehem. In a "furious rage," Herod "killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in that entire region who were two years or under…" (Matthew 2:16).
How does this example apply to Princeton protesters? There's no denying that Woodrow Wilson held racist attitudes while serving as president of Princeton University. Wilson replied to a request in 1904 that Princeton admit "colored" students. "While there is nothing in the law of the University to prevent a Negro's entering," he wrote, "the whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems extremely unlikely that the question will ever assume a practical form."
Some historians point out that if presentism prevails as history's preferred interpretive tool, Washington's National Mall and the Tidal Basin will need a massive face-lift. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves. Does this mean that axes of presentism should chop down their monuments?
Historian Robert Duvall, in an essay "The Problem of Presentism," debunks sacking presidential monuments dedicated to slave masters. He asks, "Does Jefferson's ownership of a few hundred slaves diminish his importance in writing the Declaration of Independence? It shouldn't. George Washington served his nation as commanding general and the first President, establishing many important precedents, so should his slave-owning supersede those accomplishments, especially considering Washington's personal treatment and actions in regards to his slaves. Also, it shouldn't."
Better to thank the Black Justice League for making us aware of Woodrow Wilson's racism. Then learn from the Jim Crow society in which Wilson was raised of segregation's immorality. Trapped in racial ruts doesn't absolve Wilson, Washington and Jefferson of responsibility for succumbing to racial bigotry.
We treat leaders such as Wilson fairly by walking in their shoes, facing the future as they saw it and learning from their wrong rejection of racial equality.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.