Don’t Erase Ugly History, Teach It

The current Woodrow Wilson High School is housed at Agassiz in south Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

There is a controversy in Fargo over the name of Woodrow Wilson High School.

Wilson was a Democratic president and an early luminary of the progressive movement. He presided over the implementation of a host of progressive policy priorities including the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act, and the creation of the modern federal income tax. Through the Adamson Act he helped create an eight-hour work day for railroad workers. The Paris Peace Treaty, which concluded World War I, incorporated at Wilson’s behest a charter for the League of Nations which was a forerunner of the United Nations.

Wilson’s efforts to make peace after the first world war earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But Wilson was also an inveterate racist. As the President of Princeton University he worked to discourage black students from enrolling. In his writings he downplayed lynchings perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. As President he appointed segregationists to his cabinet.

Wilson criminalized criticism of his administration’s war efforts, but Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in order to allow the indefinite detention of “disloyal persons.”  Wilson put segregationists in his cabinet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Because of Wilson, the first motion picture movie ever to be screened in the White House was Birth of a Nation, a film that while considered a masterpiece because of it’s groundbreaking cinematography was little more than Klan propaganda.

Wilson was also an enemy of free speech rights. He pushed for and saw made into law the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, both repugnant examples of public policy which criminalized many perfectly legitimate acts of dissent against the government.

Suffice it to say that Wilson’s legacy is complicated.

Now, because of the unsavory aspects of that legacy, some want his name removed from that Fargo school.

I think that’s a mistake, and I say that as a conservative who has little love for Wilson’s progressive policy accomplishments or inclinations toward bigotry and speech suppression.

For one thing, it’s difficult to find any luminary of American history without skeletons in their closet. Sure, Wilson was a racist, but George Washington and Thomas Jefferson literally owned slaves.

Wilson criminalized criticism of his administration’s war efforts but Abraham Lincoln, among other moves against civil rights, suspended habeas corpus in order to allow the indefinite detention of “disloyal persons.”

Wilson put segregationists in his cabinet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps.

If this were a matter of picking a name for a new, unnamed school I’d be a vote against Wilson. His flaws are too deep, his policy accomplishments too dubious, to be honored in that way.

But Wilson’s name has been attached to this school in Fargo for decades already. We ought not try to expunge that history because it has some unsavory aspects. That would be a disservice to the students and the community.

Instead, we should use that history to teach. Give the students a course in Wilson’s legacy, warts and all. Let the students understand that our political leaders are fallible. That while the can be capable of greatness, they are also capable of dark and terrible things.

The proper way to deal with uncomfortable history is to embrace it. Learn from it. We can’t do that if we erase it.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from 1-2pm weekdays.

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