T. Woodrow Wilson is an iconic figure in the history of International Geneva. The 28th President of the United States (1913-1921) is revered not only for his vision of a world without wars (World War I was to be “the war to end all wars”) but also for his role in choosing Geneva as the site of the League of Nations’ headquarters. While his name continues to be associated with peace – the building housing the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights bears his name as well as the famous hotel next to it – his legacy is less appreciated today in the United States.
Last week at Princeton University, Wilson’s alma mater where he also served as university president from 1902-1910, students staged a 32-hour sit-in to denounce racial tension on campus. One of their demands was for the university to remove the former President’s name from some public spaces such as the university’s prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as well as removing a mural of Wilson from a dining room in Wilson College.
Wilson has been honored at Princeton for having changed the college into a university and introducing the small classes that exist even today in the prestigious Ivy League university. But the students are less interested in his contributions to world peace and academia then they are in his racist comments as both Princeton president and President of the United States. The student group Black Justice League put up posters with some of Wilson’s more unsavory quotes, such as: “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you.” Students occupied the office of the president overnight and presented a list of demands.
Among the demands was that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” A counter-petition by students called the demand a “dangerous precedent” for future students who “seek to purge the past of those who fail to live up to modern standards of morality.”
While those calling for name changes recognized Wilson’s contributions and legacy, they were unforgiven about his racism. President Woodrow Wilson did annul certain gains blacks had made after the Civil War and he did remove many black officials from the government. Raised in the South, he wrote of “a great Ku Klux Klan” (the white supremacist organization) and during his tenure as president of Princeton no blacks were admitted, although blacks were already attending Yale and Harvard.
How to deal with the past and shifting values? A YMCA building in Houston changed its name after its benefactor, the former head of Enron Ken Lay, was convicted of corruption. We know and accept that many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were slave holders; slavery was tolerated in certain regions at that time. Should we rename the Memorial and change the name of all universities, schools, streets and cities named after George Washington? Should we do the same for Thomas Jefferson because of his relationship with the slave Sally Hemings?
Closer to home, for me, although less reported is the recent turmoil at Amherst College. The discussions there are not about renaming the school, but rather about renaming the school’s mascot. The college is named after Lord Jeffery Amherst, an officer in the British Army and leader of the successful campaign to capture the territory of New France in North America during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Students are objecting to keeping Lord Jeff as the mascot because Lord Jeffery Amherst was more than just “a soldier of the king,” he is known for advocating genocide against Native Americans. Polls are being taken among students, faculty and staff as well as alumni. Serious debates have focused the campus on the role of the mascot and the legacy of Lord Jeffery. Although there has been no formal process, student activists have proposed a moose to replace Lord Jeff.
With racial tensions growing in the United States, there is greater sensitivity towards the past. In Switzerland, on the other hand, there seems little interest in scouring quotations from General Henri Guisan or examining in detail the real life of William Tell. Revisionist history, however, does have its value. The Bergier Commission did play an important role in clarifying Switzerland’s policies during World War II.
While we assume that the Palais Wilson and the Hotel President Wilson will retain their names, a Princeton delegation visiting Geneva would probably be criticized back home for staying at the President Wilson Hotel.