When White Supremacists Ruled Washington

The white supremacist agenda pushed by the U.D.C. was ascendant in Washington when the Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913. Wilson promptly filled his administration with segregationists who worked diligently to segregate as much of the work force as they could. Highly paid black workers were driven out or confined to lower-paying jobs, undercutting the nascent black middle class. Many black workers were barred from offices, bathrooms and lunch tables that they once had shared with white co-workers.

The officially sanctioned segregation that took root during the Wilson era deepened under President Warren Harding, whose Southern-born commissioner of public buildings and grounds segregated even the tennis courts near the Washington Monument. The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 was staged as a Jim Crow event, with black dignitaries banished to a weed-strewn Negro-only seating section where they were roped off from whites and guarded by Marines.

By this time, the ever-resourceful U.D.C. was campaigning to have “mammy monuments’’ — depicting the enslaved black women who had cared for the master’s children — erected in every state. A year after the Lincoln dedication, the Senate voted to appropriate a huge sum to be spent on such a monstrosity in the capital, on Massachusetts Avenue near Sheridan Circle. Mercifully, the bill failed in the House.

As the Yale historian David Blight has written about the episode, “The nation was only narrowly spared the ironic spectacle of unveiling a major memorial to faithful slaves on a prominent avenue in Washington only one year after the dedication of the temple of freedom and union the country has known ever since as the Lincoln Memorial.”

In 1931, some U.D.C. members set out to colonize the most visible house of worship in the country. At one point it suggested memorials for Generals Lee and Jackson, as well as for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Finally, in 1953, the cathedral settled on the stained-glass design with Lee and Jackson.

As it turns out, the cathedral dean who presided over the installation was Francis B. Sayre Jr., an early supporter of the civil rights movement and a grandson of Woodrow Wilson, whose tomb rests in the Cathedral. As Mr. Hall said after the Charleston massacre, neither he nor the church could live, as Mr. Sayre did, with the contradiction of supporting both the civil rights movement and a memorial to men who fought to…

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