Robert N. Wood to Woodrow Wilson
President of the United States,
Mr. President, Sir:–
On behalf of the United Colored Democracy as a political organization and in order to voice the feeling and thought of the ten million persons of Negro blood who justly aspire to the maintenance of their privileges as citizens in this great democracy, I am reluctantly compelled to express to you a respectful, but none the less earnest, protest at the course your administration is pursuing with regard to the status of the colored people of this country.
In taking this step I have in mind the fact that never, perhaps, since the first term of Abraham Lincoln has a President of the United States found himself obliged to face, immediately after his inauguration, questions of such momentous importance as have successively occupied your attention since the Fourth of March, last. But while the Tariff, the California Alien Lan Laws, the Mexican Government, the compensation of the family of an Italian who was lynched in Florida are certainly matters deserving of the consideration of the Chief Executive of the Nation, I feel that no question can be of more urgent concern to you than the future of ten million citizens within the borders of the United States. The apparent complacency which has marked the attitude of the colored people towards the campaign for their reduction to serfdom which certain reactionary elements in the Democratic Party have inaugurated coincidentlaylly with your assumption of the Presidency cannot by any means be regarded as an indication of our satisfaction with the movement to place us in the condition which was ours before the Civil War. Your scholarly training and your breadth of observation have made you cognizant of the wonderful change that has taken place in the condition of the colored people in this country during the past fifty years. Your clear perception of the importance of this progressive element in the American population has led you to express your determination not to allow any act of wanton injustice or retrograde legislation to be aimed at us during your tenure of offince. Knowing and believing, as I do, that you are a man of courage, and mindful of your own personal assurance to me that you are a Christian and a gentlemean, I feel that I can no longer disregard the insistent demands of those of my race who expressed their confidence in you by casting their vote to help secure your elevation to the Chief Magistracy, as well as of those whose fears for the safety of our citizenship under a Democratic Administration now seem only too well to have been justified, that I appeal to you for some expression by word or deed that will discourage and discountenance the enemies of the colored man at Washington.
You are not, perhaps, aware that the colored men whose intelligent grsaasp of the facts of history led them to abandon the superstitious reverance for the Republican Party which has characterized our race are among the leaders of thought in their communities. To me, who can claim the record of having voted none but the Democratic ticket for the last sixteen years, the satisfaction of our triumph in the last year’s election is all the keener with the appreciation of the difficulties which we have had to face in removing from the mind of the colored voters the insidious prejudice and dread of the Southern Democrat. But at last we induced them to meet the Southerner halfway, assuring them that between honorable and deserving participation in the rights and duties of American citizenship uon the one hand and subjection to the yoke of the untraveled, provincial, self–seeking politician from the South on the other hand, there astood in the person of Woodrow Wilson a man of Southern birth whose purpose was to unite the country in the bonds of good–will and mutual respect and whose comprehensive insight had taught him that the country could never be united except the colored people were considered part thereof.
As a man of Southern birth you are well aware, Mr. President, that the attitude of the best teacher in the South toward the colored population is not the attitude represented by those persons in and out of Congress whose sole aim in life seems to be the suppression of the just aspirations of colored poeple, after centuries of residence in this country, to the maintenance of “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in this land, so rich in opportunity to the most degraded refuse of Europe. But even if the sentiment of the Southern people were really represented by men like Vardaman, the Senator from Mississippi who proudly boasts of having murdered a white man in cold blood, and Hxeflin the Representative from Alabama who declared that another Czolgosz should have attached a time fuse to a bomb and placed it under the table from which the then President of the United States partook of a sandwich with the most useful resident of Alabama, you would not therefor be justified in disregarding the feeling of the colored people under the treatment which has been accorded to them. As Chief Magistrate you cannot refuse to hear our side of the case, even if your own personal sympathies should lean rather toward the other.The colored people deeply resent the segregation of clerks in the Civil Service at Washington, in the Post Office and in other departments of the Federal Government. We resent it, not at all because we are particularly anxious to eat in the same room or use the same soap and towels that white people use, but because we see in the separation in of the races in the matter of soup and soap the beginning of a movement to deprive the colored man entirely of soup and soap, to eliminate him wholly from the Civil Service of the United States. For just as soon as there is a lunch–room or a work–room which the colored man may not enter in a government building, there will be separate tasks assigned the colored men and these will be, as the promoters of segregation have declared, the tasks which white men do not want. Intelligence and efficiency cannot now be measured according to the color of the skin. In past administrations individual colored clerks of superior training and ability have been held back to permit of the promotion of white men of inferior attainments. In such cases there was always recourse to the proper authorities and the victim of such discrimination could thus abtain redress. But the present system of segregation is surely tending toward the total elimination of colored people from honest employment in the Civil Service of the United States. We see no reason why the status quo of the past fifty years cannot be maintained without depriving white Civil Service employees of the fullest opportunity for advancement according to their merits.We protest against segregation because our interests are at stake. We protest against it none the less because of the absurd inadequacy of the reasons given for the change in the departmental service. As a Southern man you well know, Mr. President, that it is no more a crime for a colored adult to eat a meal in the same room with a white adult than it is a heinous offense for a white person to eat a meal prepared by a colored person or drawn from the bosom and blood of a colored woman. No white man was ever degraded by the fact that a colored woman performed for him a duty and a service hardly less sacred than that of motherhood itself. No white man will ever be degraded by the fact that thea person perhaps just as white as himself, but called black, eats in the same room with him. Finally, Mr. President, as American citizens sincerely interested in the welfare of the country as a whole, we resent the segregation and the discrimination in the Federal Civil Service because, however necessary and important the enforced separation of the races may be to the voters in rural communities in Alabama or Mississippi and to their candidates for office, it is not a business in which this great nation can engage with any profit to the people as a whole, and it can be productive only of evil and ill will among a large and important minority.
In asking you in some way to express your disapproval of the repressive and reactionary measures taken against the colored people, we do not expect you, Mr. President, to do anything beyond your authority or out of keeping with your sense of justice. If some innocent colored man should be pulled off a train and lynched — a fate which a traveling secretary of the YMCA, barely escaped two years ago in a village in Georgia — we should not consider it your duty to ask Congress to provide an appropriation for the relief of his family. For maintaining a dignified silence you would have ample precedent in the case of the six farmers in Florida who were murdered by a mob because one of them had been accused of killing a white man in self–defense. The Spectator, of London, and other influential foreign papers think that you could render no greater service and to civilization than in taking action looking toward the suppression of lynching. As an American citizen and a Democrat, I do not expect you to achieve so signal a triumph against the forces that make for the degradation of white people far more than of colored people, for I know the limitations placed upon you by the Constitution of the United States, by the Democratic Doctrine of States’ Rights, and by the complacency of your Republic and predecessors. But I do know that it is within your power to impress upon the reactionary elements within the Democratic Party, and especially at the seat of the Federal Government, that you will not be a party to any action leading to the re–enslavement of the colored citizens of this country,
Robert N. Wood
For the United Colored Democracy and the Colored People of the United States.