Last week the Fargo Human Rights Commission voted to recommend changing the name of Woodrow Wilson High School. The school was built, named and dedicated in 1917, while Wilson was president of the United States and before his "ugly racism" emerged to diminish his stature historically.
This is not the first example of what might be called "name change mania" to emerge in North Dakota. Earlier this year, the Bismarck Park Board decided to keep George Armstrong Custer's name on a pretty little pocket park within walking distance of downtown (and the state capitol building, if you are willing to hike a little way).
Last year the Department of Interior – at the direction of the U.S. Congress – changed the name of Sully's Hill near Devils Lake to White Horse Hill, the traditional name used by Indigenous people. Gen. Alfred Sully, like Col. Custer, was an Indian fighter, and he was ruthless. Both commanders committed heinous crimes.
Here is where name changes collide with history. Custer admirers arose to defend his name while Sully drew few defenders.
The paradox is even more pronounced in the case of Woodrow Wilson. He was, unarguably, a "dirty racist," as Jim Shaw and others told the Human Rights Commission last week.
But that is not all that Wilson was. He was a racist, to be sure, but also an economic progressive and an idealist as well. He was reluctant to become involved in World War I, but when war was declared he waged war unconditionally. When the war ended, he sought "to end all wars" through an international body, the League of Nations.
Wilson was a southerner, born in Virginia and raised in Georgia, but he had a remarkably large impact on North Dakota, perhaps as great as any president has had. There was the war, of course. This gave rise to loyalty programs that had especially harsh impacts in North Dakota, devastating the German language press and virtually ending the use of German in religious services (though my grandmother continued to use the German
missal at mass throughout her long life).
Wilson's loyalty programs had another particular impact in North Dakota. The Nonpartisan League, a progressive movement that could never quite escape the whiff of socialism, became a target of the loyalty commissions. The cumulative effect was that prosecutions for disloyalty were proportionately higher here than in other states.
The indictment against Wilson continues. He virtually ignored the influenza epidemic, which killed more than 650,000 people in the United States, and he insisted on sending shiploads of soldiers to Europe, where more of them died of flu than from war wounds.
After the war, Wilson's League of Nations was rejected by the U.S. Senate. A North Dakotan, Asle J. Gronna of Lakota, was one of "the little group of willful men" that shattered Wilson's dream.
Yet Wilson's economic program was undoubtedly good for North Dakota. He brought the Federal Reserve system into existence and he supported the graduated income tax. Crop prices were so good during Wilson's administration that those years became the basis for calculating "parity," that magical formula that both farmers and ag officials respected for more than half a century.
Wilson's policies at the national level helped the NPL's program of state-owned business, including the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, both flourishing at the beginning of the second century of their existence. Plus, Wilson flattered the state by naming Gov. John Burke treasurer of the United States, the first North Dakotan appointed to such a high federal office.
North Dakotans liked Wilson. He carried the state twice.
We cannot exonerate Wilson, but neither can we condemn him completely. Instead we must reassess his legacy, considering "the whole man" as we deliberate whether public buildings should bear his name.
Fargo's school board will consider the Human Rights Commission's recommendation Thursday.
More name changes may pop up. North Dakota has a county and a county seat named for a Confederate commander, and one of Bismarck's major streets is named for a Confederate cavalry colonel, a classmate of Custer at West Point.
Then there's Theodore Roosevelt, whose legacy is also under review.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.