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tv   The Presidency Woodrow Wilson in an Age of Racial Reckoning  CSPAN  November 9, 2021 12:02am-12:44am EST

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the wilson international or center for scholars. >> the woodrow wilson international center for scholars aims to unite the world of ideas and policies by linking scholarship to issues of concern to washington. congress established the center in 1968 as the official national memorial to president wilson. unlike the physical monuments in the nation's capital, it is a living memorial whose work and scholarship commemorates, quote, the ideals and concerns of woodrow wilson. as both a distinguished scholar and national reader, president wilson felt strongly that the scholar and policy maker were both engaged in a common enterprise. the center takes seriously the views to bridge the gap between the world of ideas and the world of policy, enriching the work of both and enabling each to learn from the other. this series, wilson then and
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now, is our effort to make wilson and his period more central to that creative contact between ideas and practice in national and global affairs. in a grateful and inclusive way, we seek to highlight work on wilson and his time that offers explicit or implicit lessons for contemporary or enduring problems of public and international life. for this episode we wanted to look beyond academic work in the narrow sense of articles and monographs and look at the work of public scholars wrestling with the challenges of commemorating our past. to commemorate means to remember together. how should we collectively remember a past that has left so many different legacies for different people. more to the point today, how should we remember a figure like woodrow wilson whose legacy is both internally inconsistent and publicly contested. can we find a way to explore and discuss the good, the bad and the ugly in our past when we don't always agree even on the meaning of those terms, and must
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we try? these are questions that hit home. this very series is part of a wilson center effort to remember wilson in a way that is neither self-serving, nor ca that is rightically damning, but relevant and useful to the greatest possible number of americans who today are trying to build a better, richer, fairer commonwealth than the one they inherented. later you'll hear from me about complementary efforts including one to imagine the center's permanent exhibit on wilson's life and legacies and another to celebrate the life and legacies of the wilson -- [inaudible] first, however, i want to welcome two guests who have been struggling with some of the same questions and challenges we have here and have generously offered to share their stories. robin wilson is president and ceo of the woodrow wilson presidential library and museum in wisconsin, virginia -- excuse
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me, stanton, virginia. i'm mortified mys pronounced that. robin -- mispronounced that. robin first volunteered as a college student at next door baldwin university in 1991 just as the university was preparing to open. she eventually became coo and director of finance before assuming leadership at the organization. in the meantime, robin earned a master's from james madison university, served as dean of students and worked at both mary baldwin and james madison. while overseeing the wilson library and museum, robin also serves on the virginia association of museums governing council where she represents the mountain and valley districts as well as on the advisory board of visitors for mary baldwin university. she lives in stanton with her family. welcome, robin. >> thank you. >> elizabeth -- thank you very
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much. elizabeth a. archer is the executive director of the president woodrow wilson house on p street in washington, d.c. -- on f street, a site that provides a window into wilson's retirement in an actual and perfectly preserved setting as well as an intimate look at wilson's overall life and legacy. prior to joining the national trust and wilson house, elizabeth worked at discovery incorporated, a leading global media company, and served in many roles with the women's club including serving as club president where she led the club's transition to a 501(c)(3) organization. elizabeth received her bachelor of arts in international affairs from the american university of paris, france, before earning a master of arts in international relations from rutgers university. her interest in international affairs extends far beyond wilson's legacy in that arena. she's an adviser to a foundation
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which supports sustainable community development. elizabeth lives in washington with her husband. welcome, elizabeth. and welcome, too, to our viewers from across the united states and many other places. we're grateful to have you with us and eager to include you. after our two guests speak, i'll respond with some questions and observations of my own and then begin gleaning comments and questions from the chat which i urge you to fill. i ask that you maintain a tone of inquiry and an attitude of curiosity, taking care not to foreclose others' questions or contributions. well, let's get started. robin, could i ask you to talk a little bit about your work at thed woodrow wilson is presidential museum and library in stanton, virginia. >> sure. good afternoon and hello from stanton, virginia. it's a pleasure if to be with you as we discuss this very important topic of woodrow wilson's legacy.
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it's a topic that we discuss regularly amongst our board and staff and alongside our visitors as we learn together. our goal at the woodrow wilson presidential library is to tell the story of woodrow wilson from birth to in an honest and objective fashion. we are comfortable sharing both the positives and negatives, or as we often say here, we talk abouted woodrow wilson -- about woodrow wilson and all. the library, which is located at his birthplace as mentioned, has developed over the years from its original incorporation as what was then known as the woodrow wilson birthplace foundation. our mission is to promote an understanding of the complexity of the life and times of woodrow wilson, his influence on the world, his relevancy today and for the future. this mission is a different one than the original mission of the organization when it first
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opened in 1938. that mission stated that the goal of the organization was to preserve and maintain the birthplace that the set property might be forever set apart as a national shrine dedicated to the ideals and purposes for which woodrow wilson lived and died, that man of every nation and of all time might have a fairer opportunity to enjoy the fruits of democracy and thus be better able to achieve mental, moral, spiritual development -- [inaudible] define creator. as noted, the library was incorporated in 1938 as the woodrow wilson birthplace. it was initially dedicated in 1941 by president franklin roosevelt as, quote, a new shrine of freedom. original trustees of the organization came from national prominence and included such individuals as united states
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senators, members of local cabinets and university professors among others. the first president of the organization was mrs. frances -- [inaudible] a stanton native and wife of then-united states secretary of state. although not a board member, the biggest cheerleader was none other than wilson's widow. the woodrow wilson presidential library has evolved over the years from its original purpose, and after years of acquiring some of the a adjacent historic properties here beside the birthplace, the foundation opened the woodrow wilson museum highlighting wilson's life and public service in 1990 and opened the library and research center in 2008. it was renamed in 2004, and it is an educational institution dedicated to the study of both wilson's life and the times in which he lived from pre-civil
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war, 1856, to post-world war i, 1924. many of the issues that we grapple with today as a country -- things such as the role of federal government, immigration, women's issues, race relations, taxes, america's role in the world -- these were all prominent concerns during wilson's time, and woodrow wilson presidential library provides the background to understand these subjects. during our 83-year history, this institution has educated individuals about these issues surrounding the 28th president and the critical era in which he lived. to explain just a little more about who we are, our campus includes -- [inaudible] where wilson was born in 1856, and we provide divided tours that highlight 19th century life in stanton, virginia. we also talk about the enslaved
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workers who lived and worked in that home when wilson was born there. our museum -- gallery including an interactive world war i trench exhibit and president wilson's 1919 -- [inaudible] we talk about his birth and childhood in the south, his educational pursuits, his political life as governor of new jersey and president of the united states. but we also have a temporary gallery where we try to explore life as it resonates with contemporary society looking at relevance for today. for example, our recent exhibit, contesting the president, compared protest topics from 1920 to today, topics such as suffrage and civil rights issues, and it shows how we really haven't gotten as far as we think we have as a society. our team here is committed to creating learning opportunities that emphasize history's
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significance in today's world. our traditional k-12 educational ramming provides on- programming provides on-site learning and outreach to schools. we work closely with the virginia department of education to insure that programs meet the needs of teachers and students of all age. additionally, we have lectures, panel discussions, guest speakers, a wide variety of topics that we cover as a regular part of our ongoing operation. i think it's important to state we will -- well understood by many americans, and the reality is that president wilson is a polarizing historical figure, but we're committed to discussing his full if story. so while we celebrate the domestic legislation that wilson signed into law, the new directions he charted in foreign policy during the first world war that has shaped the politics and diplomacy of the united states throughout the 20th century and beyond, we also
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detail his beliefs on race and segregation and its lasting impact on the progress of social justice. so we look forward to the 250th anniversary of founding of our country, we believe we must examine the challenges that keep us from that idea of human equality, and it's our vision to -- [inaudible] during wilson's time and how he both influenced and was influenced. thank you. >> thank you very much, robin, i appreciate that. elizabeth, will you please tell us about your work at the f street house, as i was socialized to call it. >> i like that. we actually call it, the name is the woodrow wilson house. it had changed names about 12 years ago to the president woodrow wilson house, and the wilson house as we call it among
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ourselves, the wilson house, was also originally described as a shrine to woodrow wilson. the house itself was built by a famous architect, washington, d.c. architect in 19 a 15, and the -- 1915, and the wilsons moved into that house in 1921 on inauguration day. many people do call it the house on f street. but when edith wilson -- wilson went on to live there for three years, he died in 1924 in this house, edith wilson went on to live in this house for another 37 years. so, in fact, having lived in the house for close to, you know, 40 years, she really did -- she put a stamp on what the house would be, and she bequeathed it to the national trust for historic preservation upon her death in
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1961. and it was opened to the public in 1963 and became really an official, officially a historic house and i museum in 196 a 5. her letters of bequeathment refer to it as being a shrine to woodrow wilson, and so we struggle with that because we're not really a shrine any longer. we talk about it as being a place where we can talk freely about his legacy and the legacy that he's left. and legacy, i think, is a much richer word. you can -- it describes both things that are positive and negative, the consequences and the results of some of the legislation in the parts of his administration that today we're realizing what that legacy is actually leaving, such consequences of that legacy. the house itself has, is authentic in that we have over 8,400 pieces of artifacts in the collection. as you can see behind me, the
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library is really untouch toed from the day that edith had turned it over to the national trust. very interestingly for me, i just came across a photograph of the house that was put into architectural digest in 1921 when the wilsons moved in and, in fact, architectural digest captured it, and it looks very much like it did then. the wilson house is set up similarly to the library, presidential library and museum in that we do tours, we co-- we have visitors come to do different types of tours. those tours have changed since 1965, and in today's world what we focus on is wilson's legacy as president and his presidential years but other things as well. we talk about the full story of the people who lived in this house, who worked in this house. we look at the architecture of the house and what it meant to
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be, this style of architecture from the time. we do a tour called upstairs/downstairs where we describe the life of edith wilson in one day and then the people who worked in the house around her to support the lifestyle in this house. and the subtle nuances that you find in a historic house like in that really describe what the upstairs/downstairs means. we have -- advised by an advisory council which we have grown in the last two and a half years since i have started at the wilson house, and that's been very, very rewarding because my advisory council, our members are from all over the world, actually. and some of them are are very big still fans of wilson and the wilsonian era, and others are very critical, and we need that balance to help us steer our direction and our purpose. our mission as part of the national trust for historic preservation is to preserve and
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store the house, the collections, the landscape and its full dynamic history and use it to provide forward-thinking and inclusive discussions, programs and community activities that are relevant to today the's social context. today's social context. we really look to have debates, dialogue, discourse about what in many ways, what happened a hundred years ago and how those same things resonate today whether it talks about issues that wilson himself faced, women's issues, racial issues and, of course, international conflict. so these are topics that we try to bring to life during our, for our tours and for our guests. we were talking a little bit earlier, we have a staff and a number of guides, and we also have scholars who come and join us three times a year we've got a scholars' program, and we find that the scholars are the next
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generation, and they bring so much life and energy and new ideas to a way that we can interpret this house and tell these stories. we try to, we love to be engaged in conversations like this where we can hear what people have to say and what they think about how we should be remembering a president with the consequential legacy of woodrow wilson, so thank you for including me. i'm happy to be here today. >> thank you very much, elizabeth, and thanks again, robin. i'm going to talk a little bit about the more nascent although very much in-process efforts of the wilson center to redo its permanent, exhibition on wilson's life and legacy. and then when i'm done, perhaps we can turn to questions about maybe some more specific questions about some of the efforts each of you make to highlight the complexities and
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how you engage with your visitors both virtual and in person. but first i want to give a little update on our own efforts here at the wilson center. as i said earlier, the wilson center was chartered by congress in 1968 as the official memorial to president woodrow wilson, and as such, we have a responsibility to present public exhibitions to help educate contemporary audiences about wilson's career, policies and his legacy. in line with the wilson center's chartered role as an international affairs think tank, our current exhibition focuses on wilson's vision for a more peaceful global community. but it does not represent his views, even on those topics, his presidency and its legacy in their full complexity, and is we were aware of that before events of the past several years, and we are even more painfully aware
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of that today. as the nation's key nonpartisan policy forum, the wilson center tackles difficult issues every day through independent research and open dialogue. the point of our, i guess, exhibit revamp is to draw on this experience to reimagine the exhibition in a way that acknowledges woodrow wilson's visionary leadership on a national and global scale in some areas yet with also addresses his more troubling legacies especially as regards race, but in other areas as well. first, let me just review the exhibition goals as we identified them over the last several months. in reimagining the exhibition, the wilson center seeks, first, to re-examine wilson's presidency and legacy based on current scholarship. been a long time since the current exhibition was put in place. second, to reflect multiple point9 of view including criticism of president wilson.
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third, to perform a forum for open dialogue about president wilson and his legacy. we also want to create a more welcoming and inclusive and visitor-friendly experience, establish a flexible, multipurpose space for film and public programs is and events, ways that we can support work at the wilson center and by other partners in exploring relevant topics in american history and relating them to our current concerns. we want to increase the visibility of the wilson center. we want to expand visitation and program attendance. finally, we want to create connections between the exhibition and the rest of the wilson center's work and encourage visitors to explore connections between president wilson's era and contemporary public life. i want to make just a few comments on three of four of these goals with which i personally have been most engaged. the first or the first two are the related goals of reflecting multiple points of view and
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providing a forum for open dialogue about wilson and his legacy. for all his many faults, wilson was perhaps the most eloquent of all our presidents in articulating an ideal of democracy with deliberation at its core, an ideal he called common counsel. everyone learns most and the best decisions are made through processes including widest scope of experience, interests and opinions and bringing them all into genuine conversation with one another. obviously, wilson did not always practice his ideal perfectly and, indeed, in several important pieces, he seemed to forget or ignore it entirely. but my personal opinion is he practiced it than most people in authority and maybe most human beings practice their own cherished ideals. indeed, in his day before a slew of mid-20th century books mostly
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seeking to explain the senate, wilson was frequently praised by his princeton and washington acquaintances. and not just his friends, for his solicitation of and careful attention to criticism. one duty that i think the wilson center has, too much of what is published in the media and increasingly in scholarly circles is factually incorrect. wilson, for instance, never promoted the lost cause of the democracy. he celebrated the defeat of the south and explicitly the end of slavery. he never praised the kkk. he denounced it in the harshest terms. he never endorsed birth of a nation and asked major theaters not to show it, and examples can be multiplied. this is not to excuse wilson for think of the terrible things that he did do and the consequential and damaging
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legacy not just for race relations, but for actual living black americans both in his day and in our own. it's just to say that i think in today's day and age it is critical that an organization like the wilson center insist on the importance of fact, for if we no longer believe in facts on the importance of evidence of that can be and has been examined subjectively. there's plenty to criticize wilson for without assuming things based on his southern birth or making things up. that only invites a damaging backlash. second point, i think making wilson into a caricature or hideous alien monster that in no way resembles his enlightened, white, progressive descendants today is dangerous to the cause of racial justice. the fact is wilson, i don't think, was that different from
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many folks today. he did not sit around thinking about how to prevent black americans from obtaining justice and achieving equality. he basically did not care at all about black americans. when he did think about them, he preferred to hi that his tendency to say the right things about democracy or his overall support of progressive and even radical policies was enough, enough to absolve him or making uncomfortable personal sacrifices or political sacrifices. sacrifices of pride, sacrifices of moral comfort and of moral authority. these are not dangerous -- [inaudible] but that's not really my most important point. hi main point is that i think it is essential that an institution chartered by congress to promote wilson's best ideals do just that, do a hutch better job of it than he -- much better job of it than he ever did himself.
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i can't think of a time when it was more important to foster courageous and instructive experiences of hope and ideas across steep differences than it is today when our formal systems of political systems of decision making seem less equipped to foster that sort of collective learning and public work. the second thing i want to address briefly is connections between the exhibition and the larger work of the wilson center and encouraging visitors to seek connections between wilson's era and contemporary public life. the wilson center is involved in an incredible range of constructive work to improve human life and foster thriving, free communities across the globe. and in a vast majority of the cases, from what i can tell, it does that work in a way that translates wilson's ideal of common counsel into practice better than he did. its various teams and working groups did not dream up solutions to other people's
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problems and simply dispense or impose them. they work in collaboration with governments, nonprofits, voluntary organizations, educational institutions and activists all over the globe to co-create solutions and to leverage the talent ares, the wisdom and work of people who are actually living the conditions that concern them. i think visitors should know about this work and take hope from it. after all, it's done by a public if institution, and it's done in their name. that said, wilson often thought he and his counterairports were doing is same -- counterparts were the same kind of work. our exhibit will make clear, however, he often was to not. one reason, therefore, to present wilson not as a demon or a monster or a failure or a hypocrite, but as a complex person dealing with enormous challenges and trying -- at least some of the time -- to do the right thing is to spur people to ask themselves what is this place doing. what is this organization, a
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public institution, doing that i should support and learn from, and what might its blind spots be. what about other organizations that act in my name, the name of the u.s. government, a government of we, the people, but in ways that i don't know much about. what constructive even if uncomfortable questions could i ask of the people who run those places. and that brings me to my final point, which is the connection to contemporary public life. for all of my concerns about some of the contemporary literature on wilson and his troubling legacy, it is undeniable that that legacy is troubling. and if our center and our exhibition in any way appears to be sweeping any of those legacies under the rug, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the american people and everyone who visits the exhibition. we need to make it clear that at least we as an organization can
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confront these types of complexities and welcome the opinions and the reaction and the suggestions and the creative, constructive ideas and solutions of people outside of our think tank, outside of our organization, outside of our familiar sphere of experts. and i really hope, i believe that the team we have working on the revamp of the wilson exhibition is doing its best to do that, and i look forward to the results, and i look forward to people's reactions to it when it is finally unveiled. before we take questions, i just want to make one more mention of another area in which the wilson center is trying to take this new approach toward its commemoration of woodrow wilson. our new president and ceo, ambassador mark green, has asked that the wilson center launch a
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new award, and the details of this are are still in formulation, but an award honoring a very, very prominent critic of wilson along very much the same lines that he is criticized today. his name is william monroe trotter, the prominent african-american civil rights activist, boston-based, editor of "the boston guardian," also known not just for his contra temps with wilson in 1914, but for a lifetime of unbelievably constructive work to advance the civil rights of african-americans as well as to advance the rights and living conditions and political freedoms of people of color all across the world. so i ask that everyone keep their attention open to announcements about what for
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thousand i'll call the william monroe trotter award, and i am as eager as i hope many of you are to see how that shapes up. so thank you very much. i know there's been some, already some, how shall i say, animated discussion in the chat, and i'm eager to get to some of those questions. first, i could ask a question that is a little bit, a little bit more directed toward the work of our two guests. i wonder if i could put each of you on the spot to give a concrete example of an experience with a particular set of visitors or a really tough problem that you recall working through with your staff on how to communicate and talk about
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wilson's complex legacy in just a real concrete term, a little vignette of the kind of work that you're trying to do. can we start with you, robin? >> absolutely. you know, the first thing that pops to my mind when you mention that is the, looking at some of the exhibit labels that are in our museum. one of the things that we did after the murder of george floyd, we like so many other museums put out a statement of support for our black community and did some soul searching as well. we also spend a lot of our time doing trimming so that we are more aware of looking at diverse viewpoints and seeing where those blind spots might be. and one of the areas was we looked at exhibit labels, and we
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realized how we were framing something in a way that really wasn't as -- i don't want to say it wasn't accurate, but it wasn't a full, more objective view. and so what we purposefully did is we changed that exhibit label, but we made it so you can see where we had changed that, and we put a description of why we felt that was important to change that, that we were becoming more inclusive in our thoughts and sharing those viewpoints. you know, i think one of the things that we do as museum professionals is that we have to continue to be objective. and so often there's so much emotion about these very topics, and you have to balance that emotional piece of that with the objective piece of what our job is, and that's just one example that came up.
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>> thank you. >> we, at thed woodrow wilson house, we put through -- i should start by saying we have funding through the african-american cultural heritage action fund that is part of the national trust for historic preservation. and so with that, many of the stories that we are looking to tell are, have a much fuller story and to bring african-american stories to life at thed woodrow wilson house. -- the woodrow wilson house. one thing we talk about the scotts, the husband and wife this supported the wilsons, living there for over 15 years, we had a speaker series last spring. it started on suffrage to celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment, and that speaker series went, it was on zoom, it was extraordinarily successful for the woodrow wilson house in
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that we switched from being in-person to now online. and online we had sometimes over a hundred people tuning in which was really great because we never would have been able to have a hundred people at the wilson house for those kinds of talks. and then, of course, with the murder last summer of george floyd, we changed the topic to wilson and race, and we're very direct and deliberate about having professor eric yellen spoke, we had historians bring to life, to tell the story and explain what do we heene by racism. -- mean by racism. what does this heene? one of the things that we found is a lot of people didn't -- they were surprised and say i didn't learn that, why didn't i know that? and it was in some ways the same story that we would hear from people who would attend the speaker series on suffrage say, gosh, i didn't know that.
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why -- i had a fairly decent education, why didn't i know that about suffrage or about wilson and race or about his administration. so we've taken those, and i agree with the exhibitions, i love the idea of having the plaque explain what we used to say and what we say today. the wilson house will be a museum, we'll be celebrating 60 years in the coming year, and we're looking to put through an exhibition on how we've changed as an exhibition space and as a museum over 60 years and tell that story which i think is actually fascinating to say what we -- how did we portray ourselves in 1963, 1965 and how do we do that today. but a very, very concrete story that just happened recently was with young girl scouts who came. it's a new program that we're trying to explore at the wilson
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house, is to have young girl scouts come. and they asked -- and i was there. i helped facilitate this conversation. and they said to me, why, what -- how can this person be a racist? what do you mean he was a racist? and what do you mean by, like, what was good about him? if he's so bad because he was a racist. and i said to these young ladies, you know, did you take the metro here today? and they said, yes. i said, did you watch tv and hear things that happened in the world that make you think, wow, america should be waving our flag, and we should be out there helping those people and doing things whether you -- did you hear about haiti a few weeks ago? did you hear china? did you think america should be -- oh, yes, america should be waving flags. when you took the metro, did you see homeless people on the street? yes, we did. did you say anything to them?
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did you help them? did you give them think hundred? no. and that -- any money? and that really struck them. yes, it's almost american to our core that we feel we should be helping and feeling like we should be with having this influence on world, on vision of world peace. and yet sometimes we'll walk right over or the people who are right outside our front door. right outside the metro in washington d.c. and that's an extraordinarily concrete vision that those girl scouts came away with thinking they didn't just learn about wilson and a vision of world peace, they need to learn about what's happening their in their own backyard. >> very arresting story. yes, thank you very much. building -- or related a little bit to what you just mentioned, elizabeth, that people coming in and saying why didn't i know this, i don't exactly know what people are talking about when they say he, wilson, did this or
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didn't do this, we got a question asking us to summarize wilson's attitudes and actions on race rather than just refer to them or talk around them. i'm not sure -- we had -- well, first of all, i will refer people to our previous installment of the series, wilson then and now, which was on the politics of race. i don't know that really either of us are equipped to do that in the time that we have, but maybe i could ask each of you to explain the major events in wilson's career or the major statements that he made or publication that you have found people most concerned that you address head on and then talk about how you addressed, how you addressed those. that would be a way at least to
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give people an idea of at least some of the actions, some of the statements that, unfortunately, i don't think we can summarize wilson's, the entire subject of wilson and race today. but that might be a way to get at it in a concrete way. so, robin, again, i turn to you, what's the main thing about wilson and race that you, that you just knew you had to confront because people were asking you to confront it. >> sure. the first thing that really comes to mind is about the viewing of -- [inaudible] in the white house. and i know there had been a quote that has been attributed to wilson about that very building that there's no evidence that he utteredded the words. it was like writing history with
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lightning. but his association with that filming, the viewing of that film concern which, incidentally, was directed by a classmate in school, that is a huge question that we get asked about on a regular basis. >> one of the questions because we are in washington, d.c., there is a high school, the woodrow wilson high school. it's a public school. it's in the northwest quadrant of washington, d.c., not too far from the wilson house on f street. they have been struggling with the name change and should they be changing the name of the woodrow wilson high school. i think there's a chance it might be -- the talk now is it would be changed to august wilson high school


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