April 11th, 1913

President Wilson Permits Segregation Within Federal Government

On April 11, 1913, recently inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson received Postmaster General Albert Burleson's plan to segregate the Railway Mail Service. Burleson reported that he found it “intolerable” that white and black employees had to work together and share drinking glasses and washrooms. This sentiment was shared by others in Wilson's administration; William McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, argued that segregation was necessary “to remove the causes of complaint and irritation where white women have been forced unnecessarily to sit at desks with colored men.”

By the end of 1913, black employees in several federal departments had been relegated to separate or screened-off work areas and segregated lavatories and lunchrooms. In addition to physical separation from whites, black employees were appointed to menial positions or reassigned to divisions slated for elimination. The government also began requiring photographs on civil service applications, to better enable racial screening.

Although implemented by his subordinates, President Wilson defended racial segregation in his administration as in the best interest of blacks. He maintained that harm was interjected into the issue only when blacks were told that segregation was humiliation. Meanwhile, segregation in federal employment was seen as the most significant blow to black rights since slavery, and seemed to signify official Presidential approval of Jim Crow policies in the South. After backlash that included organized protests by the NAACP, segregated lavatory signs were removed, but discriminatory customs persisted and there was little concrete evidence of actual policy reversal. The federal government continued to require photographs on civil service applications until 1940.