On October 19, 1915, Woodrow Wilson traveled to his political base in Princeton to cast his vote on the historical record for the Woman Suffrage Amendment, and a photographer for the Bain News Service was present as the president boarded his train for the return trip to Washington. The leather carrying case that held the photographer’s glass negatives remains visible to history, hanging by its strap from a spike on a telegraph pole. For aesthetic reasons, however, I’ve edited it and the pole out of the version of the photographer’s record that you see here. What I desired was this ascending diagonal with a possibly triumphant smile toward the apex. That allegorical moment, I decided, would be more fun to see than any ill-comprehended antique.
Wilson had begun his political career there in Princeton: first as a professor of history at the university, then as its president, then as governor of New Jersey. But (as history in the twenty-first century is now re-reminding us) as president of the United States he was a Southerner presiding over a cabinet full of Southerners, and on February 18, 1915, he was in the audience when, for the first time in history, a movie was shown in the White House: David Wark Griffith’s history-hymn to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation. Earlier, at Princeton, he had presided over an erasure from the historical record of evidence that the university had once had black students.
On the visual record, a century later, you see the faces of two black men in servants’ white jackets. One of them, the one on your right, may or may not be about to start or finish smiling. Princeton University was to admit and acknowledge black men before it admitted or acknowledged women.
Source: April C. Armstrong, “Erased Pasts and Altered Legacies: Princeton’s First African American Students.” Princeton & Slavery Project, Princeton University, 2020. https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/erased-pasts-and-altered-legacies-princetons-first-african-american-students