A Reminder: Black Lives Matter and Woodrow Wilson in Geneva

The recent insurrection in Washington is a reminder, if one is needed, that not speaking up against injustice has dire consequences. The invasion of the Capitol was the physical culmination of at least four years of collective amnesia/appeasement. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is an ongoing manifestation against hundreds of years of amnesia/appeasement. While reactions against the insurrection have been swift and powerful, the BLM movement needs continuing vigilance and updating.

The horrendous video of George Floyd being choked to death for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis in May set off some 8,500 demonstrations throughout the world. There was one in Geneva. On June 9, 2020, an estimated 10,000 people peacefully marched in the City of Calvin, many under banners of Black Lives Matter.

Did the marchers miss something specific to Geneva?

Geneva prides itself as the Rome of Multilateralism. With an impressive list of international and non-governmental organizations, it is a leading global city. The United Nations High Commissioners for human rights and refugees are based here. And much of Geneva’s prestige goes back to its historical position as the site of the League of Nations. Geneva was selected to be the headquarters of the League through the influence of the Swiss diplomat William Rappard and the final decision by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson undisputedly laid the groundwork for international Geneva’s prominence.

In recognition of Wilson’s contribution, the first headquarters of the League was named the Palais Wilson in 1924 after his death. The imposing sandstone structure, originally a luxury hotel, is now the headquarters of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It overlooks Lake Geneva along the scenic Quai Wilson. Next to it stands the luxurious 5star Hotel President Wilson.

On the wall in front of the Palais along the Quai Wilson there is a plaque commemorating the 28th U.S. president. It reads (in translation): “To the Memory of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, Founder of the League of Nations, The City of Geneva.”

The Floyd protesters of June 9 did not walk directly in front of the hotel. Among the many speeches during the demonstration, there were no references to the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Why not? While Wilson may be honored as the moving force behind the League and a visionary for world peace, he was also a known racist. As governor of New Jersey and then president, Wilson actively supported segregation. During his presidency of Princeton University, he barred Black students from admission and spoke positively of the racist Ku Klux Klan.

In June, 2020, Princeton University renamed its prestigious center of public policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. The University explained the change as follows: “We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students, and alumni must be firmly committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all its forms.”

Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote; “When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role.”

“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” Eisgruber continued. “He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today,”

There have been recent movements to re-examine Swiss history in other Swiss cities in relation to its minimum “colonial past.” The most active was a June 8, 2020, petition calling for the removal of a statue of the wealthy entrepreneur David de Pury in Neuchatel. According to the petition, De Pury made his fortune in Brazil in the 18thcentury exploiting slaves. His bronze statue is a tribute to his local philanthropy; he left 600 million Swiss francs (today’s value) to his native city.

Not calling to rename the Palais or hotel, I am pointing to the dichotomy between the June marchers with their chants for racial equality and their lack of concern about Wilson. There are positives and negatives about the cancel culture. But a robust discussion of Woodrow Wilson and his namesakes in Geneva remains unfinished business in a city that prides itself as a world center for human rights and humanitarianism.

The Washington riots should not allow other injustices to be forgotten; historical injustices should not be overwhelmed by current affairs. Wilson must have his due, especially having his name associated with a building that first housed the League of Nations and now houses the world’s foremost organization for human rights.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.