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Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton revisiting former president’s legacy

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum plans to overhaul museum exhibits for the first time in around 30 years.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum plans to overhaul museum exhibits for the first time in around 30 years.(WHSV)
Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 5:57 PM EDT
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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — Across the country, people are reckoning with the pasts of people buildings are named after and statues are built in honor of.

On Friday, Princeton University announced they would be changing the name of their public policy school and a residential college. Both are named after Woodrow Wilson, and the university said Wilson’s racist beliefs and policies did not make him a good namesake.

Wilson was born in Staunton. Staff at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton said they continue to share the full picture of Wilson’s legacy.

"We very clearly agree that Woodrow Wilson was indeed a racist, that is something that we talk about when people come here for a visit," Robin von Seldeneck, president and CEO of the library, said.

The library released a statement on Sunday after the Princeton University announcement. In the statement, staff said they acknowledge Wilson was racist and they make no excuses for that.

However, they said “our organization stands against racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms and we are committed to being a resource for honest, transparent and inclusive history.”

Von Seldeneck said that Wilson continued work started by President William Taft before him. Wilson continued the segregation of the postal service and the U.S. Treasury. The library said they discuss those parts of Wilson’s legacy at the museum.

"We are not a shrine to Woodrow Wilson, that's not our role. Our role is specifically to educate on the life and times, and what we like to say here is we talk about warts and all," von Seldeneck said.

She added Wilson did accomplish great things and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. However, like many former presidents, von Seldeneck said he was a flawed individual. In 2006, the museum held a symposium called “Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson: Democracy and the Dilemma of Race.” von Seldeneck said this is something they’ve been talking about for years, but there hasn’t always been interest.

"We have been, maybe quietly, talking about this, I will also say we have a long way to go, just like every other institution," von Seldeneck said.

One way the museum is hoping to further the discussion is through their updated museum plans. In 2019, the museum received a $60,000 grant to re-do the exhibits. The museum is re-opening on July 1, and they will be debuting their new plans then. von Seldeneck said one change will be how the museum begins. Instead of beginning with his birth, von Seldeneck said the museum will now begin with Wilson's election.

In addition, there will be four figures people will be able to follow through the museum. von Seldeneck said the museum will show how Wilson’s policies and legislation affected each of their lives.

The museum will have free admission for the first five days in July. von Seldeneck said they want people to come back to the museum and see what they've planned to update the museum, which hasn't been updated in around 30 years. They're hoping to get feedback from the community on the changes.

“We think it is essential to listen,” von Seldeneck said. “We are very open to hearing how our community feels about the way we plan to interpret with the new museum, for example.”

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