If Washingtonians know anything about black civil servants of the early twentieth century, it is that they faced discrimination under President Woodrow Wilson. Beginning in 1913, Wilson’s Democratic administration dismantled a biracial, Republican-led coalition that had struggled since Reconstruction to make government offices places of racial egalitarianism. During Wilson's presidency, federal officials imposed "segregation" (actually exclusion), rearranged the political patronage system, and undercut black ambition. The Wilson administration's policies were a disaster for black civil servants, who responded with one of the first national civil rights campaigns in U.S. history. But to fully grapple with the meaning of federal segregation, we need a richer understanding of life a richer understanding of life and work in black Washington before Wilson.

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Copyright © 2009 Historical Society of Washington D.C. This article first appeared in Washington History 21 (2009), 22-47.