Trotter, James Monroe

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James Monroe Trotter

Soldier, music historian, writer

James Monroe Trotter promoted racial advancement in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment in which he served, in his seminal and pioneer work Music and Some Highly Musical People, and in his protests against racial intolerance that he experienced in his position in Boston's postal service. He believed that African Americans should promote themselves, and he used the press to encourage them to do so. He followed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass as recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C., becoming the second African American to hold that post.

The son of Richard S. Trotter, a white man, and his black slave Letitia, James Monroe Trotter was born on February 7, 1842, in the hamlet of Grand Gulf, Mississippi, located twenty-five miles south of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. (Some sources give Trotter's date of birth as November 8, 1842.) After Richard Trotter married in 1854, he sent Letitia and the children of their union—James and two younger daughters—to Cincinnati, where they lived free. Young James attended the Gilmore School, a famous institution for freed slaves founded by Methodist clergyman Hiram S. Gilmore. There he studied music with William F. Colburn. His musical training served him well later on. In Cincinnati, James helped to support the family by working as a hotel bellboy and a riverboat cabin boy on a Cincinnati-to-New Orleans run. About 1856 the family moved on to nearby Hamilton. Trotter attended Albany Manual Labor University, located near Athens. He may have been mostly self-educated. Whatever the case, he taught school for a short time in Muskingum and Pike counties located in southwestern Ohio.

Civil War Soldier

During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton urged Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who favored the use of black troops in the segregated Union Army, to find volunteer regiments that would include African Americans. Andrew sent recruiters throughout the North to look for such volunteers. John Mercer Langston, then a recruiter, urged Trotter to sign on. He headed for Boston and in 1863 joined the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, an all-black unit with practically all-white officers, one of them George Garrison, a son of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It was through his connection to George Garrison that Trotter met other Garrison family members.

As he demonstrated unusual ability, Trotter moved through the ranks from private to first sergeant, sergeant major (November 1863), and second lieutenant (April 1864). Stephen Fox, in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, described Trotter as a "genteel militant". Beginning with his commission to second lieutenant and continuing throughout his life, Trotter demonstrated such behavior. When his commission was delayed for several months due to an effort to appease some white officers, Trotter found the action "discouraging" and "maddening, almost." There were only four African American commissioned officers in the regiment, and Trotter was one of them. As a result of racial bias, the War Department for fifteen months refused to commission the men; the department claimed that there was no law requiring or authorizing them to be commissioned. Genteel militant or not, Trotter definitely spoke out, calling racism exactly what it was. He felt the coldness of white officers, who had claimed to be friendly to the black officers; the discouraging consequences of the War Department's inaction; and the fact that the white officers as well as the War Department in effect insulted black officers. They blamed the black officers for the color of their skin, Trotter thought.


Born in Grand Gulf, Mississippi on February 7
Family moves from Cincinnati to Hamilton, Ohio
Joins all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment in Boston; rapidly moves up in rank
Wounded in battle in Honey Hill, South Carolina
Musters out of service and settles in Boston
Serves in Boston post office
Marries Virginia Isaacs
Publishes survey of American music, Music and Some Highly Musical People
Joins William Dupree in managing recitals for Henrietta Vinson Davis; publishes article on Marie Selika in the New York Globe
Serves in Benjamin F. Butler's campaign for governor of Massachusetts
Appointed recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C. on March 3
Dies in Boston on February 26

The pay scale for military officers was another area of concern. Before the two black regiments were formed—the 54th and Trotter's 55th—the War Department knew that blacks would serve the army as common laborers; thus, the 1862 militia act was the only legal basis upon which blacks could be paid. The two regiments, however, refused to accept laborer's wages, prompting Andrews to urge the Massachusetts legislature to bring parity into the pay scale, giving black troops the same pay as white soldiers. For the Massachusetts regiments, the wheels of justice turned slowly. The men served an entire year without pay, causing family hardships, poor morale, and a decline in discipline. Although Representative Thad-deus Stevens introduced a bill to equalize pay, the matter dragged. It was not until June 15, 1864, that Congress authorized equal pay, and most of the men received their overdue wages in full by that October. All the while, Trotter supported the agitation for equal pay.

In November 1864, Trotter was slightly wounded in a battle near Honey Hill, South Carolina, where he served as leader. Back at camp, he put his education to work as he taught classes in reading and writing. He also drew upon his musical skills and organized a regimental band. He completed his military assignment with South Carolina's Commission on Labor and was mustered out in Boston in August 1865.

Works in Boston Post Office

Trotter settled in Boston, which was regarded as a friendly and thriving environment for blacks to live in. The growing African American community was appealing, as were the racially integrated schools. African Americans had voting rights; they were eligible to hold public office, to serve on juries, and to give testimony in court. By state law, racial discrimination was prohibited on public conveyances and at inns and public places. Clearly, Boston was an area of enlightenment, and it attracted Trotter's attention as a place in which to live, work, and advance. Rewarding blacks for their military service, the Republicans gave Trotter and some other African American officers appointments to clerkships in the Boston Post Office.

While teaching school in Ohio early on, Trotter had met Virginia Isaacs, of Chillicothe, Ohio. He returned there in 1868, when the two married. Anne Elizabeth Fawcett (or Fossett), who was the mother of Virginia Isaacs, was born a slave at Monticello plantation, where Thomas Jefferson lived. Oral tradition, recorded in Stephen R. Fox's The Guardian of Boston, claims that Fawcett was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson's mulatto son. Fawcett was said to have descended from the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship, thus making James Trotter's children—William Monroe, Maude, and Bessie—related to Jefferson. Fawcett married Tucker Isaacs, of free black and Jewish extraction, who bought her freedom; they relocated to Chillicothe, where Virginia Isaacs grew up.

James Trotter brought his bride to Boston where they lived at South End. Trotter took his clerkship in the post office. But tragedy struck, when their first two children died as infants; the cause of their deaths, the Trotters believed, was the rigor of city life. When Virginia Trotter began her third pregnancy, she returned to Ohio and on April 7, 1872, gave birth to William Monroe Trotter. Seven months later the Trotters considered Virginia Trotter well enough to return to Boston, where they lived at their next residence, 105 Kendall Street. Two years later the Trotters moved again, this time to suburban Hyde Park, as they anticipated a shift in the black population to the suburbs that came in the 1890s. They increased their family with two daughters, Maude (1874) and Bessie (1883). Of the three Trotter children, William Monroe, popularly known as Monroe, was the most widely recognized. He distinguished himself as a publisher, editor, civil rights activist, elite integrationist, and one of the nation's most important African American spokesmen of the early twentieth century. He was a bitter opponent of educator Booker T. Washington, his views, and his followers.

Publishes Work on Music

James Trotter never lost his racial consciousness. His work on music allowed him to express his admiration for blacks and their musical achievement and to draw upon the musical training that he had received early on. Though by no means an accomplished musician or music scholar, in 1878 Trotter published the 508-page work, Music and Some Highly Musical People, an important historical work. This was the first survey of American music that, according to Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans, explored "a body of American music that cut across genres and styles." The book was well received and reprinted in 1880, 1881, and again in 1969, when its popularity resurfaced. Some writers claim that the book was important to the musical development of poet James Weldon Johnson.

In the preface, Trotter wrote that his intent was to provide a service to "some of its noblest devotees and the race to which the latter belong," and not so much to "the cause of music itself." His work includes biographical sketches and images of many remarkable musicians of that era, including over forty individuals and groups, such as singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (the "Black Swan"), pianist Thomas Greene Bethune ("Blind Tom"), vocalists the Hyers Sisters (Anna Madah and Emma Louise), bandleader Frank Johnson, the Georgia Minstrels, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Trotter praised the slave spirituals that these singers from Fisk University sang, noting that they "have been sung by the American bondmen in the cruel days of the past." These had "originated with the slave," he added. The songs were spontaneous "from souls naturally musical." Quoting an unnamed but eminent writer, he said that the songs formed "the only native American Music," or the spiritual. Added to this is a section with brief sketches of obscure musicians. An appendix containing thirteen vocal and instrumental pieces by black composers concludes the work. There are in the book press notices, reproductions of recital programs, essays on topics such as symphony orchestras in New Orleans, and The Colored American Opera company.

Trotter continued his work at the post office until racial injustice raised its ugly head—a white employee was promoted over him to a chief clerkship post. Although he felt secure in his post and considered the salary adequate, this was a racial insult that he found intolerable. In protest, he resigned. The next few years he engaged in a number of enterprises, such as musical promoter, real estate agent, and local agent for a telephone company that competed with the Bell system. In his musical promotions, in 1883 he and friend William Dupree managed Henrietta Vinton Davis' dramatic recitals. Musicians and assisting artists were involved in the recitals. Trotter and Dupree also managed the musical career of concert singer Marie Selika and others. He had become highly respected in the white Hyde Park section where he lived. On July 4, 1884, Trotter was called on to give a Fourth of July speech to white residents of Hyde Park.

Around this time as well, Trotter switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party. His interest in the political arena was great. In the fall of 1883 he served in the Benjamin F. Butler Democratic campaign for Massachusetts governor. When Butler won, Trotter celebrated openly by letting his views become known in the press—The New York Globe, then black America's most influential newspaper. The black Democrats of New England preferred to call themselves Independents. They held a conference in Boston in 1886 and Trotter served as temporary chair. When Rhode Island's black abolitionist George Downing declined the post, Trotter was elected permanent chair. From his position he stressed the importance of the black ballot and of political independence. He urged blacks to resist white oppression; he said the condition of blacks resulted from the manner in which they allowed themselves to be treated. Yet, according to Fox in The Guardian of Boston, Trotter was a race leader, "militant but a trifle distant, speaking down to the race from the comfortable life in Hyde Park." Although he was genuine in his concern for his race, he was fortunate enough to have elevated himself through his accomplishments and "he expected others to do the same through protest and work."

Goes to Washington

Trotter had endeared himself to black Democrats and rose to prominence among them as he moved on to a lucrative political job. President James A. Garfield appointed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass to the post recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia in March 1881 and he held that post for five years. He was the first African American in that position—a post that was the nation's highest office that an African American could hold and came to be customarily reserved for them. When Democratic President Grover Cleveland took office, Douglass resigned and another African American, New Yorker James C. Matthews, was nominated as his replacement. When the Senate twice refused to confirm him, in late February 1887 Cleveland nominated Trotter. But Democrats and Republicans resisted, their reasons being the Democrats' dissatisfaction with his race and the Republicans' objection to his politics. The nomination seemed headed to failure, but Trotter's friends in Boston found the impasse unacceptable. On March 3, two Republican senators from Boston surprised those in session by endorsing Trotter on the Senate floor. He was confirmed that night by a mostly Republican 32-10 vote.

This was a prime time for Trotter, who held the post from 1887 to 1889. Real estate in the District of Columbia was booming; his salary was based on a percentage of the transactions, which meant that his post was financially rewarding. Although many people tried to induce him to join various protest efforts, he avoided protest activities of any kind. When the Republicans returned to office in 1889, Trotter left the lucrative post and returned to Boston and to his family, who had not joined him in Washington.

To support his family, Trotter established a real estate business. He could also devote more time to his family, for now his only son, Monroe, was doing well in high school. A demanding father, he set high standards for his son and daughters. Prominent in Hyde Park and in Boston, the family had among its friends the Archibald Grimkés, who also lived in Hyde Park. Archibald Grimké was a nephew of Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister Sarah Grimké, prominent abolitionists and suffragists, who became his surrogate parents while he was in college. By marriage, Archibald Grimké was related to abolitionist Theodore Weld. Other black luminaries of Boston visited the Trotters as well, but they had to accept his views of racial militancy. For a while, Trotter rejected William H. Duprees because the two men were in conflict over race and politics. Dupree had served with Trotter in the 55th Massachusetts regiment, but that did not matter then. He had also worked with Trotter at the post office and had married Virginia Isaac Trotter's sister. The Duprees were no longer allowed to visit the Trotters. In time, however, the men reconciled, much to the benefit of Virginia Trotter and her daughters. After Trotter's death, they lived with the Duprees on Northampton Street in Boston, while Monroe Trotter was enrolled at Harvard University.

Toward the end of 1899, Trotter's health was failing and political pressures began to take their toll on him. He died of tuberculosis on February 26, 1892 and was survived by his wife, son, and two daughters. Though labeled a genteel militant, he was an ardent supporter of the black race. He promoted racial pride and accomplishments in the press and in his enduring work on the history of music.



Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Athenaeum, 1970.

――――. "James Monroe Trotter." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. Cleveland: Geo. M. Rewell & Co., 1887.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

―――. The Music of Black Americans. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1983.

Stevenson, Robert. "James Monroe Trotter." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. Vol. 25. Ed. Stanley Sadie. New York: Macmillan, 2001.


Trotter's Civil War letters are in the Edward W. Kingsley Papers at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. There is a manuscript sketch of him in the George W. Forbes Papers, Boston Public Library.

                                   Jessie Carney Smith

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