William Monroe Trotter

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William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), African American newspaper editor and protest leader, was the first prominent challenger of the accommodationist leadership of Booker T. Washington.

William Monroe Trotter was born on April 7, 1872, in Springfield Township, Ohio. His father, James, the son of a Mississippi slave-owner, rose from private to second lieutenant in the all-Black Massachusetts 55th Regiment during the Civil War. His mother, Virginia Issacs, claimed descent from Thomas Jefferson.

James Trotter settled in Massachusetts soon after the war, but after his first two children died in infancy the family decided to give birth to their third child in rural Ohio. At seven months young William and his parents moved back to Boston where they settled on the South End, far from the predominately African American West Side. The family later moved to suburban Hyde Park, a white neighborhood.

The elder Trotter instilled independence and racial pride in his children. James Trotter had been among the most outspoken supporters of the principle of equal pay for African American troops during the Civil War and was an outspoken critic of American racial injustice. He was also a leader among a small coterie of African American Democrats at a time when the vast majority of African Americans were Republican, and President Cleveland appointed him recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, the highest political office accorded African Americans.

Despite the comfortable existence that federal service provided the Trotters, young William was admonished to excel as a way of breaking down racial barriers, and his father told him that if he were beaten in a fight with one of his white friends, he could expect another when he returned home. His childhood, however, seems remarkably free of racial incidents, and he was valedictorian and president of his high school class.

Trotter graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University in 1895 and took an M.A. a year later. He had hoped to go into international banking, but even his impressive credentials opened few doors. Thwarted by race, Trotter settled on a career in real estate. In 1899 he married Geraldine Louise Pindell, whose uncle had led the fight to integrate Boston schools in the 1850s.

Trotter had participated in ceremonies and discussion groups commemorating various aspects of African American history in Boston, but it quickly became clear that he had an affinity for protest and agitation. He "did not seek a career of agitation, " he later remarked (writing in the third person), the "burden was dropped upon him by the desertion of others and he would not desert duty." In 1901, with an official of the West End branch of the Boston Public Library named George Forbes as his partner, Trotter founded the Boston Guardian on the same floor of the same building that had housed William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator.

The symbolism was unmistakable. Trotter and Forbes clearly saw themselves as the new abolitionists, direct legatees of those who battled for African American rights in the pre-Civil War era. Their principal target was Booker T. Washington, who "literally shriveled" before it. Guardian cartoons lampooned Washington as an errand boy for Northern philanthropists and its pages were filled with anti-BTW editorials and letters. "Let our spiritual advisors, " Trotter wrote, "condemn this idea of reducing a people to serfdom to make them good."

In 1903 when Washington went to Boston to give an address, Trotter and his allies heckled the Southern educator and prevented him from speaking. Several anti-Bookerites were subsequently arrested, and Trotter served 30 days in the Charles Street jail. But it was a Pyrrhic victory for BTW. Trotter's sentence aroused sympathy among other African American newspaper editors and awakened public awareness to the fact that there were those opposed to Washington's conciliatory public policy.

But it was W.E. B. DuBois, not Trotter, who emerged as Washington's most prominent critic. Trotter and DuBois were contemporaries at Harvard and briefly worked together as leaders of the Niagara Movement, a group of African American intellectuals critical of Booker T. Washington. But Trotter withdrew to form the National Equal Rights League and later refused to join the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People because of his distrust of white leadership. His abrasive style did not endear him to other African American leaders, and his singlemindedness and inability to compromise was labelled fanaticism by his critics.

In 1912 Trotter endorsed Democrat Woodrow Wilson for the presidency, but the new president repaid his African American support by segregating African American workers in the federal government. Trotter led a delegation of African Americans to the White House and for 45 minutes he and Wilson stood toe to toe and debated the president's action. Wilson lost his temper, offended by Trotter's "manner" and "tone, with its background of passion, " and banned Trotter from the White House for the rest of his term.

During World War I, when a delegation of African Americans sought to attend the Versailles conference to protest the treatment of African Americans, Wilson denied them visas. Trotter circumvented the ban by securing passage to France as a ship's cook and jumping ship once it arrived in Europe.

In 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1926 Trotter led delegations of African Americans to the White House to protest continued segregation in the federal government. He also led demonstrations and pickets against the racist Birth of a Nation, defended the Scottsboro Boys, and crusaded for a Crispus Attucks day to honor the African American hero of the Revolutionary War. But his influence clearly declined during the 1920s, and in the last years of his life he felt ignored and unappreciated. In 1934, on the night of his 62nd birthday, he fell or jumped to his death from the roof of his home.

Trotter was largely overshadowed by his more illustrious contemporaries, W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Unable or unwilling to compromise, Trotter tended to personalize differences, and he lacked a coherent program and the organizational skills to launch a successful political movement. But he was the first African American leader to employ the tactics of direct action and group confrontation to achieve racial ends and an authentic pioneer of the 20th-century African American protest tradition.

Further Reading

The only major biography of William Monroe Trotter to date is The Guardian of Boston (1971) by Stephen B. Fox. Lerone Bennett devotes a chapter to Trotter in Pioneers in Protest (1968), and a brief biographical sketch may be found in the Dictionary of American Negro Biography (1983), edited by Rayford Logan and Michael Winston. □

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