William Monroe Trotter
Trotter, Monroe 1872–1934
Monroe Trotter 1872–1934
Editor, civil rights activist
William Monroe Trotter was one of the most diligent workers for civil rights in the twentieth century. As cofounder and editor of the Guardian, a Boston newspaper, Trotter became the most outspoken and virulent critic of Booker T. Washington and his “Tuskegee machine.” For three decades, Trotter strove to organize a national all-black civil rights organization that sought political, civil, and social equality for black Americans.
Upon Trotter’s death in 1934, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a tribute in Crisis magazine: “Monroe Trotter was a man of heroic proportions and probably one of the most selfless Negro leaders during all our American history.” Though Du Bois did not always support the views and public actions of his former colleague, he recognized, as did many African American leaders after Trotter’s death, the genuine devotion of this civil rights activist.
Born on his grandparents’ farm in Chillicothe, Ohio, on April 7, 1872, William Monroe Trotter grew up in the upper class neighborhood of Hyde Park, a white suburb of Boston. His father, James Monroe Trotter, a lieutenant during the Civil War and noted author, served from 1897 to 1898 as Recorder of Deeds in Washington, DC. Returning to his family in Boston in 1898, James Trotter took up a successful career in real estate.
Through his father’s guidance and influence, Monroe, the favored child of three children, emerged as a model student. The only African American in his high school, Trotter was elected class president by a student body who admired his academic ability and likable personality. Though Trotter displayed an early interest in entering the ministry, his father, warning that he would be forced to serve a segregated congregation, influenced him in abandoning the idea.
Upon graduating from high school, Trotter worked for a year as a shipping clerk for a Boston book company. In the fall of 1891 he entered Harvard College, where he joined several church groups, and because of his disdain for alcohol and tobacco, became a member of the Prohibition Club and president of the Total Abstinence League. During his junior year at Harvard, Trotter became the first African American elected Phi Beta Kappa in the history of the institution. Without the confines of segregation, he enjoyed riding his bike on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, and
At a Glance…
Born William Monroe Trotter, April 7, 1872, in Chillicothe, OH; died of apparent suicide, April 7, 1934, in Boston, MA; son of James Monroe and Virginia Issacs Trotter; married Geraldine Louise Pindell, June 27, 1899. Education: Harvard Unversity, B.A., 1895, M.A., 1906.
The Guardian (newspaper), Boston, MA, founder and editor, 1901–34. Negotiator of real estate mortgages, Boston, 1899; Boston Literary and Historical Association, cofounder, 1901; Boston Sufferage League, president, 1903; Niagara Movement, member, 1905–07; Negro Equal Rights League, cofounder, 1908.
Awards: Phi Beta Kappa.
playing tennis with his white colleagues. Years later Trotter, as quoted in The Guardian of Boston, looked back on his days at Harvard: “Harvard was an inspiration to me because it was the exemplar of true American freedom, equality, and real democracy.”
In 1895 Trotter graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and like his father, moved into a white neighborhood and ventured into real estate. Through his father’s connections, he landed a job with a realty company and subsequently launched his own business as a negotiator of real estate mortgages in 1899. In the same year, he married Geraldine Louise Pindell, a refined woman from an old Boston family whose father was an advocate of racial militancy. Deeply interested in politics, Trotter worked for Republican congressional and municipal candidates.
As racial conditions worsened in the South and in northern urban centers like Boston, Trotter became sensitized to the matters of race. He vehemently opposed Booker T. Washington’s acquiescence toward racist white leadership. Brought up within a family with a long line of proabolitionist sentiment, Trotter viewed Washington as a betrayer of the colored people, a race traitor whose Southern agricultural program threatened to lay the foundations for the permanent disenfranchisement and segregation of blacks across the nation.
Trotter felt driven to join with others to voice his opposition to Booker T. Washington. In 1901 Trotter and several of Boston’s black elite formed the Boston Literary and Historical Association, which became a forum for racial militancy. In addition, Trotter joined the Massachusetts Protective Association. With the assistance of the Protective Association, Trotter and George Forbes founded the Boston newspaper the Guardian in 1901. Dedicated to racial equality and civil and political rights, the Guardian emerged as a mouthpiece for militant racial protest.
The lack of opposition to Washington in the national press and political circles prompted Trotter to look upon his paper as a means of launching a crusade against Washington’s powerful leadership. Writing in the Guardian in 1902, he addressed the need for blacks to voice their opposition: “Negro orators nor Negro preachers dare not to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the great ’educator’…. It occurs to me that silence is tantamount to being virtually an accomplice in the treasonable act of this Benedict Arnold of the Negro race.”
Assisted by the editorial skills of Forbes, Trotter’s verbal barbs made him Washington’s most recognized and publicized critic. Years later, Du Bois wrote, in an essay featured in The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois, that Trotter’s “philosophy was carried out remorselessly in his paper and his philosophy. He stood unflinchingly for fighting separation and discrimination in church and school, and in professional business life. He would not allow a colored YMCA in Boston, and he hated to recognize colored churches or colleges.”
Trotter did not limit his militant agitation to the pages of the press. Soon he and his anti-Bookerite supporters organized public protests against Washington and his National Negro Business League. In 1903 Trotter attended a meeting at Boston’s AME Zion church where he intended to present a list of questions to the guest speaker, Booker T. Washington. Though many of the anti-Bookerites resorted to under-handed methods of disrupting the meeting, such as sprinkling cayenne pepper around the podium, Trotter’s actions drew far more attention. When he stood on a chair amid the crowd of 2,000 to read his questions before the guest speaker, Trotter was escorted out of the church by police.
Boston’s Washington-backed lawyers were determined to convict their arch opponent. Despite his plea for the right of free speech, Trotter was charged with disturbing the peace, fined $25, and condemned to a 30-day sentence in the Charles Street Jail. Trotter’s trial and incarceration brought him national attention as the instigator of what became known in the sensationalized pages of the press as the “The Boston Riot.”
Following the riot, Trotter was elected president of the Boston Suffrage League, an organization that sought Federal legislation for anti-lynching laws and the enforcement of the 15th Amendment intended to protect all citizens right to vote. To counter the Washington-led National Negro Council and National Negro Business League, Trotter helped found the National Negro Suffrage League. Despite its efforts, however, the National Negro Suffrage League never attracted many anti-Bookerite members.
After the Boston Riot, W. E. B. Du Bois, a former supporter of Booker T. Washington, began to side with Trotter’s militant racial program. In 1905 Du Bois called together 29 black men to form an anti-Bookerite organization. After Du Bois had been unable to find accommodations within the segregated venues in New York for the meeting and consequently hired a small hotel in Canada, the new organization was named the Niagara Movement. At the meeting, Trotter represented seven members from New England. Aside from heading the new organization’s Press and Public Opinion Committee, Trotter drafted, along with Du Bois, the Niagara Movement’s “Declaration of Principles.” This radical document invited men of all races to participate in the persistent agitation against racial legislation and social practices.
But Du Bois and Trotter maintained a relationship of “rough harmony,” according to Steven R. Fox in The Guardian of Boston. Trotter’s insistence that race champions not seek political office clashed with Du Bois’s ideas, and as a result of the increasing rift, Trotter was not reelected as head of the Press and Public Committee. Not long after his defeat, Trotter’s wife resigned from the organization. By 1907 Trotter severed all ties with the Niagara Movement and its leader, Du Bois.
One year after leaving the Niagara Movement, Trotter organized a new race coalition, the Negro American Political League. Since most Progressive politicians of the era supported Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory program, Trotter found himself at odds with most white leaders. A fiercely independent individual, he never feared voicing his opposition against anyone who upheld a pro-Bookerite position. Likewise, after his break with Du Bois and his demand for an all-black civil rights organization, Trotter could not ally himself with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP), whose founding conference he attended in 1909.
Instead, Trotter devoted himself to the National Equal Rights League (NERL), which he helped form in opposition to President Taft’s election campaign in 1908. But as the NAACP’s influence grew, Trotter became an isolated voice of militant protest. Trotter was comfortable with his isolation. He “was not an organization man,” as Du Bois once wrote. “He was a free lance, too intense and sturdy to loan himself to that compromise which is the basis of all real organization.”
One of Trotter’s most memorable campaigns with the NERL emerged out of his opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s segregationist policies. After initially supporting Wilson during the 1912 election, he eventually turned against the President. Visiting the White House in 1913, Trotter met with a calm Wilson who politely listened to his discussion regarding civil rights. On a return visit in November of the following year, Trotter led a NERL delegation to the White House, where he voiced his opposition to the segregation of government jobs.
Angered by Trotter’s intransigence regarding the matter, Wilson, after 45 minutes of stubborn exchanges, abruptly ended the meeting. The black and white newspapers condemned Trotter as a upstart and a vindictive radical. Describing the meeting, NERL member Ida B. Wells wrote, in her autobiography Crusade for Justice, that “the Associated Press sent the incident throughout the country, and many papers heralded the assertion that ’Mr. Trotter had insulted President Wilson.’ I knew very well that there had been no breach in courtesy, but that President Wilson had simply been annoyed at Mr. Trotter’s request.”
At a private White House showing of D. W. Griffith’s film epic Birth of A Nation in 1915, Wilson praised the work for its portrayal of the Civil War Reconstruction period and the triumph of white supremacy. Outraged by the racist, historical distortions of the film and its public endorsement by the President, Trotter became a leading figure in the struggle to ban it from theaters. He was arrested while leading a protest against the film in a Boston theater and led a march against the film at the Massachusetts State House. Though he had influenced the governor in editing certain objectionable scenes, the film was never banned from Boston where it played to sell-out crowds.
Following the end of World War I in 1918, Trotter urged Wilson to add a fifteenth point to his 14-point peace plan, one that demanded the worldwide elimination of all civil, political, and judicial distinctions based upon color. He called upon the President to appoint a black representative to the peace delegation, but like all Trotter’s requests of Wilson, these went unanswered.
Determined to attend the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Trotter attempted to board a ship for France, but was denied a passport by the U.S. government. Traveling incognito as a cook, he secured passage on the S. S. Yarmouth. After docking at Le Harve in May of 1919, the crew was not allowed to leave the ship. Granted permission to go ashore to mail a letter, Trotter, dressed in his work clothes, made his way to Paris. Raggedly dressed, he sought the shelter of an American black couple. After cabling for money, he contacted a left-wing publication that aided him in turning out press releases in the French newspapers. Though Trotter was refused permission to attend the National Race Congress and received no response from his petitions to the Conference or the President, he did make a favorable impression on the French public.
Returning to America, Trotter spoke before a crowd of 2,000 supporters at a homecoming celebration held by NERL. Though his name had appeared in newspapers in Europe and America, Trotter’s popularity proved shortlived. The emerging power of the NAACP, the black nationalist campaign of Marcus Garvey, and the artistic vogue of the Harlem Renaissance all served to undermine the efforts of Trotter’s dwindling movement. His support for Harding in the 1920 presidential campaign began a decade-long disillusionment with the Republican Party.
Throughout the next decade, Trotter fought segregation in the Boston area, removing controversial books from schools, and “colored only” signs from the windows of local businesses. But his wife’s death in the influenza epidemic of 1918 left Trotter alone. He spent his last days dedicated to publishing his paper, although the absence of Forbes and his wife’s editorial skills lessened the quality of the Guardian. On the eve of his 62nd birthday, April 7, 1934, Trotter, unable to sleep and seeking a breath of night air, went to the roof of his three-story home. In the early morning hours, he was found laying on the street below, dead of an apparent suicide.
At Trotter’s funeral in Boston, thousands of mourners, accompanied by police escort and a military honor guard, turned out to pay their last respects to the fallen race champion. A man of deep Christian principles and abolitionist spirit, Trotter remained devoted to seeking full equality for African Americans. In 1926 the Chicago Whip wrote that “[Trotter] stands as a lonesome figure almost in desolation, his voice comes like a hallow cry from the wilderness.” But as Stephen R. Fox pointed out in The Guardian of Boston, Trotter was driven by “a life of divine mission,” convinced that his voice, like that of the great abolitionists, would be heard—that devotion to higher principle and self-sacrifice were necessary for the advancement of black people. Today Trotter’s voice is no longer a hollow cry, but a message of visionary prescience that foreshadowed the African American militant movements of the 1960s by nearly half a century.
Bardolph, Richard, The Negro Vanguard, Vintage Books, 1961.
Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971.
Cashman, Sean Dennis, African-Americans and the Quest For Civil Rights, New York University Press, 1991.
Du Bois, W. E. B., Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race, Schocken Books, 1968.
Du Bois, W. E. B., The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials From the Crisis, Simon &Schuster, 1972.
Fabre, Michel, Black American Writers in France 1840–1980, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Fox, Stephen R., The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter, Atheneum, 1970.
Harlan, Louis R., Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee 1901–1915, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Simmons, William J., Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, Arno Press, 1968.
The Segregation Era: 1863–1954, A Modern Reader, edited by Allen Weinstein and Frank Otto Gatell, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Chicago Whip, July 17, 1926.
Crisis, May, 1934.
Guardian (Boston), April 4, 1902.
Tribune Independent (Detroit), April 14, 1934.