Trotter, William Monroe

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Trotter, William Monroe 1872–1934

William Monroe Trotter was born on April 7, 1872 in Chillicothe, Ohio; he died on April 7, 1934, from a fall from the third floor of his Boston home on his sixty-second birthday, though he may have jumped. Trotter was a militant black activist whose instinctive desire for his race to improve meant doing so unassisted by whites. His key role model was his father, James, a Mississippi native who decided to settle in Boston for its amenities: the right to vote, hold public office, sit on juries, testify in court, intermarry, and attend integrated schools. Moreover, prohibited were racial discrimination on public transportation and at inns, public meetings, and public amusement places.

Living in a white neighborhood, James was a respected citizen; nevertheless, he suffered from racial discrimination. He worked entirely surrounded by whites at the Boston Post Office, a Republican domain, when in 1882 a white man was promoted to a chief clerkship over James. Acutely insulted, he resigned in protest. His greatest interest, however, was politics. Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes caused him to become a Democrat when he withdrew the last federal troops from the South in 1877; James considered this too soon and a betrayal of his race. Stressing the importance of the ballot and of political independence, he urged blacks to pursue more education as a means of exercising all their rights. He also exhorted his son to excel, setting high standards.

Monroe was not only a good student but also was elected president of his high school class, where he was the only black. On scholarships, he entered Harvard College in 1891 and in his junior year was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the first black at Harvard to gain that honor. Harvard had an enormous influence on Trotter, as he felt inspired by friendships with white students from Europe and America, recognizing the democracy there that tangibly affirmed the possibilities for racial justice in the country. After earning his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1895, he received his master’s degree the following year.

Trotter found his racial awareness deepening, as he experienced racial discrimination blocking his way for the first time. He had intended to enter international banking but instead worked as a clerk in four companies. Then he became a real estate agent for a Boston firm. In 1899, he founded his own company, dealing with insurance and mortgages, mostly for white clients. That same year, he married Geraldine Louise Pindell, daughter of an ex-slave, and they moved into a house in Dorchester. She died during the influenza epidemic of 1918, leaving no progeny.

The African American condition in America after Reconstruction had deteriorated steadily: Southern legislators instituted segregation and black disfranchisement, while lynching became accepted as southern justice. Booker T. Washington, the accommodationist, urged African Americans to find ways to get along with their white oppressors. In his “compromise speech” in Atlanta in 1895, Washington advocated maintaining the status quo for blacks. Washington, always subservient to white people, felt that Americans had to be in a frame of mind to listen to him, while blacks should wait to be given the vote until after they had proved they were law-abiding, productive citizens, and after they had acquired property and education. Substantive differences between the two men occurred on questions of accepting segregation, choosing education, agitating for rights, and engaging in politics. Washington represented the black masses, but Trotter, from a privileged, almost white background, seemed to personify more pride in his color and in his people.

Trotter became actively involved in racial matters. He founded or joined various associations that became militant forums for Boston’s black elite, and through them, mounted an attack on Washington’s servility. Such platforms proved insufficient, so Trotter and a librarian, George W. Forbes, started an outspokenly militant weekly newspaper, The Guardian, published first on November 9, 1901. Trotter, heir to a fortune amounting to around $20,000, provided the money, whereas Forbes provided the technical expertise. Appearing every Saturday, it typified black newspapers then, with eight pages of local and national news about African Americans. The new publication vehemently denounced discrimination and Washington; Trotter decried black people’s treatment by white Americans, denouncing the culture from the very foundation of the Republic that produced the ruthless domination of blacks. He raged against Washington’s timidity and deference to whites and called for aggressive protest and resistance, because compromise had failed. The newspaper became a national institution.

To Trotter, the North’s relative freedom enabled him to battle for justice for all black Americans. Washington pushed to win short-term goals; Trotter stressed the long term. As Washington saw the right to vote as unnecessary, an eventual luxury, Trotter argued that intelligent political activity would force progress in other areas. For Trotter, the ballot was an important, perhaps the main, source of power, and he also urged independence in voting.

Moreover, Washington advocated vocational training because most blacks remained in the South working as farmers. Trotter opposed industrial education because it relegated blacks to what he called serfdom, as blacks would be considered innately inferior mentally. Trotter thought it necessary to prove the quality of black men’s brains. He wanted blacks to seek and succeed at higher education, as he had.

Ever forceful, Trotter insisted on and never deviated from his racial militancy. The very name of his newspaper, The Guardian, suggests an ever vigilant watchdog. He wrote like the radical he was, allowing no compromise of human rights. His protests in person in various venues, ranging from churches to the White House, led to arrests. In 1904, Trotter split with Forbes, who could not abide the continuing fight against Washington. Additionally, Forbes was almost fired from his job because of The Guardian’s spirit of protest. Trotter decided to leave the real estate business and devote himself full-time to his paper.

In 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois, Trotter, and other blacks organized the Niagara Movement to renounce Washing-ton’s policies; it was a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Trotter derided the NAACP because it had white leaders, with its only black officer, Du Bois, in charge of communications. Consequently, Trotter established his own organization, the National Equal Rights League (NERL). The NERL was organized by and for and was led by blacks only. He firmly believed that only blacks should lead and finance a movement for their own freedom. It became another platform for Trotter, who, as corresponding secretary, made statements in the NERL name as if it were the group’s position. Thus, three factions vied for representation of blacks in America—Washington, the NAACP, and Trotter—all fighting for the same ends.

In 1913 Trotter led two African American delegations to the White House to protest segregation in the federal government, which was launched by President Woodrow Wilson, a Georgia native. Trotter tangled with Wilson in a toe-to-toe, forty-five-minute argument, resulting in an offended Wilson banning Trotter from the White House.

Trotter continued to speak out against racism in all its forms. He advocated better treatment for World War I black solders and protested the Marcus Garvey back-to-Africa movement. Another important concern was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, which received ecstatic critical acclaim among whites everywhere but fierce opposition from blacks in a dozen different cities. Trotter led a demonstration and went to court to protest the film’s opening in Boston, and even began a fist fight resulting in hospitalization of both blacks and whites. The frustrated black community seemed to explode, yet even attempts to have a new censorship law passed banning the film failed.

The political activist Trotter protested segregation wherever he saw it, and he organized demonstrations successfully, one against Thomas Dixon’s African-American-baiting play The Clansman, upon which Birth of a Nation was based. In the 1930s he defended the nine Scottsboro, Alabama, youths condemned to die on false charges of rape. His letters and visits to various presidents produced no apparent changes. He lost the battle to represent blacks to the NAACP. The Guardian was vitriolic, uncompromising. Yet most blacks, including intellectuals, supported Washington and his program. Trotter sought to change their attitude from acceptance to challenges, resulting in greater accomplishments for his race. The Guardian stopped publishing in 1957. The William Monroe Trotter Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Boston was founded in 1984 to address the needs and concerns of the black community.

SEE ALSO Washington, Booker T.


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

Logan, Rayford. 1965. The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. New York: Collier.

Meier, August. 1968. Negro Protest Thought in America, 1880–1915. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rudwick, Eliot. 1968. W. E. B. Du Bois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest. New York: Atheneum.

Barbara Reed

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Trotter, William Monroe

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