William Monroe Trotter (April 7, 1872 – April 7, 1934) was a newspaper editor and real estate business man, and an activist for African-American civil rights. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Harvard University, and was the first man of color to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key. Together with George Forbes, in 1901 he founded the Boston Guardian, an independent newspaper of the African-American community. In 1905, Trotter was a charter member of the Niagara Movement, helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with W.E.B. Du Bois, and independently founded the National Equal Rights League.
Early life and education
William was the third child born to James Monroe Trotter and Virginia Isaacs Trotter in Chillicothe, Ohio. His father James, son of an enslaved woman in Mississippi and her white master, served honorably with the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Colored during the American Civil War. His mother Virginia Isaacs, also of mixed race, according to family tradition was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Mary Hemings, an older half-sister of Sally Hemings. Descendants of Betsy Hemmings have said that she was the daughter of Jefferson and Mary Hemings, born after he became a widower.) Virginia grew up in Chillicothe, Ohio, which had a large free black community before the Civil War. This was where she met and married James Trotter.
Shortly after the war, the Trotters moved from Ohio to settle in Massachusetts. As their first two children died in infancy, they returned to rural Ohio and Virginia’s parents for the birth of their third child. When William was seven months old, the young family moved back to Boston, where they settled on the South End. It was far from the predominately African-American West Side of Beacon Hill. The family later moved to suburban Hyde Park, a white neighborhood.
The father James Trotter was a man who broke through most racial obstacles placed before him. During the Civil War, he achieved the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was later appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia by President Grover Cleveland, a role filled by two other prominent men of color of that era, Fredrick Douglass (1881–1886) and Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce (1891–1893). He instilled similar values in his son William, who graduated as valedictorian and was elected president of his high school class.
William Trotter went on to Harvard University to pursue a career in international banking, graduating magna cum laude in 1895, and becoming the first man of color to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key. He earned his Masters from Harvard in 1896.
Marriage and family
On June 27, 1899, Trotter married Geraldine Louise Pindell (October 3, 1872 – October 8, 1918).
Despite his academic achievements, Trotter hit a racial glass ceiling and was frustrated in his efforts to excel in banking. He finally settled on a career in real estate. A few years later, he and a friend started a newspaper, and he served as the managing editor.
In 1901, along with Amherst graduate George Forbes, Trotter co-founded the Boston Guardian, setting up shop in the same building that had once housed William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. The Guardian frequently published editorials and letters opposing the conservative accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington, the well-known founder of Tuskegee Institute. He set up the “Boston Literary and Historical Association,” which became a forum for militant political thinkers such as Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard.
Along with W. E. B. Du Bois, Trotter was a charter member of the Niagara Movement in 1905, an organization of African Americans who renounced the ideas set forth in Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895. Trotter and Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Trotter left because he did not think that whites should participate as officers of the NAACP. He founded the National Equal Rights League.
Through the Guardian, Trotter mounted a campaign against Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman (1905), including encouraging a protest against it. The play closed. In 1915, when the film adapted from it, Birth of a Nation opened in Boston, Trotter led pickets to demonstrate against the racist film, and the theater ended its run.
In 1912 Trotter helped support Woodrow Wilson for president, who disappointed his supporters by allowing the re-segregation of workspaces in several federal agencies. As a political activist, Trotter led several protests against segregation in the federal government. Trotter and a group of African Americans went to the White House to protest President Wilson’s actions. Offended by Trotter’s manner and tone during their meeting, Wilson banned him from the White House for the remainder of his term in office.
Wilson put obstacles in the way of Trotter and other African Americans who wanted to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to protest treatment of African Americans in the US, by refusing to issue passports to them. Trotter obtained work as a waiter on the SS Yarmouth to gain passage overseas. While in Paris, Trotter attended the First Pan African Congress.
In the pages of The Guardian, Trotter descried the plight of the Scottsboro boys, nine African-American teenagers accused in 1931 of raping two white woman in Alabama. In their first trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death. They had three trials and were eventually defended by Samuel Liebowitz. Since most blacks had been disfranchised in the former Confederate states since the early 20th century, they could not vote or sit on juries. The case ultimately went to the US Supreme Court as Powell v. Alabama.
On the night of April 7, 1934, William Monroe Trotter fell to his death at his home in Boston. The cause of death was given as “Unspecified”. It was his 62nd birthday.
Legacy and honors
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed William Monroe Trotter on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- The William Monroe Trotter Elementary School, a K-5 school named for him, is in Dorchester, Massachusetts, not far from where Trotter lived during his adult life.
- The William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston is named for him. The research institute focuses on the study of black history and black culture.
- The William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center (aka Trotter House) at the University of Michigan is named for him
W.E.B. Du Bois attests to the influence which Trotter wielded in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s conservative social philosophy:
This opposition began to become vocal in 1901 when two men, Monroe Trotter, Harvard 1895, and George Forbes, Amherst 1895, began the publication of the Boston Guardian. The Guardian was bitter, satirical, and personal; but it was earnest, and it published facts. It attracted wide attention among colored people; it circulated among them all over the country; it was quoted and discussed. I did not wholly agree with the Guardian, and indeed only a few Negroes did, but nearly all read it and were influenced by it.”—W.E.B. Du Bois