Forgotten Radical

posted in: Race and Gender | 0
“He was buried in Hyde Park, his impact largely forgotten in the city and region that he loved enough to want to change.” [352]

Thus ends Kerry Greenidge’s 2020 biography of the–yes–much neglected William Monroe Trotter. He was born in 1872 on his grandparents’ farm outside Chillicothe, Ohio. His father, James, was born into slavery of a Charlottesville, Virginia-born mother named Letitia, and a Mississippi planter named Richard Trotter. As the master’s children, James and his mulatto siblings enjoyed privileges denied other slaves, including formal education. Using the extra freedom she had grown used to, Letitia escaped north with her three children to Ohio in 1849.

In Cincinnati, James attended the abolitionist-founded Gilmore’s School, where he studied Latin, Greek, and algebra, among other things. After teaching several years, he served in the Civil War, earning the rank of lieutenant, a title he went by for the rest of his life. James Trotter’s example showed Monroe he need not be intimidated by powerful white men. [12]  The father’s words guided the son’s activism throughout his life: “Only the colored people themselves can deliver us from the wilderness.” [33]

James’s money aided him, too. The lieutenant gained a post office job in Reconstruction and, settling in suburban Boston, put his family in the middle class. He didn’t pay for his son’s Harvard education, but he did leave him a substantial sum at his death, while Monroe was still a still a student. There was no trodden path for the Negro Ivy Leaguer follow after graduation in 1895. There were, rather, many obstacles deliberately placed in his way. Not even the banks with purportedly progressive leadership would hire him. He went into real estate with his inheritance as seed money and made a modest fortune that would carry him–mostly–through his storied, if forgotten, career as the Guardian of Boston.

Here is a timeline of his accomplishments:


1901: Founds of the Guardian, Boston’s colored weekly, the self-proclaimed “greatest race paper in the country”

  • The paper serves as tribune for the colored “genteel poor” of Boston and New England for three decades
  • Subscriptions never numbered much more than two thousand; the paper never paid for itself
  • Quality declined: an erstwhile Trotter supporter mocked it as “the worst-run colored paper in America,” yet it remained a sentimental favorite throughout its run

1902: Organizes Guardian-sponsored rally at Faneuil Hall in support of the 14th Amendment

  • Emerges as a militant voice for colored Boston in opposition to the deferential appeasement of Booker Washington and the Tuskegee Machine.

1903: Helps found National Suffrage League which begins to galvanize New Negro political activity.

  • Later merges with National Equal Rights League which Trotter leads for next three decades.
  • There were other organizations he helped form and/or lead, but it is an alphabet soup, hard to keep track of

1905: Organizes, with W.E.B. DuBois, the Niagara Movement to push the Roosevelt administration to adopt civil rights policies:

  1. Enforcement of 15th Amendment and investigation of southern state constitutions
  2. Support for desegregated interstate travel
  3. Federal support for southern black education

(Trotter’s concern for petty rivalries “immature vindictiveness” [128] torpedoed any progress that the convention might have made.)

1907: Organizes “Remember Brownsville” campaign for colored Boston

  • Members of the all-black Twenty-fifth Infantry defended themselves against white mob violence in south Texas and were dishonorably discharged for doing so

1910: Eschews involvement in the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

  • The NAACP is heavy on white leadership and does not advocate the “centrality of black people to civil rights activism” [Greenidge, 180]

1912: Helps Woodrow Wilson win presidency with black votes

  • Believes blacks will gain political power by voting “race first” rather than give blind support to Republicans
  • Meets with Wilson, gains a pledge of support for Negro civil rights, convinces significant numbers of black electorate to vote for the Democrat

1913: Leads vocal protest when Wilson immediately reneges on pledge; allows segregation of federal jobs and dismissal of large numbers of civil service employees

  • Earns notoriety among whites and distinction among blacks for standing up to the president in White House meeting
  • Wilson: “You are the only American citizen that has ever come into this office who has talked to me with a tone and a background of passion that was evident.” (Read: “uppity Negro”)

1915: Leads successful protest against the release of KKK-glorifying film, The Birth of a Nation

  • Greenidge: “Trotter’s very public and extremely popular Birth of a Nation protest was less concerned with changing white minds than it was with igniting black consciousness.” [212]

1917: Agitates for rights of Black soldiers after US declaration of war

  • Supported Wilson’s War for Democracy as long as it “vouchsaf[ed] freedom and equality of rights to all citizens of the United States regardless of the incidence of race or color over which they have no control.” [241]

1919: Travels to Paris Peace Conference to voice Liberty League’s demands for post-war colonial settlement

and Black civil rights

  • The federal government denied passports to all non-conciliatory Negroes
  • Trotter dressed as a cook for the ship’s crew and sneaked off in disguise to get to Paris (perhaps Trotter’s most celebrated action in his storied career)

1919: Co-founds the African Blood Brotherhood with Cyril Briggs

  • Membership is small yet its promotion of black armed self-defense is significant
  • Played a role in preparations made by Black Tulsans of Greenwood in their self-defense

1921: Trotter makes forceful yet politic statement To President Harding in wake of Tulsa Massacre compared to NAACP’s more guarded one

  • James Weldon Johnson: “…an utterance from [the President] at this time on the violence and reign of terror at Tulsa, Oklahoma, would have an inestimable effect.”
  • Trotter: “…the citizens of Massachusetts look to you in giving aid to the afflicted, and they will stand behind you in any endeavor to punish the guilty and to make such inhuman and barbaric crimes forever impossible in this land of freedom and justice.”

For the next decade, William Monroe Trotter continued his struggle in behalf of Black Americans and their civil rights, against the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, for the passage of an anti-lynching bill in Congress, and to desegregate institutions in Boston and beyond. The intractability of the issue (the possibility of Negro equal rights seemed as elusive as ever), his aging body and mind (a younger generation of activists made him feel increasingly out of touch), the deepening of the Depression (sinking personal finances and those of the Boston colored community made the demise the Guardian, his life’s work, unavoidable): the weight of these facts led Trotter to take the ultimate act of self-destruction: he jumped from the roof of his three-story apartment building.

It was a shocking end to a man who had galvanized so many in the Black community, in Boston, New England, the United States, and beyond. William Monroe Trotter had literally given his life to the cause of Negro equality in the United States. The intransigence and apathy of his white countrymen meant he would not live to see the fruits of his life’s work.


Words from the Baltimore Afro-American, in late 1926 after the Old Mon’s meeting with President Coolidge in the White House, when Trotter was already a tired, rumpled, “eccentric old man,” capture the significance of a civil rights paladin who had outlived his time but could not live long enough to win the changes he sought:

If Trotter did no  more than let the President know that the Negro is not blind to the injustice heaped upon him, no more than remind him that black men consider themselves just as much a part of these United States as any other  race; no more than let him see that there are still men in the race with backbone enough to tell him that we are not satisfied with existing conditions, that we are no asleep–his mission was a success. [334]

A fitting tribute for a largely forgotten radical and humanist.


Greennidge, Kerri K. Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.


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