William Monroe Trotter rejected the view that racial equality could come in stages.
By Casey Cep, The New Yorker —
The mustache had to go. A classic nineteenth-century handlebar, it was far too recognizable, so William Monroe Trotter shaved it off. In addition to the disguise, he arranged to take a cooking class in his boarding house, evincing a sudden interest that would have surprised his wife, mother, and two sisters. Then he spent six weeks skulking around New York, searching for a ship that would hire him, finally finding work as a scullion on a small steamer headed across the Atlantic. Seaman’s papers carried him as far as Le Havre, where, to his dismay, the captain informed him that crew members were not allowed to disembark, so he devised a ruse that involved delivering a letter to shore. Once there, having left all his possessions behind and still dressed in his cook’s outfit, he went looking for a train.
The year was 1919. Trotter was one of eleven delegates who had been elected by the National Colored Congress for World Democracy to carry the concerns of African-Americans to the Versailles Peace Conference, only to have Woodrow Wilson’s Administration deny them passports. That did not stop Trotter—not very much stopped Trotter—and, alone among the eleven, he made his way to Paris. His subterfuge-filled travels took so long that he arrived after the treaty terms had been dictated to the Germans, but still in time to try to dictate some terms of his own. He was there to let “the world know that the negro race wants full liberty and equality of rights as the fruit of the world-war.” He offered the press corps an account of a recent lynching in Missouri, described the segregated conditions and the discriminatory treatment of black troops, and distributed copies of the demands of the Colored Congress to diplomats at the conference.
Trotter was already a well-known advocate for the cause of civil rights, having published a weekly newspaper in Boston for nearly two decades, but his adventures abroad made him into something of a folk hero. In “Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter” (Liveright), the historian Kerri K. Greenidge suggests that Trotter’s time in Paris was typical of his activism, in that it was simultaneously a terrific success and a tremendous failure. On the one hand, dozens of newspapers carried reports of his presence at the conference and reproduced the grievances that he brought before the attendees. On the other, his detractors denied, “fake news” style, that he ever even made it to France, and none of his demands were included in the peace treaty. He also ran out of money so quickly—exhausting the three thousand dollars he had received from around the United States in donations as small as fifty cents—that he had to wait another two months for his supporters to raise enough funds to bring him back home.
Those supporters were, at one time, legion: few men have had so many friends to lose, and few have done so as efficiently. An uncompromising radical, Trotter refused to budge in his beliefs, and that rigidity eventually alienated nearly everyone in his life, straining his relationships and draining his finances. He fought not only white enemies but also would-be black allies, including Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. He never ran for political office, but he was forever primarying the world from the left: the archive of the newspaper that he ran testifies to his willingness to attack anyone who did not share his exact vision of how to achieve racial justice.
Yet those same pages show just how clear-eyed that vision was. Trotter called for an anti-lynching bill and for federal enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—which, for years, were largely theoretical propositions—and he insisted that protest and civil disobedience were the only effective remedies for racial discrimination. His legacy presents a challenge to those who seek change today: is compromise a necessary evil of any social movement, or is it the original sin of collective action?
A descendant of the Hemings family at Monticello, William Monroe Trotter was born on April 7, 1872, near Chillicothe, Ohio, just south of Columbus. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Sally Hemings’s sister, born free into a mixed-race family only one generation removed from slavery; his father was the child of an enslaved black woman and her white owner. Trotter’s parents were married in Ohio, after his father returned from fighting in the Civil War with the Massachusetts 55th; eventually, the family moved to Boston, where they raised their son and two daughters.
Black Bostonians, a quarter of the city’s population today, were a small minority when the Trotters arrived. Trotter’s father became the first black employee of the United States Postal Service, but, after being passed over for promotions because of his race, he resigned. Around the same time, he split with the Republican Party and joined the emerging negrowump movement, started by the pioneering black journalist T. Thomas Fortune and apparently named by analogy to the mugwumps—Republicans who refused to back their party’s nominee in the Presidential election of 1884. The negrowumps were angry that the party of Lincoln was not enforcing Reconstruction in the South, and the elder Trotter was rewarded for his political independence with an appointment in the Democrat Grover Cleveland’s Administration. As “recorder of deeds,” he was the highest-paid federal employee in the nation’s capital, earning forty thousand dollars in just two years. He invested much of it in real estate, before dying in 1892, of tuberculosis, at the age of fifty.
The younger Trotter inherited his father’s intellect and politics, along with, eventually, his wealth. After graduating as valedictorian and class president from Hyde Park High School, he enrolled at Harvard, where he became the first black member of Phi Beta Kappa. During college, Trotter was known for getting around on a bicycle before they were common. He also led the college’s abstinence club, hosted weekend Bible studies, and helped to push for an anti-discrimination law after a white barber in Cambridge refused to cut the hair of Harvard’s varsity football captain, a black All-American center and first-year law student. When the law faculty discouraged the student from filing a lawsuit against the barber, it became clear to Trotter and his friends that not even the Talented Tenth would be spared the humiliations of segregation or the faithlessness of ostensible white allies.
After graduating—with a bachelor’s degree, in 1895, and then a master’s, the following year—Trotter, who had toyed with the idea of becoming a minister, rejected a teaching job at a black school and spent a year applying for and not getting the banking and corporate jobs that he wanted. Meanwhile, his white peers, some of whom had weaker transcripts and thinner résumés than he did, were given opportunities more lucrative than the ones he was denied. He considered moving to Europe, where he felt he “would be recognized as a man,” but eventually found the kind of job he wanted with one of Boston’s most established real-estate firms. Between his salary and his commissions, he prospered, and soon broke away to open his own mortgage business. In 1899, he married his childhood friend Geraldine Pindell and bought her a stately home in Dorchester, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Then he did the most radical thing he could think of: he started a newspaper.
He called it the Guardian. It was not the first black-owned newspaper in the United States—that was Freedom’s Journal, which began, in New York City, in 1827, the year that the state officially abolished slavery. “Too long have others spoken for us,” its founders declared. By the time that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, more than twenty other black newspapers had been launched, including Frederick Douglass’s the North Star, published in Rochester. These papers were essential to promoting the abolitionist cause, allowing free blacks to tell their own stories and to spread the stories of people still living in slavery. Black churches went into the news business, too: in 1848, the African Methodist Episcopal Church started a weekly that is still published today, as the Christian Recorder.
After the Civil War, literacy rates surged, and the black press flourished. In 1880, there were some thirty black newspapers in the United States; by the beginning of the First World War, there were around three hundred, with a collective circulation of more than half a million. Millions of additional readers availed themselves of secondhand, thirdhand, and fourth-hand copies, which they picked up in barbershops, diners, and church narthexes. Some of these papers survive, like the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender. Others faded over time: the Elevator, in San Francisco; the Impartial Citizen, in Syracuse; the Mystery, in Pittsburgh; the Grand Era, in Baton Rouge. These papers celebrated black life, covering everything from academic achievements and musical performances to marriages, but they also documented the many injustices that constrained, denigrated, and imperilled it. As thousands of black men and women went missing, or were murdered by lynch mobs, the newspapers helped to publicize dangers, alerting readers to new Jim Crow laws and sundown towns, and identifying black-owned businesses where it was safe to eat or stay while travelling. They also helped raise funds for the survivors of racist attacks and supported investigations into crimes that local law enforcement had overlooked—or participated in.
In the years after Reconstruction, these papers were largely to thank for making episodes of racial violence causes célèbres. These included the murder of the postmaster Frazier Baker and his two-year-old daughter by a white mob right outside their South Carolina home, in 1898, and the dishonorable discharge of more than a hundred and sixty black infantrymen by President Theodore Roosevelt, after they were falsely accused of murder in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. The black press turned these events into stories, and then turned the stories into movements to correct miscarriages of justice. It was the great era of muckraking journalism; objectivity was not a major tenet of most black papers—or, for that matter, of many white ones.
It was this opportunity for advocacy that made newspaper ownership so appealing to Trotter. As they still sometimes do, New Englanders liked to talk as if “the Negro problem” afflicted only the South, but Trotter looked around his beloved Boston and saw segregation in the city’s churches, gyms, and hospitals. This “fixed caste of color” meant that “every colored American would be a civic outcast, forever alien in public life,” he wrote; to counter it, he became involved in the Massachusetts Racial Protective Association, whose members included his future business partner, George W. Forbes.
Forbes was one of Boston’s first black librarians. While working at the reference desk of the public library’s West End branch, he had also edited a newspaper. After that one folded, he and Trotter co-founded the Guardian, and the two men got an office on Tremont Row, near the Globe and the Herald, in the same building on the same floor where William Lloyd Garrison had published the white abolitionist paper the Liberator. The inaugural issue of the Guardian appeared on November 9, 1901. It started with four pages and later grew to eight; it had twenty-five hundred subscribers, each of whom paid a dollar-fifty a year for a weekly copy. Although it was never the largest or the most widely read of black papers, Trotter liked to call it “America’s Greatest Race Paper,” and its motto nicely encapsulated his own lifelong credo: “For every right, with all thy might.”
Trotter lived for a fight, and he did not confine his battles to the pages of the paper. Like his negrowump father, he felt that partisan politics deprived black voters of agency; as long as one party could count on African-Americans to support it en masse, neither that party nor any other would feel the need to take real steps toward racial justice. Trotter also rejected the conservative theory of racial uplift that called on African-Americans to accept with patience whatever gradual change white power brokers thought their constituents could handle. Such accommodationist politics had proliferated since 1881, when the twenty-five-year-old Booker T. Washington was recruited by the head of the Hampton Institute, in Virginia, to go to Alabama to help found the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers. Washington formalized his incrementalism in an 1895 speech that became known as the Atlanta compromise, in which he argued for a tactical and, as he saw it, lifesaving truce: African-Americans would cease opposing segregation and demanding political equality in exchange for guaranteed access to basic education and vocational training.
Trotter despised Washington. He called him “the Great Traitor” and the “Benedict Arnold of the Negro race,” and mocked him whenever he got the opportunity. When Washington came to Boston to address the National Negro Business League, in 1903, Trotter was waiting at the A.M.E. Zion Church to heckle him. Trotter’s fellow-radicals covered the dais in cayenne pepper and laughed as league representatives tried to speak through their sneezes. When Washington took the stage, Trotter climbed onto a pew and started shouting questions. The protest became known as “the Boston riot,” and it got Trotter arrested—a lucky outcome, in some ways, since league members had threatened to throw him out the window. He was sentenced to thirty days in jail for disturbing the peace.
Like many later civil-rights activists, Trotter understood his arrest as strategic. He bet, rightly, that it would generate headlines and force the white press to acknowledge the diversity of thought among black intellectuals: coverage of the “riot” amounted to column inches for criticism of the Tuskegee machine. For his part, Washington gave a statement to the Globe, claiming that “as a few flies are able to impair the purity of a jar of cream, so three or four ill-mannered young colored men were able to disturb an otherwise successful meeting.” But that airy public dismissiveness was belied by Washington’s private actions. He invested in rival publications of the Guardian, including the Boston Colored Citizen and Alexander’s Magazine, which criticized Trotter’s strategy and attacked him for jeopardizing the movement. Washington’s supporters pressured the Guardian’s printer to drop the paper, and Trotter’s business partner to drop him. Forbes left the paper not long after the protest.
Forbes’s departure might not have been entirely Washington’s fault: almost everyone who ever worked directly with Trotter eventually soured on him. Du Bois, who had collaborated and corresponded with Trotter for years, decided to avoid a conference for the National Negro-American Political League, in 1907, on the ground, as he confided to a mutual friend, that it was “impossible to work permanently with Mr. Trotter.” Woodrow Wilson met with Trotter and other civil-rights leaders in the Oval Office during the fall of 1914; when the meeting turned acrimonious, the President accused Trotter of having “spoiled the whole cause for which you came.” Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, who used some of his fortune to champion black causes, called Trotter a “notoriety seeker, whose methods are dismaying to the conservative members of his race.” Yet, for every one of these élites, there were legions of working-class readers who admired what the St. Paul Appeal called Trotter’s “unceasing warfare against injustice”: “While the majority of the so-called leaders have equivocated and compromised the people for gold or power, William Monroe Trotter has always stood as a stone wall against every form of injustice.”
For Trotter, these untrustworthy “so-called leaders” eventually included the N.A.A.C.P., even though he had helped to found its precursor. In 1905, he had joined with twenty-eight other anti-Bookerites to form the Niagara Movement, with the goal of opposing segregation directly. Within a few years, that national organization had dissolved, and by 1910 most of its members had been folded into the N.A.A.C.P.—but not Trotter, who believed that this new incarnation was fatally compromised by its largely white leadership and its dependence on white financial support. He had faith only in “an organization of the colored people and for the colored people and led by the colored people.”
The perfect is the enemy of the good, they say, but Trotter believed passionately that the good was the enemy of the perfect. To his mind, equality could not come in stages. Rejecting the gradualism of the N.A.A.C.P., he continued to work with rival organizations. And he continued to throw himself into the Guardian, where he could always have the last word. He used the paper to endorse Democrats over Republicans, not only in Presidential races but also in local ward elections, where a small number of black voters could swing an outcome. He also focussed public outrage on cases that the N.A.A.C.P. was slower to pursue directly, like that of a young woman named Jane Bosfield, who was first denied employment outright at a state hospital in Medfield, Massachusetts, and then was allowed to work only if she agreed to live and eat separately from her white colleagues.
In 1915, Trotter helped to make D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” a public scandal. Five years earlier, he had succeeded in stopping a Boston production of Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman,” the play, adapted from Dixon’s own novel, which was the basis for Griffith’s film. Dixon had been a classmate of President Wilson at Johns Hopkins, which is partly why “The Birth of a Nation” was screened, notoriously, at the White House. A thorough account of Trotter’s crusade appeared in 2014, in Dick Lehr’s “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War” (Public Affairs), which formed the basis for a documentary, released in 2017, called “Birth of a Movement.” The N.A.A.C.P. put its energies into raising funds for a rival movie, to be called “Lincoln’s Dream,” hoping to answer propaganda with history. Meanwhile, Trotter organized mass protests at local theatres, city hall, and the statehouse.
Greenidge argues that these kinds of protests, dismissed by many people at the time as publicity-seeking stunts, are Trotter’s real legacy. They emboldened the blacks who took part in them and embarrassed the whites who opposed them, often stripping away racism’s mask of respectability. Trotter did not stop “The Birth of a Nation,” but his tactics were used by the civil-rights movement to integrate lunch counters, buses, schools, and other essential spaces. When legal challenges failed, and even when they succeeded, direct action brought the cause to a wider audience, recruiting more people to the movement and rousing bystanders out of their indifference. Before it happened with the footage of fire hoses and police dogs being used to attack black men, women, and children in Birmingham, Trotter made sure people knew it was happening in the Tremont Theatre, in Boston: the images of plantation scenes being staged there, and the news that white filmgoers had shouted “Kill the darkey!” at black protesters shamed the moral descendants of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
One of the most satisfying accomplishments of “Black Radical” is the way that Greenidge situates Trotter’s biography in the broader story of liberal New England. Boston, Greenidge reminds her readers, incubated the politics of Malcolm X and of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., not to mention the writers Pauline Hopkins and Dorothy West. Before the Civil War, Boston was known as a hotbed of abolitionism; after the busing crisis, in the nineteen-seventies—when white Bostonians worked to prevent the desegregation of the city’s public schools, more than a century after they were first integrated by state law—it got tagged as the most racist big city in America. In between, black Bostonians, despite never equalling in number their peers in Philadelphia or New York, advocated for an exceptionally radical civil-rights agenda. Trotter rallied that community across class lines for the cause of black liberation: not just individual improvement or success but a global fight for freedom; not just an end to discrimination in America but the end of colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean.
This personal militancy made for a radical periodical; Trotter was forever making his own beliefs the basis of the Guardian’s coverage. Like him, his newspaper never compromised, which was part of the reason that it, too, failed. Some black-owned papers took whatever advertising came their way, but Trotter, true to his abstinence roots, refused to advertise alcohol. He also turned down ads for skin-whitening products and hair straighteners, which he felt dishonored his race. The paper’s popularity might have made that fastidiousness tenable, but Trotter did not always go after subscriber fees, either, as evidenced by a letter that the Ohio novelist Charles W. Chesnutt once wrote to thank Trotter for keeping him on the mailing list even though he could not afford the full cost of a subscription.
Trotter was more generous with his poor allies than with his élite peers. Old Mon, as he came to be known, spent his twilight not in Cambridge but with socialists, anti-imperialists, and the youth radicals of Roxbury. While the N.A.A.C.P. declined, at first, to work with Communists to defend the nine Scottsboro Boys falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, Trotter wrote letters on their behalf, and gave their case top billing in the Guardian. That solidarity with the marginalized and the poor, despite his privileged background, is part of what makes Trotter so appealing. “All that is of significance in my personal history,” he once wrote, “has been in connection with the contest against color-line discriminations.”
However significant those contributions may have been, they cost him greatly. By 1910, Trotter and his family had had to sell most of their investment properties to support the newspaper, and that year he and his wife had to leave their house in Dorchester. He and Geraldine never had children; she kept the books for the Guardian, and was devoted to charitable causes. It was her charity work that took her to Camp Devens, where she visited black soldiers and likely caught the flu that killed her during the epidemic of 1918. Sixteen years later, when Trotter died, Du Bois contributed a remembrance of him to the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, acknowledging their philosophical and tactical differences but also paying tribute to Trotter’s foresight. For the cause of racial justice, Du Bois wrote, “not one but a thousand lives, like that of Monroe Trotter, is necessary to victory.”
Trotter did not live to see such a victory, and he was, apparently, never satisfied with his accomplishments. “Black Radical” opens on the morning of Trotter’s sixty-second birthday, with him standing on the roof of the boarding house in Roxbury where he lived after selling his marital home, surveying the city that he had failed to change. Then he jumped. Others, contending with this shocking death, have made much of Trotter’s dizzy spells, his tendency to pace on that roof, and the drainpipe that he seems to have grabbed on his way down—evidence that perhaps, as his two surviving sisters insisted, the fall was accidental. But Greenidge presents it as a suicide, a reaction to his struggling finances and also those of the newspaper, and to the accumulating failures of his activism. Intentional or not, it was a tragic death for so courageous a life—but the real tragedy, Greenidge argues, is not that Trotter failed “but that the people whose rights he so passionately aligned with his own interests could so callously forget him.”
Yet not everyone forgot. In the acknowledgments of “Black Radical,” Greenidge describes how she first learned of Trotter from her grandparents, while at their home in Arlington, Massachusetts. They were watching a television retrospective on the busing crisis, which led to attacks on black schoolchildren by the parents of their white peers, and to the eventual flight of many white families from Boston. “If Trotter were alive,” her grandfather said, “none of that would have happened.”
This article was originally published by The New Yorker.
Casey Cep is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her first book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” was published in May. She is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Oxford, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Featured image: Illustration by Paul Rogers