Over the years, curiosity about the man for whom the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center takes its name, peaked among faculty, staff, and students. Indeed, those with some sense of the Center’s history—those, in fact, who knew that the Trotter Multicultural Center emerged in the aftermath of the black student protest movement of the 1970s—and those with little-to-no knowledge of any of this social movement history, all began to wonder about William Monroe Trotter himself. “Who was he,” and “why did the University of Michigan choose to endow the center with his name,” became two central yet interrelated questions asked by many—even among the Center’s staff. During many events hosted at the Multicultural Center, queries into Trotter’s life accented social and cultural events that were designed to lift up his name in celebration of his work. Ironically, however, we did not always understand how our events continued to uphold Trotter’s activist legacy of black liberation—particularly as he cultivated, and remained steadfast in, his vision for black emancipation throughout late 19th century America. In an attempt to both demystify Trotter’s lived history and to gain tangible purchase onto the ways in which our work here at the Trotter Multicultural Center continues in his tradition of political consciousness, educational advancement, and the imperatives of social justice, we have assembled an inter-active timeline of his biography. While the timeline is not meant to be exhaustive or provide the absolute last word into William Monroe Trotter’s life activism, it does endeavor to serve as a learning tool for those interested in reading about William Monroe Trotter’s life, which was quite fascinating! We truly hope that you gain some sense of appreciation for his life’s legacy and find information that inspires you to contribute to the cause of liberation and social justice at the University of Michigan and the world over.
William Monroe Trotter Biographical Summary
William Monroe Trotter was born on Issacs Farm in Springfield, Ohio on April 7, 1872 to Virginia Isaacs and James Monroe Trotter. He grew up in Hyde Park, Boston. His father, the recorder of deeds for the District of Colombia, and his mother were both very involved in the race movement and ending segregation. Their dedication to ending racial discrimination was passed down to William Monroe. One author describes:
Both parents taught the child to go wherever the rest of the public went …and to ever excel among whites as his duty towards breaking down the color bar and as a missionary and contender against prejudice and contempt which are principles that have been the basic motives of his adult career (17)
In his all white high school, William Monroe was elected president of the senior class and graduated valedictorian. After working as a shipping clerk for a year, he attended college at Harvard where he was the first African-American to receive Phi Kappa Beta honors. He graduated from Harvard magma cum laude and pursued a career in real estate. After being denied several jobs in the real estate market because of racial discrimination, Trotter began getting involved in the fight for racial advancement. He famously wrote:
I realized that the democracy which I had enjoyed at dear old Harvard was not secure for Americans of Color because of their pigmentation. The conviction grew upon me that pursuit of business, money, civic or literary position was like building a house upon the sands. If race prejudice and persecution and public discrimination for more color was to spread-up from the South and result in a fixed caste of color. It would mean that however native and to the manner born, every colored American would be a civic outcast, forever alien in the public life. So I plunged in to contend for full equality in all things governmental, political, civil and judicial as far as race, creed, or color was concerned (Fox 19)
Trotter married Geraldine “Deenie” Louise Pindell (1872- 1918), a friend from childhood, on June 27, 1899. Deenie who was also from a militant race family had attended business college and worked as a bookkeeper and stenographer. Deenie handled most of the business and bookkeeping for Trotter’s newspaper, The Guardian, in addition to her own community projects such as securing pardons for inmates and organizing an anti-lynching committee.
The Guardian and Booker T. Washington:
Trotter was a part of a several racial protest groups in Boston including the Boston Literary and Historical Association. The Literary Association was a group founded by Boston elite and was known for its militant race opinion and opposition to Booker T. Washington’s racial leadership. The men of the association, including Trotter, disagreed with Washington on many matters in racial politics. Their biggest criticism of him was his acceptance of segregation, his pacifist approach to creating change and his encouragement of industrial education over the right to vote. The foundation of Trotter’s racial career was built on three prominent issues: the worsening conditions in the South, the spread of racial attitudes from the South coming North and Booker T Washington’s submission to both of these developments (Fox 27).
Several Bostonian leaders discussed starting a weekly newspaper for the black community in Boston. Trotter provided the money and another leader, George Forbes, provided the technical expertise and experience to bring about a local newspaper called The Guardian. The Guardian, was the first weekly newspaper for African Americans and Trotter’s biggest accomplishment in his career. It first appeared on November 9, 1901 with the motto, “For every right, with all thy might” and called itself “an organ which is to voice intelligently the needs and aspirations of the colored American” (Fox 30). The eight page paper came out every Saturday and contained local and national news for African-Americans. For 5 cents an issue or $1.50 for a year subscription, The Guardian included church news, sports, and fashion but was most well-known for its editorials. The Guardian became Trotter’s vehicle for speaking out against segregation and the people who promoted it. In his editorials, Trotter often mounted an extended attack on Booker T. Washington and his policies. Trotter’s paper was described as, “his personal weapon for reaching those in authority whom he could not reach in a personal way" (22). These personal and vicious attacks on Washington often alienated readers but also brought it fame and wider circulation.
Tensions between those against and supporting Booker T. Washington reached a climax in 1903. A group of anti-Washingtons used a public meeting, where Washington was to speak, to voice challenges to his leadership policies. They gathered the week before and generated nine questions and challenges that Trotter would ask from the floor after Washington spoke. The meeting took place on July 30th at the Zion Church with over two thousand spectators in attendance. A fight began to break out before Washington even spoke and Trotter, amongst the fighting, stood on a chair and started reading the questions prepared– which could barely be heard. Trotter and several others, including his sister, were arrested for creating a disturbance and were sentenced to thirty days in jail. The media following the incident was highly sensationalized and exaggerated as the event became known as the Boston Riot.
William B. DuBois arrived in Boston shortly after the incident and was outraged at Trotter for causing an incident. After hearing Trotter’s version of events, Dubois changed his perspective and stated, “my indignation overflowed… to treat as a crime that which was at worst mistaken judgement was an outrage” (Fox 61). After this incident, Dubois, who was attracted to Trotter’s unselfishness, pureness of heart and indomitable energy began collaborating with him. Simultaneously, Trotter’s partnership with Georges Forbes, the co-founder of The Guardian dissolved based on a difference in personality. As Stephen Fox states, Trotter’s tenacious personality and lack of compromise was helpful for his protest tradition but detrimental for personal relationships (65). George Forbes was the first of many associates that Trotter would work with and then later alienate.
Trotter began to speak all over the country denouncing segregation. He was usually well-received, would speak at multiple meetings when traveling and received large turnouts to his speaking events. His speeches were described by one reporter:
He describes that civil proscription in the North, while it is not as “gross” as lynching and discrimination in the south, is equally evil. It is dangerous because it is so widespread and subtle. Refusing rights can limit the liberties and handicap Black Americans which ultimately refuses them full citizenship in the country. Trotter urges people to set personal examples against segregation by applying to services in places of leisure or amusement to show that the Black race will not willingly acquiesce to discrimination. He ends with saying, “only by the resolve to contend against our color becoming a fixed public stigma can conditions can be bettered” (14).
In addition to speaking engagements, The Guardian slowly took over Trotter’s life. The Guardian started it as a compliment to his real estate business, but eventually caused William Monroe and Deenie Trotter to sell their house and to lose leisure time and social respectability. The Trotters accepted these changes as the affluence they enjoyed in the 1890s became poverty during The Guardian years (Fox 79). Trotter once wrote to a colleague:
It has cost me considerable money but I could not keep out of it. In the columns of The Guardian we have at least the relief of expressing our views on color phobia in all its forms. I can now feel that I am doing my duty and trying to show the light to those in darkness and keep them from at least being duped into helping in their own enslavement… I am henceforth on the firing line (Fox 79)
The Niagara Movement and the NAACP
After the riot, many anti-Washingtons in Boston felt they had to persuade the race to greater militancy and convince white Americans that Booker T. Washington should not get their unanimous support. They decided to create a national anti-Washington organization. In 1905, twenty-nine men, including William Monroe gathered at Fort Erie and formed the Niagara Movement, which led “persistent manly agitations as the way to liberty and toward this goal the Niagara movement has been started and asks the cooperation of all men of all races” (Fox 91). Trotter led the Press and Public Opinion committee of the movement because his connections with The Guardian. The group demanded that whites “permit manhood suffrage, equal civil rights, equal economic opportunities, and full access to all types of education” for all black Americans and declared that “discrimination based simply on race or color is barbarous, we care not how hallowed it be by custom, expediency, or prejudice” (Fox 102). The Niagara Movement, as one of the first organization of radicals, stood as a threat to Booker T. Washington’s racial leadership.
In 1907, The Niagara Movement began to struggle financially as Washington and his supporters cut off most sources of white capital and discredited the organization. Another major struggle became the interpersonal disagreements amongst leaders, William Monroe Trotter, William B. Dubois, and Clemont Morgan, state secretary of the Niagara Movement’s Massachusetts branch. In 1907, Trotter resigned after personal disagreements with DuBois and Morgan. Although members of the movement wrote letters to all leaders to bury their personal disagreements, Trotter was through with the Niagara Movement. He and DuBois never tried working together again. Without Trotter and The Guardian, The Niagara Movement ceased to exist by 1910. Washington’s opposition, financial difficulties, lack of formal headquarters and staff, and its strident race view all led to its decline. However, one article cited that the personal collision between Dubois and Trotter was “chiefly responsible for the dissolution of the Niagara Movement” (Fox 113)
The Niagara movement was successful in shifting the consensus of black thought back to the protest tradition and “forged the beginnings of a powerful new coalition of black radicals and white socialists and neo-abolitionists”. In May 1909, a race conference was held in New York which consisted of a series of both white and black speakers. At the conclusion of the conference, the organizers appointed a committee of forty to create a permanent race organization. However, to Trotter’s dismay, he was not appointed to the committee and only a dozen African-Americans were selected. This committee met again the following year and created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.
Trotter did not attend the second meeting of the newly formed organization because of his suspicions of the role of white money and leadership in the NAACP; only one African-American was elected as an officer. Trotter was also concerned about NAACP’s lack of strong opposition against Booker T. Washington. The NAACP attempted to moderate racial tensions and bring people together from both factions. Trotter’s participation was also limited in the new interracial group because of lasting effects of his personal feuds with DuBois, Morgan and others from the Niagara Movement. Although he never was strongly involved, Trotter approved of NAACP’s resolutions and concluded that “the Association is a great, important and noble movement and we should all wish it success and take part in making it of great benefit to race and country” (Fox 135).
Creation of National Equal Rights League and Interview with Wilson
While the NAACP was building momentum, Trotter created his own organization originally known as the Negro-American Political League. The organization went through many name changes until it was eventually called the National Equal Rights League (NERL). The NERL, in contrast to the NAACP, was made up of all black members and was “an organization of the colored people, for the colored people and led by the colored people” (Fox 140). While the NERL never could match the influence and membership of the NAACP, Trotter insisted on an independent group because he thought it only proper that blacks should lead and finance a movement of their own. Additionally, Trotter’s personality was better suited for a smaller, independent organization as there were few other strong personalities for him to compete with for leadership. Within the NERL, Trotter was seen as the spokesperson and often stated the organization’s position on issues without debate.
The rise of NAACP marked the end of the anti-Washington moment and the birth of a new protest-integrationist era. Trotter conceded to these changes; in 1908 he wrote that he has little or no criticism of Mr. Washington (Fox 145). Once his campaigns against Washington ended, he began pouring his energy into endorsing or opposing political candidates. However, by 1910 the bulk of his historical contribution to the black liberation movement was over (Fox 146). Trotter did not stick to party lines but focused on which candidate would best advocate and push for the advancements of African-Americans, especially in the south. Trotter worked hard to build support for Woodrow Wilson who seemed to be an advocate for the black cause. Once elected, Trotter wrote Wilson several letters with suggestions for racial policy formulation and African-Americans for political appointments.
During this time, Trotter’s biggest concern was the racial segregation happening in many federal offices and his advocacy on this issue led to an infamous event in his career. William Monroe, with several other members of the NERL, brought a petition with twenty thousand signatures to the White House which demanded the end of segregation in federal offices. Wilson said to them that, “segregation is not humiliating but a benefit and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen” (Fox 180). Trotter responded to the President with an argument from which Wilson then interrupted him saying that Trotter’s “tone offended him” (Fox 180). For forty-five minutes the men fired back and forth until Wilson called an end to the interview. Trotter then apologized to Wilson, who replied, “We’ll call it all right” (Fox 181). The next morning the incident made it to the front page of The New York Times. Many newspapers reported that Mr. Trotter spoke in an offensive tone, lost control of his anger and “spoiled the causes for which he came” (5). Another article suggests that Trotter “forgot the servile manner and speech once characteristic of the Afro-American and he talked to the president as man to man, addressing the head of the government as any American citizen should, especially discussing a serious matter”(4). Not only was it scandalous that an African-American was arguing with the President but it was also the first time that Wilson publically admitted he knew about the racial segregation happening and that he supported it.
The publicity of this interview restored Trotter’s name and popularity. DuBois wrote of Trotter’s actions, saying, “of his fearlessness and his unselfish devotion to the higher interests of the Negro race there can be no doubt” (Fox 185). Another leader at the time pointed out that “one has to be rude to get into the press and do good with a just cause” (Fox 185). Albert Pillsbury of the Boston NAACP branch stated, “Trotter by accident has achieved the greatest feat of his life and accomplished more by insulting the President… than all the polite words ever uttered on segregation could or will accomplish- and added greatly to his personal reputation and prestige” (Fox 185). Trotter was in demand to speak all over the US to tell his version of the incident. At one speaking event he stated, “I emphatically deny that in language, manner, tone, in any respect of the slightest degree I was impudent, insolent, or insulting to the President” (Fox 186) which gained a loud cheer from the crowd in approval.
Death of Deenie Trotter
After the publicity of the interview wore out, Trotter’s career in race leadership became anticlimactic. In the spring of 1915, he led the Boston community against a viciously racist motion picture, “Birth of a Nation”. He described the movie as a “rebel play and an incentive to bring great racial hatred here in Boston” (Fox 193). Through organizing at a theatre and state house, as well as advocating to state leadership, Trotter was unceasing in his efforts to shut down the movie, which ultimately succeeded six years later in 1921.
Meanwhile, the local constituency of The Guardian shrank while its delinquent subscribers grew. Trotter’s militancy often scared off many black and white sources of financial support and his political independence cut the newspaper off from party subsidies. He also would not allow advertisements for tobacco, liquor, skin lighteners and hair straighteners because of his moral principles and racial pride. Trotter often said that The Guardian was not designed to show a profit, “but a public work for equal rights and freedom” (Fox 206). For this reason he valued his principles more than money: “The Guardian is precarious. That has been its condition for several year. Principle robs it of much money but it’s better for people to sneer at its poverty than get money against my principles” (Fox 208).
Trotter was a hard and dedicated worker to racial justice. He was described, “As an editor, businessman and racial organizer. He drove himself mercilessly, working incredibly long hours, taking no vacations, granting himself no respite from his labors” (Fox 207). Trotter’s wife, Deenie, matched her husband’s commitment as she partnered with him on The Guardian in conjunction with her own fundraising efforts for the elderly and soldiers. She often spoke about sacrifice:
those of us who have had the advantages of education, who have seen life in its broadest light, should be willing sacrifice and ... to do for our own down-trodden people all in our power… to make their cause our cause, their sufferings our suffering (Fox 212)
They indeed had sacrificed all their time and wealth to the cause. In 1901, Trotter had several inheritance pieces all over Boston which The Guardian eventually took over. The New York Age once wrote about Trotter “when a man has had all of his property mortgaged to the devil, he may smile as a guarantee of good faith but he deceives no one” (Fox 208). Among all their troubles and other responsibilities, The Guardian still appeared every Saturday. It had only ever missed two issues, once in 1919 when Trotter was abroad in Europe and another time in 1932 when he was bedridden. The Trotters had no children and did not want any; The Guardian was their child.
This hard work took a strain on both of them. In the spring of 1916, Trotter had an attack of the gripe and had to have an operation. In 1918, Deenie Trotter fell ill of influenza and died on October 8. Her obituary describes her saying “few members of her race were better known. She was an able newspaper woman and ready public speaker” (9). William Monroe left a dedication for her, for years after her death, on The Guardian’s editorial page that said
To my fallen comrade, Geraldine L Trotter, My Loyal Wife, who is no more. To honoring her memory who helped me so loyally, faithfully, conscientiously, unselfishly, I shall devote my remaining days and to perpetuating The Guardian and the Equal Rights Cause and word for which she made such noble and total sacrifice, I dedicate the best that is in me till I die (Fox 213)
World War and Paris Peace Conference
During World War I, African-Americans leaders used the war to increase the rights for African-Americans. They argued that Black soldiers would fight harder if they were given better treatment at home. The message was “Yes, white America, we shall fight for you, for our country and democracy – but will you not grant us some of that democracy at home” (Fox 217) Trotter also tried to use the war as leverage to gain full citizenship for African-Americans. At the end of the war, the NERL called for a national race congress which elected eleven petitioners to go to the approaching International Peace Conference in Versailles to intercede for colored Americans and bring attention to the American racial crisis. However, none of the delegates, including Trotter, were granted visas to travel.
Trotter did not give up and instead obtained papers to work as a cook on a ship sailing for France. Once in France, the crew was not allowed to leave the ship so Trotter pretended to mail a letter and escaped. He described to a colleague that he was “ragged and hungry and in need of funds as I made my way to Paris” (Fox 226). Trotter’s struggle to reach Paris took so long that main negotiations of the International Peace Conference were over. Nonetheless, upon landing he immediately sent protests to deliberators over the lack of a racial clause in negotiations. Trotter also submitted news releases which were picked up by the French press and published. He had reached out to all of the leading delegates of the convention and received hundreds of letters, from Parisian citizens, approving of his conduct. Although his petitions were not recognized by the delegates or the President, every newspaper in Paris had written about him and his work. He spent much of his remaining time in France educating the public about the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans and when Trotter returned home, he was greeted by a large reception of two thousand supporters.
Post World War and Death
After this voyage, Trotter worked as hard as ever but was incapable of adjusting to changes within the race. During the 1920’s, race leaders moved to new cultural approaches that celebrated black identity and pride. Meanwhile, Trotter stuck to his traditional politics technique which involved taking an intense interest in national politics during the elections, collecting IOUs from politicians who courted the black vote and using those IOUs as leverage if they were elected. These traditional techniques did not match the nature of race relations in the 1920s and therefore Trotter’s popularity and influence was minimal during this time. Because of this, Trotter felt that he did not get the support he deserved and reflected this in his editorials. The Guardian started to become reminiscent of “the good old days in Boston” as he once wrote:
“I feel that loyal race people should think of my constant, strenuous endeavors at loss & personal sacrifice for the rights of all of us & foster racial organization for equality … the Colored people are not going to have their civil rights and privileges in the North, or even in Mass. Unless those still left of the Old Guard advise them along the lines of Garrison, Phillipps, Sumner, Weld, Downing, Nell, Trotter and others… (Fox 253)
Without his wife, the business methods and layout of The Guardian had become disordered. The editorials seemed to be scribbled out last minute and lacked their former intellectual caliber and literary finish. In the spring of 1934, Trotter started to become more disoriented, out of touch and constantly paced. On the night of April 6, 1934, the night before his 63rd birthday, Trotter’s landlords heard him pacing on the roof of their flat as was his custom. Early in the morning around 5:30 am, his landlord’s son heard a noise and awoke to find Trotter sprawled on the sidewalk outside their apartment. The circumstances surrounding his death imply suicide but his family theorizes that he may have fallen. There was no final determination.
William Monroe Trotter was a revolutionary before his time. Although his personal relations were usually difficult, there is no doubt that he was a strong, persistent man who fully sacrificed and dedicated his life to advancement of rights for black Americans even when he did not feel supported by members of his own race. David Ward Howe commented that after Monroe Trotter’s death there were no longer great voices speaking out against segregation. He was also one of the “earliest demonstrators the power of the press and its values of molding sentiment for human justice" (19) and one of the racial leaders his time to return the race to protest traditions.
Descriptions of William Monroe Trotter
“Even when I found myself utterly unable to approve his judgment or to sanction his methods, I have always believed that he was fundamentally and genuinely honest. I have more than once said that Monroe Trotter is perhaps the only Negro of education and privilege who has deliberately undergone self-sacrifice for his race” Kelly Miller, of the New York Amsterdam News
“Is it not worth something to a race to have produced one such self-sacrificing soul who has held the keen edge of passionate protest for two-fifths of a century? He has stood steadfast and unmovable. He has been true to his inner light, from which there has been no varying or shadow of turning. (16)
"Monroe Trotter was a man of heroic proportions, and probably one of the most selfless Negro leaders during all our American history" – W.E.B Du Bois
“He had in his soul all that went to make a fanatic, a knight errant. Ready to sacrifice himself, fearing nobody and nothing, strong in body, sturdy in conviction, full of unbending belief" - WEB Du Bois
“Men of courage and conviction such as Trotter, by continually knocking, may eventually break down the wall of prejudice. We need more of them.”- The Afro American
“His efforts will not get the appreciation that they should and this noble man will not be honored, reckoned and sung but he is fighting a noble cause in a noble manner.”- Chicago whip
His mission was to instill into the minds of his hearers the necessity of unification, sticking together on every cause that affects the whole race as a whole. His is not a selfish motive for he is sacrificing his life and his means for the cause. Every man, woman and child should be awake and ready to strike a blow when the iron is hot. We need leaders, let us have more William Monroe Trotters. (6)
Fox, S. (1970). The guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum.