William Monroe Trotter
April 7, 1872 – April 7, 1934
Notable: Newspaper Editor & Entrepreneur
William Monroe Trotter was born in Chillicothe, Ohio only one generation removed from slavery. Through his mother, Trotter was descended from the Hemings family of Monticello, as he was the great-great-grandson of Sally Hemings’ sister. While his mother, Virginia Issac Trotter, was born free, his father, James, had been born into slavery. James was born in Mississippi, the child of an enslaved Black woman and the White man who owned her.
During the Civil War, James served in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was one of a few Black soldiers to be commissioned as an officer. Trotter’s parents relocated the family to Boston, Massachusetts when Trotter was about seven. Living in Boston was not a complete escape from discrimination but granted James civil and civic rights that he would be denied if the family remained in the South.
James instilled in Trotter the idea that he had rights but would have to defend his entitlement and access to them. He believed that Black people’s progress would be heavily dependent on the attainment of an education. Thus James encouraged Trotter to set high academic standards for himself.
Throughout Trotter’s childhood, his father set a positive example by thinking independently and achieving various political positions. Using his political acumen, James received a federal appointment during Grover Cleveland’s administration. The position allowed him to earn a relatively high salary of $40,000 over two years which he mostly invested in real estate.
Trotter grew up with two sisters in Hyde Park, a comfy suburb. At the time, Boston still had a relatively small Black population. Thus Trotter attended predominantly White schools, at times he was the only or one of few Black children. Yet, Trotter performed well academically and was elected president of his high school class.
In 1891, Trotter enrolled at Harvard which he was able to attend with scholarships. Trotter was very active on campus, participating in various clubs and early anti-discrimination activism. He excelled academically at Harvard, becoming the first Black member of Phi Beta Kappa and earning an international banking degree with honors. Just one year after completing his undergrad degree, Trotter also earned a master’s degree in finance from Harvard.
Yet, despite his academic achievements, Trotter was unable to find work as a banker due to being a Black man. He spent several years working as a clerk and later became a real estate agent at a local firm. 1899 was a pivotal year as Trotter established his own firm and married his childhood friend, Geraldine Pindell.
The couple purchased a home and settled in Dorchester. Geraldine was an equal rights activist and together the couple became even more deeply involved with activism and activist groups. In 1901, Trotter decided to become more directly involved with the fight for equality and started a newspaper.
At the time of James’ death, Trotter had inherited about $20,000. He joined forces with George W. Forbes, a Black librarian who had previously edited a newspaper. Together they established the Boston Guardian, a Black-focused weekly newspaper that reported on local and national stories. The paper’s primary aim was to speak out against discrimination and to function as a foil to Book T. Washington.
In the years following Reconstruction, efforts were made to force Black people of the South into a new system of quasi-slavery. Discrimination was more subtle but still very present in the North. Washington emerged as the unofficial voice of Black America. This was despite and largely based on his deference to White supremacy and willingness to compromise in return for financial support and other favors.
Influenced by his father’s example, Trotter saw the right to vote and participation in the political system as vital to Black progress. Conversely, Washington saw them as luxuries, rights that could be negotiated and if needed, put off for the future. The two men also disagreed on the type of education and work that Black people needed. Washington supported training for manual trades and crafts such as farming while Trotter favored academic education.
Trotter rallied against Washington in the pages of the Guardian as well as in-person protests. His outspokenness and fiery activism led to Trotter being regarded as a radical. In time, Trotter’s militancy led to Forbes leaving the paper as it threatened his day job on which he was dependent. Trotter was self-employed and financially independent.
While Trotter joined other Black notables such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells in organizing the Niagara Movement to counter Washington, they were at odds by the time that organization evolved into the NAACP. Trotter felt that an organization focused on the rights and other needs of Black people should be solely led by Black people.
During a meeting at the White House with President Woodrow Wilson, the two men got into a heated and extended argument that resulted in Trotter being banned. Over the years, he led or participated in numerous race-related protests. Sometimes his actions contributed to these protests turning into fistfights or mini riots. He protested the ill-treatment of Black WWI soldiers, the Brownsville Riot, Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement, The Birth of a Nation, and on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys.
As would occur during the later Civil Rights Movement, Trotter was disparaged by conservatives but respected by the working class. Trotter attempted an all-out assault on discrimination as he believed equality should not occur in stages. As others would eventually come to agree with his urgency, it would seem that he was a man ahead of his time.
Trotter’s marriage to Geraldine lasted for 17 years, ending with her death during the 1918 flu pandemic. They had no children. William Monroe Trotter died on April 7, 1934, his 62nd birthday. It’s mostly agreed upon that he was dealing with frustrations with his finances, the Guardian, and the seeming lack of long-term success with his activism. Some believe that while pacing the roof of his boarding house he slipped while others believe he jumped in an act of suicide.
- Bedford, Tori. 2023. “150 Years after His Birth, William Monroe Trotter’s Civil Rights Legacy Lives On.” GBH. August 10, 2023. https://www.wgbh.org/news/local/2022-04-07/150-years-after-his-birth-william-monroe-trotters-civil-rights-legacy-lives-on.
- Cep, Casey. 2019. “The Legacy of a Radical Black Newspaperman.” The New Yorker. November 18, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-legacy-of-a-radical-black-newspaperman.
- Goudsouzian, Aram. 2020. “Review | the ‘unapologetic Blackness’ of William Monroe Trotter.” The Washington Post. WP Company. January 3, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-unapologetic-blackness-of-william-monroe-trotter/2020/01/02/ca5e7f88-01aa-11ea-8501-2a7123a38c58_story.html.
- Greenidge, Kerri. 2020. “The Radical Black Newspaper That Declared ‘None Are Free Unless All Are Free.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. January 3, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/03/boston-guardian-william-monroe-trotter-newspaper.
- Love, Geoff. n.d. “Revolutionary Spaces, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the National Parks of Boston.” Revolutionary Corridor. Accessed August 28, 2023. https://revolutionarycorridor.org/william-monroe-trotter/.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2019. “William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934).” Blackpast.Org. August 8, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/trotter-william-monroe-1872-1934/.
- “Trotter, William Monroe.” 2023a. Encyclopedia.Com. Encyclopedia.com. August 28, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trotter-william-monroe.
- “Trotter, William Monroe.” 2023b. Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Encyclopedia.com. August 28, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trotter-william-monroe.
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