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William Monroe Trotter, 1872-1934
William Monroe Trotter
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 William Monroe Trotter helped to found the Niagara Movement, the precursor of the NAACP, and a major milestone in the Negro Protest Movement of the twentieth century. Trotter, the first Black American elected to Harvard College's Phi Beta Kappa Society, sharply criticized the policies of accommodation advocated by Booker T. Washington.

Trotter and his wife Geraldine Louise Pindell moved into 97 Sawyer Avenue atop Jones Hill when they were married in June, 1899. He went into business for himself in Boston as an insurance agent and mortgage negotiator. In March, 1901, he helped organize the Boston Literary and Historical Association, a group that became a forum for militant race opinion. Trotter became more active in discussions about race, and in November, 1901, the first issue of Trotter's newspaper The Guardian appeared, proclaiming itself an organ to voice intelligently the needs and aspirations of the colored American.

The editorials made The Guardian notorious and prompted its readers to strongly-felt opinions. Week after week, Trotter attacked the person, prestige and racial policies of Booker T. Washington. Their bitter rivalry led eventually to lawsuits and counter suits. William Monroe Trotter considered himself much more of an activist than the Bookerites who would go along with policies detrimental to Black people.

Trotter founded the Niagara Movement with W.E.B. DuBois and others. He became a critic of politicians, especially Roosevelt and Wilson. When Wilson encouraged the segregation of employees in government departments, Trotter objected. In an interview with Wilson, Trotter astonished the President by arguing with him. Trotter afterward quoted the President to the press, an action considered to be a violation of courtesy, but his action did reveal that Wilson was aware of the segregation and defended it. In 1915 Trotter organized opposition to the showing of the film Birth of A Nation at the Tremont Theater.

These were perhaps his finest moments. The expenses of the newspaper continually kept Trotter near poverty. Incredibly even after mortgaging and selling all his property and after the death of his wife in the flu epidemic of 1918, he still managed to keep the paper going. He became confused and disoriented while the paper earned a reputation for being poorly written and edited in haste. In 1934 he fell or jumped to his death from the roof of the apartment building where he was staying.

For the pdf version of an article on Trotter by Anthony Sammarco that appeared in the Dorchester Community News on Feb. 22, 2002 Click here.


Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Trotter Home on the National Register and a Boston Landmark
William Monroe Trotter House
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 The William Monroe Trotter house is located at 97 Sawyer Avenue.

The following comes from the National Register nomination form for the property:

William Monroe Trotter, born April 7, 1872, was raised in the black elite society of Boston. Ever anxious to prove the capabilities of blacks, Trotter excelled in his studies at school. He gained the admiration of his peers who elected him president of their senior class. After serving a year as a shipping clerk, Trotter entered Harvard University where he studied under such notable figures as George Herbert Palmer, George Santayana, William James and Albert Bushnell Hart. Trotter was the first black elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard and graduated in 1895 Magna Cum Laude.

At a time when Trotter was preparing to embark upon a career in real estate and a comfortable life in Boston's upper-class Afro-American society, blacks throughout the country were rapidly being relegated to the bottom of a caste system. Reconstruction had been compromised and failed. By 1877 conservative whites had "restored" the South, but had not completely eliminated blacks from politics. Thus, the 1890s witnessed a resurgence of violence and racial animosity designed to disfranchise blacks. The Supreme Court sanctioned the process of making blacks second-class citizens in its infamous decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Violence and intimidation rose sharply. During this period Booker T. Washington was propelled to national prominence because he spread the doctrine that blacks should forego political involvement, while concentrating on . economic development through "industrial" training.

Trotter witnessed the deterioration of conditions for blacks in the South and the spread of what he perceived as racist attitudes into the North. He viewed Washington's apparent acquiescence to the rising tide of racism as a threat to himself and the race as a whole. Therefore, Trotter, sometime after 1900, became more militant over questions of race and less concerned over his own material comforts.

In March 1901, Trotter helped to organize the Boston Literary and Historical Association which served as a forum for militant political opinion expressed by such notables as W.E.B. DuBois, Oswald Garrison Villard and Charles Chesnutt. Trotter also joined the more politically oriented Massachusetts Racial Protective Association.

One of Trotter's greatest contributions to black protest came when he and his friend George Forbes founded The Guardian in 1901, a weekly newspaper that increasingly consumed the time and talents of Trotter. Most of his more virulent criticism was reserved for Booker T. Washington's accommodationist approach to race relations, at a time when blacks were witnessing a steady deterioration in their position in the South and across the nation as a whole. Trotter strenuously objected to what he perceived as Washington's overemphasis on industrial education and the relegation of black people to a state of serfdom. He believed that the franchise was a sacred right and an indispensable means for achieving power.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, a small group of blacks expressed serious doubt about the course proposed by Booker T. Washington. Two of the main figures of opposition were Trotter in Boston and W.E.B. DuBois in Atlanta.

Unlike DuBois, Trotter was the more forceful and persistent of the radicals as their opposition to Washington mounted. Trotter's approach was best exemplified in the confrontation which occurred in Boston on July 30, 1903. He proposed to use the occasion of a speech by Washington before the Boston Branch of the National Business League to ask him nine questions relating to his program and its results. As Trotter stood on a chair in an attempt to read his nine questions, he and his sister were arrested, leaving Washington free to deliver his speech. The incident was quickly labeled the ?Boston riot" and received widespread coverage

Although Trotter maintained that he had not gone to the meeting for purposes of disruption, he ably accomplished his major goal of directing national attention to the fact that there were some blacks who disagreed with Washington and his program. Trotter's sentence of thirty days in jail encouraged Du Bois to join forces with him.

After the "riot," Trotter formed the Boston Suffrage League. The League was expanded into the New England Suffrage League as blacks from other areas joined. The aim of the group was to place before the American people wrongs against the claims of blacks. Trotter was elected president. He pressed for anti-lynching legislation, the expenditure of one hundred-twenty million dollars a year on southern schools until 1925, the elimination of segregation on interstate carriers and the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment.

In 1905 DuBois sent invitations to selected black leaders which launched the Niagara Movement to advocate political, economical and social progress for black Americans. The Movement was short-lived, however, it served to formalize the split with Booker T. Washington. Du Bois said that it was Trotter who put the backbone in the platform of the organization.

The most enduring and successful protest organization was founded after the 1908 Springfield, Illinois riot with the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Trotter was invited to attend the initial meeting, however, he did not join the organization because of his skepticism of a white-dominated group. He remained on the periphery of the NAACP to lend his support only on his terms.

During this period Trotter was devoting more and more time to his paper and less to his business. He lost the property which his father had left to him as well as his home in Dorchester at 97 Sawyer Avenue. As he moved from genteel affluence to poverty, he even lost his old friends. Nevertheless, Trotter remained in the forefront of the movement.

As a political activist Trotter believed that political power resulted from the exercise of the franchise. His actions were based upon the belief that blacks should remain politically independent, voting as a block to swing close elections to the candidates who offered the most to black people. Although Trotter praised Theodore Roosevelt for appointing a black man collector of customs for the Port of Charleston, he later strongly opposed Roosevelt for his inaction concerning the problems of black people. Trotter was horrified and outraged at the way Roosevelt handled the Brownsville incident of 1906 in which black soldiers were summarily dismissed from the armed service without honor. Anxious to defeat both Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Trotter turned to the Democrats in 1907 in the belief that it was better to vote for a known enemy than false friends.

During Woodrow Wilson's races for governor of New Jersey and later, for President, Trotter and his National Independent Political League (NIPL) endorsed Wilson. With DuBois' endorsement in The Crisis, Wilson managed to draw a considerable number of black votes from the Republican party. Later Trotter was appalled by the President's sanction of segregation in federal offices in Washington.

Concerned over the course of events in Washington, Trotter and the NIPL drafted a petition signed by 20,000 people from 36 states to present to Wilson. In November of 1913, Trotter, Ida Wells-Barnett, William Sinclair, among others, were granted a meeting with the President. Wilson received them politely but did not commit himself. A year passed with no effort on the part of the Administration to improve the plight of blacks. On November 14, 1914, Trotter again had a meeting with Wilson in which no commitment to change was made.

Trotter's remaining years were anti-climatic. He actively protested against the showing of Thomas Dixon's The Birth of a Nation. He failed to attend the Amenia Conference when invited by Joel Spingarn in 1916, although he endorsed the idea of a gathering of black leaders.

Trotter continued to publish The Guardian and to rally to the cause of black people, particularly black soldiers during World War I. He maintained that blacks would fight better in war if they could anticipate better treatment in peace. When the War ended, Trotter, in spite of a State Department ban against blacks going to Europe for the Peace Conference, managed to get to Paris where he pleaded the cause of people of color before the nations of the world. He protested the failure to include a clause on racial justice in the Peace Treaty. He did an excellent job in educating the French, however, he received no response from President Wilson or the newly created League of Nations.

Trotter sailed home to return to what James Weldon Johnson and the media described as the "Red Summer" in 1919 as whites took up arms against blacks in cities throughout the nation. Trotter pleaded before the Lodge Senate Committee holding hearings on the Peace Treaty to include a clause relating to racial justice. Neither the racial justice clause nor the treaty were accepted by the Senate.

During the 1920s Trotter gave his support to the Dyer's Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922, but spoke out against Garvey's Back-To-Africa Movement. As late as 1933 he petitioned Franklin D. Roosevelt to end segregation in the District of Columbia.

Tired, distraught and burdened by the times and his own years of protest, Trotter died in April 1934. Thus came to an end the life of a black man and an outstanding American who lived his entire life in the American revolutionary tradition of protest against injustice -- wherever it was found. His life is exemplary of his desire to bridge the gap between the ideals of the nation and its practices which compromised the rights of black Americans. William Monroe Trotter never ceased to view the country from the perspective of its founding documents of freedom and equality for all men.

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Created: August 15, 2003   Modified: April 24, 2011