Monroe Trotter was a major early twentieth century civil rights activist known
primarily for launching the first major challenge to the political dominance of
Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and as an inspiration for the formation of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Trotter was also the founder of the Boston Guardian (1901), the National
Negro Suffrage League (1905), the Niagara Movement (1905), and the Negro
American Political League (1908).
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William Trotter was born on April 7, 1872, in Chillicothe, Ohio. His family moved to Hyde Park, Boston, Massachusetts in 1879.
At a young age, William was exposed to education and equal rights activism from
his father James, who was a rare black Democrat who supported New York’s Grover
Cleveland in his successful bid for President in 1884. Two years later, James Trotter was appointed
Recorder of Deeds for Washington by President Cleveland, making him the highest-ranking
black Federal official at the time.
William Trotter’s mother was Virginia Isaac Trotter.
Trotter excelled academically in predominantly white schools in Boston and then
entered Harvard College in 1891. Four
years later he earned his Bachelor degree in international banking with honors
(Magna Sum Cum Laude) while becoming
the university’s first black Phi Beta Kappa member. A year later, he received an MA degree from
Harvard in finance. Restricted from
working as a banker because of his race, Trotter worked in his father’s real
estate firm. In 1899, he married equal
rights activist Geraldine L. Pindell, who in 1901 became the society editor for
the Boston Guardian, and was an
original member of the NAACP. Mrs.
Trotter died in the 1918 flu pandemic, leaving Trotter a widower at the age of
Trotter is best known for his strident opposition to the racially conciliatory
policies advocated by Booker T. Washington and his call for a renewed emphasis
on liberal arts education in contrast to Washington’s promotion of manual
training. Less well-known is his equally
forceful opposition to all forms of racial discrimination and segregation.
Trotter’s public challenge of Washington’s policies began in 1901 with his
founding of the Guardian, and the
Boston Literary and Historical Association, which was a forum designed to
attract potential opponents of Washington including, most notably, W.E.B. DuBois.
Trotter’s first personal encounter with
Washington came in 1903 when he interrupted the Tuskegee, Alabama educator’s address to
a National Negro Business League meeting at Boston’s AME Zion Church. Trotter referred to Washington as “the Great
Traitor” and “Benedict Arnold” and subsequently was arrested and convicted for
disorderly conduct. Trotter spent 30
days in jail because of the conviction.
Some civil rights leaders believed that Trotter’s arrest had been orchestrated
by supporters of Washington; Trotter quickly became the national symbol of
opposition to Washington’s Tuskegee Machine, an organization of Washington
supporters who exercised almost dictatorial power over the African American
In July 1905, 29 opponents of Washington, including Trotter and W.E.B. DuBois,
met in Niagara Falls, Canada to form the all-black Niagara Movement, the first
organization to challenge Washington’s power, and the first black-oriented
civil rights organization formed in the twentieth century. During the meeting, this group drew up a
manifesto, demanding voting rights for African Americans, an end to racial
segregation and discrimination, and better health care, housing, and schools
for the nation’s black population.
In 1908, Trotter left the organization in opposition to women joining, and the
growing prominence of W.E. B. DuBois in the Movement. One year later, Trotter rejoined several
Niagara cofounders in helping to establish the NAACP, even though he refused to
join the Association because he felt it was compromised by white leadership and
financial support. As an alternative, he
revived the National Equal Rights League.
Trotter’s outspoken activism also extended to his direct denouncements of
President Theodore Roosevelt for discharging three companies of the all-Black
25th United States Infantry after the Brownsville Riot in Texas (1906), and
publicly confronting President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 after the new president
imposed racial segregation on Federal employees for the first time. Beginning in 1915 Trotter led the Boston
protests against the racist motion picture, The
Birth of a Nation.
Trotter’s quest for social justice included his urging a Federal commitment to
equal rights before black soldiers participated in the US’s World War I war
effort. He was an observer at the 1919
Paris Peace Conference where he called for the end of colonialism in
Africa. In the early 1920s Trotter
opposed Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and its
Back to Africa Movement.
William Monroe Trotter passed away in his Boston home on April 7, 1934. He was 62.