Trailblazer. Newspaper publisher. Civil rights titan.
Meet William Monroe Trotter, one of the most influential descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community—and someone who too many people have never heard of.
In this episode we discuss Trotter’s life, legacy, and determined (but ultimately unsuccessful) effort to stop the release of the notoriously racist 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
Gayle Jessup White: William Monroe Trotter was a trailblazer. He was a civil rights leader. He was an unapologetic race man. And he was the most famous of Monticello's descendant community.
I am Gayle Jessup White, Public Relations and Community Engagement Officer at Monticello, and also a member of the descendant community. I'm related to two families that were enslaved at Monticello, the Hubbard family and the Hemings family.
Niya Bates: My name is Niya Bates, and I'm the Senior Fellow of African-American History at Monticello.
David Thorson: I'm David Thorson, a guide at Monticello.
Niya Bates: And you're listening to In the Course of Human Events, a podcast from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
David Thorson: When we tell the story of the African-American community enslaved at Monticello, I never cease to be amazed at the remarkable lives of their descendants, including William Monroe Trotter, whose radical ideas about civil rights and fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence resonate right down to the present day.
Niya Bates: He's part of a long line of resistance and radical thought out of one of the Monticello families. So he represents this generational struggle for black freedom through black activism.
David Thorson: We're going to talk about Monroe Trotter's relationship with Woodrow Wilson and his response to the film "Birth of a Nation," but first Gayle is going to tell us a bit about Monroe Trotter himself.
William Monroe Trotter and Black Activism
Gayle Jessup White: His great-great grandmother was Elizabeth Hemings and she was the mother of Sally Hemings. His grandparents were members of the underground railroad and his father was active in an early upwardly mobile black movement. So you could say that civil rights and activism was in his DNA.
He graduated third in this class from Harvard University in 1895. He went on to earn a master's degree. He ended up working in real estate, and he accrued a considerable amount of capital. He inherited a lot from his father and he used his profits to start a newspaper called The Guardian, considered by many, the most influential race paper of its era. This would have been in 1901.
Trotter got together with some of his fellow activists to form an organization called the Niagara movement. And it's considered a forerunner of the NAACP. Now it did not last long. Part of the reason that it wasn't successful is because it was deprived of the necessary funds to keep that kind of organization vibrant. And Monroe Trotter's nemesis, Booker T Washington, was the person responsible for depriving the Niagara movement of the oxygen it needed to be successful.
Booker T. Washington was the leading voice of the black race at that time, the early 20th century. And his Tuskegee Movement was accepted by a huge number of black and white people as a principle by which the black race could raise themselves. Washington was an accommodationist, who believed that black people could succeed through learning trades and industrial work, kind of laying low, being seen and not heard. He acquiesced to the segregationist practices of Jim Crow.
And this would have been the polar opposite of William Monroe Trotter, who was demanding that black men and black women be treated as equals, period. He was uncompromising in that. And he saw Washington as compromising. 04:20
David Thorson: After the death of Frederick Douglas, there really becomes an open question about who speaks for the black community. And Booker T Washington feels that he speaks for the black community. WEB Dubois feels he speaks for the black community. And Monroe Trotter is part of that dialogue as well. And he was impatient. He doesn't want to take small incremental steps. He wants his rights as an American citizen and the rights of every African-American as full American citizens, not tomorrow or at some future date, but right here right now. He just could not abide waiting. He just could not abide waiting.
Niya Bates: Washington and Dubois felt a responsibility to speak to a broader, interracial audience. They were speaking to white politicians, as much as they were speaking to black Americans. And I think they often tended to leave out some of the more gruesome details about the realities of inequality for the black community. And I think Trotter saw it as a personal responsibility to challenge conversations that watered down what the realities of black life were in the early 20th century.
Whereas, both Booker T Washington and WEB Dubois really focused on the black elite, Trotter really considered himself more of a champion for the people, someone who is a facilitator or an amplifier. It's these grassroots activists , poor and working class, largely migrant communities in the black North that Trotter is really hoping to galvanize through The Guardian newspaper by allowing the people to speak.
Gayle Jessup White: Woodrow Wilson successfully won the White House, in part, because of the support of African-American men. Women, of course, at that point couldn't vote. William Monroe Trotter supported Woodrow Wilson through The Guardian. And Woodrow Wilson made promises to address issues that concerned the black community.
But once he got in the White House, he totally reversed his position. And one of Woodrow Wilson's first acts as president was to segregate the federal government. Now, after the Civil War, a lot of freed men and women moved to Washington DC, and a lot of them got what we in Washington, I'm a Washingtonian, what we people from Washington call a good government job. And these jobs gave a lot of black people entree to the middle class. But when Woodrow Wilson came in the White House and segregated the federal service, he eliminated a lot of those well-paying jobs. He didn't want black people to be supervisors or managers over white people. So some black men lost their jobs or were demoted to lower positions with lower salaries. They lost their livelihoods. That's what Woodrow Wilson did. He ruined people's lives.
Monroe Trotter started a petition and got some 20,000 plus people across the country to sign this petition to ask Wilson to reconsider his position. Trotter and a delegation had a meeting with Wilson at the White House. And Wilson said that he would, in fact, reassess his position. And, of course, he did not. So Trotter and his colleagues went back to the White House for a second meeting, and this time, Trotter was much more confrontational and when Trotter confronted Wilson, man to man, citizen to citizen, Wilson told William Monroe Trotter that he was offended by his tone and put him out, had the delegation escorted out of the White House.
David Thorson: He's in Wilson's face because he's heard the promises and then seen the reality. And Monroe Trotter tells Wilson, "We are not here as wards. We are not here as dependents. We are here as full-fledged American citizens," and then demanded the desegregation of the government. And then Wilson goes into this argument that well, segregation is a benefit to blacks, not an injury to blacks. And Trotter comes back at him and says, "Have you a new freedom for white Americans? And a new slavery for American fellow citizens who are Black?" And Trotter, he's on the national stage, really, for the first time, and he's being scorned by white supremacists as insolent to the president and then hailed by progressives, black and white, for a courageous stance, standing up to Wilson.
Niya Bates: And I think, for Trotter, it was personal. Trotter's father was a federal employee. He's the first African-American postmaster, which is a major source of not only Trotter's status in the community but also a source of pride of envisioning an America that did treat people as equals regardless of race or color.
David Thorson: He does take it personally. There was a huge backlash and Monroe Trotter and WEB Dubois were actually accused of being race traitors for having supported Wilson and then finding out what Wilson actually did once he got into office.
Niya Bates: I think the more American history you read and learn and study, the more disappointing it is that we've not accomplished more. You know, we had an opportunity during Reconstruction to make good on the promises of the Declaration and of the Constitution. We had another opportunity during this era , where activists really put on the pressure and attempted to resist the negative impacts of Jim Crow. There are just so many instances in our history where we've had opportunities to be great and haven't taken them.
Birth of a Nation
Gayle Jessup White: "Birth of a Nation" was a 1915 film directed by the pioneer, DW Griffith. And "Birth of a Nation" is arguably the most racist film ever produced in the United States of America. Not only did "Birth of a Nation" idealize the antebellum South, but it condemned freed black men and women, especially the freed black men. "Birth of a Nation" reinforced the horrible stereotypes that so many white people embraced after the War. Wilson screened the film at the White House. And he described the film as like "writing history with lightning." He really thought it was a great film, which made it okay for then the rest of America to think that this racist film was alright and an accurate depiction of history and not a fantasy.
David Thorson: It was seen by 50 million people across the United States during its initial run. And that's when the population of the United States was 106 million. So imagine half of the United States was exposed to its hatreds, its lies . and what what's doubly disturbing about the film is DW Griffith, who directed Birth of a Nation is a pioneering filmmaker. His techniques they're still used in films today, but he made a film that created stereotypes of black people that persist to the present day.
Niya Bates: In the early 1910s leading into the 1920s, there is this rise of new racial stereotypes that portray African-Americans as overly aggressive, as uneducated, as unreligious all of the things that we see portrayed in the film Birth of a Nation. Once you start to have a scenario where viewers of the film have their own prejudices confirmed by what they see on screen, it becomes much more dangerous. And so Trotter is aware of that confirmation bias that develops from watching a racist film, like Birth of a Nation.
David Thorson: Niya, I think you're absolutely right because Monroe Trotter and others see Birth of a Nation as a pure propaganda film whose purpose is to create two stereotypes: the stereotype that portrays African-Americans in, in a terrible light. And then portrays the KKK as guarding the sanctity of white power and white supremacy. Trotter condemned the Birth of a Nation. These are his words, "a rebel play and an incentive to bring on great racial hatred."
Gayle Jessup White: And in fact, after this film was released and to use modern language, “normalized” by Woodrow Wilson, there was a resurgence of the KKK. The KKK even incorporated some practices of the characters in the film, in what they did in their organization. For example, the burning of crosses -- that didn't originate with the KKK, that originated in the film "Birth of a Nation." Or the white robes and the white hoods, that originated in "Birth of a Nation," not with the KKK. But they adopted these practices and made them their own. And after that film, the Ku Klux Klan, which had gone underground, re-emerged as a social and political force. So "Birth of a Nation" had power.
Niya Bates: If you look at the ways that Trotter responds to the film, it's clear that he decides that that will be the next opportunity to confront Wilson on the issue of race trotters first large protest against the film is in Boston. His readership of The Guardian he encourages to go out into a large park and to gather and to share their complaints about the film but to do it in a very public way. They are claiming their blackness. They are gathering together in ways that are normally prohibited. And they are there to confront white leadership who is supporting this film.
David Thorson: Later he organized a group to go to the Treemont theater to buy out all the tickets. Now, the Treemont was a 100% segregated theater. So blacks weren't allowed to buy tickets. And a Boston cop recognized Monroe Trotter as the group's leader, sucker-punched him in the lobby of the theater, and then promptly arrested him and 10 other protestors for creating a disturbance. And, you know, the NAACP they're watching Trotter and the NAACP then then becomes really the nationwide leader of similar protests all over the United States.
Niya Bates: So many people from poor and working class African-American communities saw his stance against Wilson as something worth celebrating and they wanted to follow him. He becomes an icon in that moment so I think for Trotter, even though his legacy doesn't seem to endure the same way as Dubois or Washington, in this moment in the 19 teens, he's a Titan.
David Thorson: I do find it interesting that after the protests in Boston and the protests that then spread across the United States, that Wilson began to actively distance himself from any sense of endorsement of Birth of a Nation, because as part of their advertising they were claiming that, it had been endorsed by the president, and Wilson went to some lengths to deny that.
Niya Bates: Yeah, I think what's interesting also is that Trotter and his supporters prompt the governor of Massachusetts to consider a censorship law. And while that law never comes into effect to stop the film, it does create a sense that the type of activism that Trotter is supportive of is successful. So, that's why it becomes a blueprint because it does force conversations , even if the outcomes are not necessarily what activists had hoped for, which was a full banning of the film.
End of Monroe Trotter's Life
Gayle Jessup White: Trotter rather struggled at the end of his life to remain relevant. His wife died. His wife's name was Geraldine. Everyone called her Deanie. And she was his partner, in every respect, including in support of The Guardian. They did not have children. They called the newspaper their child. And she also was the financial manager of the newspaper . She died in 1918 of the Spanish flu. So this was a real tragedy for him and for The Guardian. They'd already gone from being a wealthy well-to-do couple to being members of the genteel poor. And so, towards the latter part of his life, he was really losing his impact and losing his relevance.
Niya Bates: Trotter is very close with his wife. And I think losing her was simply insurmountable. He becomes depressed. He has lots of anxiety around writing and making sure that the paper can remain active. A lot of the activism that he's dedicated his life to has been ultimately unsuccessful . The weight of Jim Crow is just crushing. And I wonder what that struggle must have been like for Trotter.
Gayle Jessup White: He lived in an apartment in Boston and apparently he would pace a lot on the roof of his apartment building. And he was heard doing that the night of April 6th, 1934, pacing on the roof of his building. And the next day, April 7th, his body was found sprawled on the sidewalk beneath that building, and it was his 62nd birthday. So it's believed that Trotter committed suicide. It's also possible that he fell. What we do know is that he was disillusioned at the end of his life and he died on his 62nd birthday.
So William Monroe Trotter is one of my heroes and it's because he was so unapologetic about who he was. He did not care what white people thought. He cared about what his people thought. He used his newspaper, and I used to be a journalist, he used his newspaper to help the cause of his people. He would not accommodate. He would not pacify. He was a black man and proud of it. He stood up to Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States , and told him he was wrong. I can't think of anyone more inspirational to what we are going through as a race now. Don't bend. Don't fold. Don't give in. Demand your rights as a full American citizen.
Niya Bates: I think the most interesting thing to me is Trotter's legacy within his own family. He has all of these examples of the ways that his grandparents fought to free themselves from slavery . And although he did not meet the generations to follow, he inspired them to carry that on. His great grand-niece, for instance, her name is Peggy Priestley, she goes on to be a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. So Trotter's legacy runs deep in the public sphere but also within his own family line. 21:49
David Thorson: I want to thank you all for tuning in, but particularly, I want to thank my colleague, Gail Jessup White for sharing the compelling story of William Monroe Trotter. And thank you, Niya. It was really good to just dialogue about Monroe Trotter and to bring his history forward to the present day.
Niya Bates: Thank you, David, for sharing so many wonderful insights today. These are challenging conversations to have, especially in our current moment, but I thank our listeners for learning about William Monroe Trotter, who is one of the most underrated of the early Civil Rights Titans. And thanks again to our colleague and friend Gayle Jessup White for sharing her story as well.
Find out more about William Monroe Trotter
- Hear his descendants talk about his influence on their lives in Getting World African American Oral History Project
- Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge
- The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter by Stephen Fox
- "The Legacy of a Radical Black Newspaperman,” an article by author Casey Cep that appeared in the November 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker
- "The radical black newspaper that declared 'none are free unless all are free'," an article from January 3, 2020, Guardian.com
- Birth of a Movement documentary that aired in 2017 on the Independent Lens on PBS
- ’Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Lucia Stanton
Thoughts to share about this podcast? Suggestions for other episodes? Send us an email!
Narrated by Gayle Jessup White
Hosted by Niya Bates and David Thorson
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn
This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.