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Paris 1919. The once-picturesque French countryside that Thomas Jefferson had admired 130 years before was now a hellscape of battle trenches and poisoned earth. Millions had lost their lives in “The War to End All Wars.” Powerful, centuries-old empires – the Ottomans, the Qing dynasty, the House of Romanov – had collapsed. A deadly flu epidemic was still raging across the planet, killing more people than even the war had. In the course of only a decade, the world had turned upside down.

Stepping into the midst of this devastation were two men: Woodrow Wilson and William Monroe Trotter. Wilson, in his early sixties, was the last President to grow up with enslaved people in the household. Trotter, in his mid-forties, was a leader in the early civil rights movement and the son and grandson of enslaved African Americans. His maternal grandmother was enslaved at Monticello with her extended family, the Hemingses, until she gained her freedom in her twenties. Wilson was a graduate of Princeton University, while Trotter earned his degree at Harvard. The two had encountered – and argued with – one another face-to-face twice in the White House where Trotter’s great-grandmother, Edith Fossett, once served as enslaved chef to President Jefferson.


William Monroe Trotter. Monticello

Woodrow Wilson. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

 

Trotter and Wilson were each preparing themselves for the upcoming Paris Peace Conference. Wilson, in a break with tradition, planned to attend the conference himself, rather than leaving it to the secretary of state. Before Congress, he gave his famous “Fourteen Points” speech, calling for a peace built on international cooperation and the recognition of people’s rights to self-determination.[1] Yet Trotter and many of his colleagues saw a contradiction in Wilson’s words.  Jim Crow laws had placed roadblock after roadblock in front of African Americans in their careers, in their education, and in their ability to vote, hold office, or protest. Civil rights leaders were placed under government surveillance. Black service members returning from the war were attacked and lynched by white mobs. These issues at home all stood in stark contrast to Wilson’s call for democracy abroad.


African American Soldiers Returning from the Front. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
 

 

Ahead of the Paris Peace Conference, Trotter attended a conference held by the National Equal Rights League. The NERL pressured Wilson to call for “the elimination of civil, political, and judicial distinction based on race or color in all nations” when he met with other world leaders in Paris. They also requested that black delegates be sent to Paris as part of the American delegation. Trotter was selected by the NERL to be one of those delegates, but all of them were denied passports by the state department.[2]

A friend of Trotter described him as "bound, bent, and determined to go” to Paris. To get there, he had the idea of getting a job as a cook on a ship bound for Europe, even though he apparently didn’t even know how to boil water.[3] So he took cooking classes, altered his name, and got hired on a small steamer ship, where he spent most of his journey across the Atlantic peeling potatoes and, no doubt, planning his next steps. Though the crew wasn’t allowed to leave the ship once they reached the French coast, Trotter pretended to mail a letter and escaped. As he made his way to Paris, he depended on the kindness of strangers, as he was without luggage or much money.[4] Compare all of this to Wilson’s journey aboard a fine steamship with first class accommodations and his arrival in France to massive, cheering crowds.

A "Vive Wilson" banner flies above a crowded street in Paris, December 16, 1918

By the time Trotter arrived in Paris, most of the main negotiations were over, including negotiations over “The Racial Equality Proposal,” put forth by Japan. Both the United States and the United Kingdom balked, worried about how anti-Asian factions in Australia and the western United States might react. The proposal was shot down.[5] Yet Trotter continued his work. Settled now at the home of a French sympathizer, he sent petitions to the Conference delegates, published newspaper editorials, and generally set about educating the French public on the discrimination African-Americans faced in the United States.[6] No doubt his urgency was heightened by events at home. The summer of 1919 became known as “Red Summer” because there were at least 83 lynchings and 26 anti-black riots all across the country, leading to the deaths of hundreds of black men, women, and children.[7]

After several months in Paris, Trotter returned home to a country that would soon be swept up in another crisis: Woodrow Wilson had suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving the leadership of the country up the air until President Harding was sworn into office in 1921. By that point, the country was exhausted by all the death and devastation of the previous decade. And as the Roaring Twenties kicked off, as people tried to shake off the past, Trotter struggled the rest of his life to find his place among a new group of black activists and leaders. He died in 1934, but his determination and spirit lived on in the memories of those who knew him. Several of his family members have been interviewed by Monticello over the years through the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, a project started in 1993 to preserve the family histories of the descendants of people who were enslaved at Monticello. In one of these interviews, Trotter’s niece, Virginia Rose, recalled the story of her uncle’s journey across the Atlantic. She wanted to pass on his inspiration to future generations of her family, saying, “What I want the children to know is whatever you feel strongly about, fight for it, because that’s part of your heritage.”[8]

And indeed, the family did continue to fight for equality. Another one of Trotter‘s nieces, Ellen Craft Dammond, along with her daughter, Margaret Dammond Preacely, participated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In the interview below, Preacely talks about being the “continuation of my ancestors” and the importance of continuing the work they had started.

William Monroe Trotter may have not become a household name like his contemporaries Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, but he’s a reminder that whether we are famous or not, it takes the work of many people, of many hands and many minds to enact change and to continue the work of creating a country that lives up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal and that they all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


[1] https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/peace/fourteen-points

[2] https://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1064&context=trotter_review

[3] https://archive.org/details/coloredwomaninwh0000terr/page/340/mode/2up?q=trotter

[4] https://trotter.umich.edu/article/timeline-william-monroe-trotters-life

[5] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/08/11/742293305/a-century-later-the-treaty-of-versailles-and-its-rejection-of-racial-equality

[6] https://trotter.umich.edu/article/timeline-william-monroe-trotters-life

[7] https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/wwi/red-summer

[8] https://www.monticello.org/getting-word/people/william-monroe-trotter