William Monroe Trotter Institute

The Study of Black Culture

Message from the Director

William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934) did not blend into the crowd. He stood out and stood up, raising his voice unapologetically on behalf of what he believed was right. That was his agenda as orator and as editor of the Boston Guardian, which he founded in 1901. In 1903, Trotter jumped to his feet and stood tall in a public forum at a Boston church where Booker T. Washington, then the reigning figure on matters of race, was speaking. Denouncing Washington as an apologist for segregation and other strategies intended to keep the disenfranchised in the background, Trotter led a protest against the behind-the-scenes, non-combative, turn-the-other-cheek stance that Washington represented. After his confrontation with Washington, Trotter was thrown in jail. Upon his release, along with his wife, as columnist and reliant on family funds, Trotter continued publishing the Guardian, which became known for its firebrand and radical positions on behalf of political, economic, and social equity. Among Trotter's admirers was W.E.B. DuBois, who credited Trotter with converting him from an academic to an activist. The two had studied together at Harvard, and in 1905 they sat down and drafted a declaration of principles, which became the guiding platform behind the Niagara Movement and also set the direction for the Civil Rights thrust of the 20th century.

In 1906, Trotter called President Theodore Roosevelt to task for his unfair and harsh treatment of black men in military service. Eight years later, Trotter again challenged a president. This time it was Wilson, who had courted the black vote before he was elected. In the White House, William Monroe Trotter asked Wilson point-blank why he had retreated from his word, and was not only condoning but also promoting segregated facilities in federal office buildings. "As equal citizens and by virtue of your public promises,"Trotter said, "we are entitled at your hands to freedom from discrimination, restriction, imputation in government employ." Outraged at what he considered Trotter's audacity, Wilson banished him from his presence. In 1915, Trotter was first into the fray in Boston against the showing of Birth of a Nation, which delighted Wilson with its visual pyrotechnics but championed lynching and demeaned the political competence of people of color. In 1919, without governmental backing, Trotter sailed to France for the peace talks and set up an independent office in Paris, from which he sent back missives on the progress of treaty negotiations. To the end of his life, Trotter refused to do what was safe and expected and instead acted in accord with his conscience.

On the home front in Boston, Trotter, everyone knew, was the man to come to when a problem, however big or small, threatened. A woman in her eighties, whose voice was still vigorous, called the Trotter Institute office not long ago. She said that when she was a little girl in 1927, she and some of her young friends went to the local library to read after school, but they were denied entrance because of their complexions. Rebuffed, the little girl went home in tears. When her mother asked her what was wrong, the whole unhappy saga came tumbling out. Her mother knew Trotter socially, so she called him. Immediately, Trotter paid a visit to the library. Two days later, the children who had been told that they did not belong in the halls of learning were able to enter the library. Thanks to Trotter, they were no longer denied the opportunity of knowledge.

Leronne Bennett, the historian, assessed Trotter's appeal as a spokesperson with heart and integrity whose vital message transcends one particular time. Trotter was "the advance man of a new breed of black activists who fleshed out the renaissance of the black soul. A throwback to the activists of the antislavery era and an anticipation of the rebels of the 1960s." William Monroe Trotter, a man of and for the people, spoke with weight and commitment to yesterday; he speaks just as forcefully, if not more so, to today as well as to tomorrow.

When members of the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus decided, in 1984, to establish an institute devoted to research into black history and culture, Trotter's name was chosen because of his history of activism. Fifty years after his passing, the name of William Monroe Trotter still carried weight in Boston. Excellence in the academy is also part of the Trotter legacy. A graduate of Harvard in 1895, Trotter was the first black elected to membership in the honor society of Phi Beta Kappa at that institution. William Monroe Trotter dedicated his life to securing the light of justice and the light of knowledge for all. At the Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture, we take the activist values of William Monroe Trotter as our guiding lights.

Barbara Lewis, PhD
Director, the Trotter Institute