Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019)
William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look. Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.
Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.
Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP. He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.
On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices. Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.
Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline. Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death. But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.