Monroe Trotter: “The Guardian” of Boston
By modern-day media standards, the Boston Riot of 1903 wasn’t much of a riot.
It was a noisy disturbance at most, and, particularly noisy to those who packed the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church to support the featured orator, Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. was the preeminent voice on race relations in America at the turn of the century. From where he sat, and that was frequently with U.S. presidents, the “Negro problem” would disappear if the recently freed slaves would just learn to accept their role in society — at the bottom, in the fields, toiling still.
“We shall not agitate for political or social equality,” Washington declared in his famous Atlanta Compromise speech. “Living separately, yet working together, both races will determine the future of our beloved South.”
That sort of southern obeisance was widely accepted at the time by liberal whites and a lot of blacks, even in Northern cities like Boston, where the small black population depended on the white community for jobs and political patronage.
Monroe Trotter wasn’t one of them. He had his own money and his own politics and he used both to help start the “Guardian,” a weekly newspaper. Its mission, Trotter wrote, was to serve as “an organ which is to voice intelligently the needs and aspirations of the colored American.”
Trotter’s needs and aspirations were different than Booker T’s, especially on the issue of education, where Trotter, a Harvard man, believed that blacks should learn the classics instead of only about vocational trades and agriculture, as Washington argued.
For nearly two years Trotter openly attacked Washington in the pages of the “Guardian,” and his upcoming speech in Boston provided Trotter a rare chance to confront Washington directly. “The policy of compromise has failed,” Trotter wrote. “The policy of resistance and aggression deserves a trial.”
The speech was scheduled on July 30, 1903. Trotter had prepared a handful of questions — nine of them to be exact — and based on the tone of his editorial published a week before the scheduled speech, none of them could have been exactly objective. In fact, it was more than a matter of philosophical differences between Trotter and Washington. It was personal.
“In view of the fact that you are understood to be unwilling to insist upon the Negro having his every right (both civil and political), would it not be a calamity at this juncture to make you our leader?” Trotter wrote. “Don’t you know you would help the race more by exposing the new form of slavery just outside the gates of Tuskegee than preaching submission? Are the rope and the torch all the race is to get under your leadership?”
Quite naturally, Washington wasn’t listening to those sorts of questions, much less answering any of them, especially not while he had the podium inside the jammed church.
“As soon as I began speaking,” Washington wrote later, “the leaders, stationed in various parts of the house, began asking questions. In this and in a number of other ways, they tried to make it impossible for me to speak.”
One of those “other ways” was what Washington described as a “stench bomb” thrown into the crowd, supposedly by Trotter. No one really knows whether that part of the story was true. One thing is pretty clear: things quickly got out of control.
Historians paint a chaotic scene: radicals hissing and booing at Washington while others hissed and booed amid shouts of “Throw Trotter out the window.”
For his part, Trotter stood on a chair and shouted his questions. The shouting quickly turned to shoving and only ended when billy-club wielding cops plowed through the crowd and arrested Trotter and his associate, Greenville Martin.
Both were charged with inciting a riot and disorderly conduct, fined $50 and imprisoned for 30 days. Washington supporters were quick to pounce on the unruly Trotter.
It was a small price to pay. The sensationalized media coverage of the so-called Boston Riot demonstrated that Washington was not the only voice in the nation’s racial wilderness.
And more than most, Trotter understood the power of the press.
He knew he needed a wider audience to change the miserable condition of most blacks — and the stubborn attitudes of most whites. But none of those efforts afforded Trotter a national platform.
All of that changed when Trotter started the Guardian with Rev. Williams Scott and George W. Forbes. The first issue appeared on Nov. 9, 1901, and cost a nickel. Trotter opened the Guardian’s office in the same building that housed William Lloyd Garrison’s fiercely abolitionist “Liberator.”
He published the newspaper almost without fail, missing only two issues between 1901 and 1934, even writing during his 30-day sentence in Boston. It quickly became a national institution, catching the attention of another Harvard man, W.E.B. Dubois. He described the Guardian as “bitter, satirical and personal; it was well-edited, it was earnest and it published facts. It attracted wide attention across the country; it was quoted and discussed.”
And that was the “Guardian’s” role, Trotter once explained.
“We want laws enforced against the rich as well as the poor;” Trotter once wrote, “against white as well as Black… We want a decent education for our children… They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”
In 1910, he organized a successful demonstration against the white supremacist, “The Clansman” in Boston. In 1915, he again picketed the Tremont Theater where the racist D.W. Griffiths film “Birth of a Nation” was being shown.
When he refused to leave the theater lobby, police arrested him. He was later tried and acquitted. But unable to prevent the showing of the film, “Birth of a Nation” went on to have a successful run in Boston, largely the result of the backing of popular Irish Mayor James Michael Curly.
As the watchdog against discrimination, Trotter was unafraid to take his protest to the White House. Dissatisfied with Roosevelt during the 1912 election, the “Guardian” endorsed Woodrow Wilson in the hope that he would prove a better friend to the Negro.
That hope seemed misplaced when Wilson appointed five southern white men to his cabinet, including a Texan, Albert Burleson, to the head the U.S. Post Office, a substantial employer of blacks.
Unlike Trotter, Wilson’s classmates knew where he stood on issues of race. According to one Princeton alumnus, Wilson was “the best narrator of darky stories that I have ever heard in my life.”
On Nov. 12, 1914, Trotter led a delegation from the National Independent Political League to the White House to protest the president’s wandering so far from his campaign pledge for “absolute fair dealing” toward black Americans.
Trotter had met with Wilson a year earlier and asked him to look into halting the re-segregation of federal departments. Wilson agreed to do so, and now in answer to Trotter’s question told him that his cabinet officers had ordered the move because of “friction between colored and white clerks.”
Wilson continued: “Segregation is not humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Trotter had heard enough. “Two years ago,” Trotter told Wilson, “you were regarded as a second Abraham Lincoln … Now we colored leaders are denounced in the colored churches as traitors to our race … For 50 years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness, doing so even through two democratic administrations. Soon after your inauguration, segregation was drastically introduced.”
Wilson interrupted. “If this organization is ever to have another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner offends me.”
“In what way?” Trotter asked.
“Your tone, with its background of passion.”
“But I have no passion in me, Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken; you misinterpret earnestness for passion.”
The meeting went on like that for 45 minutes, with the two men repeatedly interrupting each other — until Wilson bluntly told Trotter that he was the one to do the interrupting and asked abruptly asked the delegation to leave.
Infuriated, Trotter then did what Wilson considered unforgivable. Standing on the White House grounds, he held a press conference and detailed what had just happened.
The episode made national news. The story ran on the front page of “The New York Times.” Not surprisingly, the mainstream press sided with Wilson and characterized Trotter as poor representative of his race and having “superabundant untactful belligerency.”
With the onset of the Great Depression, Trotter struggled to put out the newspaper. He soldiered on until 1934 when he died after a mysterious fall from the roof of his Lower Roxbury apartment building.
Many called his death a suicide without offering any real evidence other than conjecture. One thing was clear. Trotter died with little money, and worse, unappreciated by those he had faithfully served and unrecognized by the new generation of black immigrants to Boston.