William Monroe Trotter was the co-founder and editor of the Boston-based black weekly newspaper “The Guardian,” a powerful force in black journalism in the first half of the 20th century. Through vocal advocacy for anti-lynching laws and enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, Trotter built a reputation as an uncompromising fighter, working to prevent the rollback of Reconstruction. He also was a rival to another significant black leader of the time: Booker T. Washington.
Kerri Greenidge, director of Tufts University’s American Studies Program, is the author of “Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter.” She was a guest on WBUR’s Radio Boston last week. The following are excerpts from the interview.
On why Trotter’s life is relevant to our time: “His last biography was written in the 1970s by a wonderful author named Stephen Fox, and he was coming from the turmoil of the 1960s; he was limited by the historical records that he had at the time. And since 1970, the field of African American history in particular — and American history generally — has evolved, as we all know, and the access we now have to certain records that were not available in the 1960s are available for this book.
“The other thing, I think, is that Trotter’s life really illustrates life at a time when there was a promise of the end of the Civil War and the promise of radical Reconstruction. And then that promise was betrayed with the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of the late 19th century-early 20th century shift. And so, I think his life is relevant to our time because many people feel we’re in the same moment of sort of all this promise happening in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s, and then there’s this moment where people feel as though the political times are in flux.”
On the role of The Guardian in the black press: “It’s founded at a time when there’s an explosion of black newspapers across the country, so The Guardian emerges amongst other known high circulating newspapers. His paper was different in that he did not accept support from sponsors. So what would typically happen — and this was true for the black press as well as the white press — was that political actors would support a newspaper, and support that newspaper as a way to help get their political message across. Of course, this was before TV or anything like that.
“And so, Trotter was big on saying that The Guardian was not going to be bought, that he would fund it himself ... He wouldn’t accept advertisements from skin bleaching [or] hair straightening companies. And so, his paper really became this institution that emerged at a time when many other newspapers, to survive, were doing that. He was fortunate enough to have his own fortune that went into the newspaper to support it without having to be dictated by political whim.”
On his criticism of Booker T. Washington: “Trotter’s main criticism was that, in the words of [W.E.B.] Dubois, Washington was a leader of two races, not one. That Washington was called in this very particular position of having to, number one, solicit funding for Tuskegee Institute from very wealthy white donors; number two, create an organization and an educational institution in the South at a time when there’s lynching, racial violence and backlash against emancipation. And three, Washington did that at a time when he’s having his own family. He’s currying favor with white donors often whom we’re not very into black civil rights in terms of desegregation.
“And so, Trotter’s issue with Washington was that he felt that Washington compromised the race for his own personal gain. And he was somebody also who realized and pointed out the damaging way that Washington’s rhetoric propagated and participated in the deterioration of rights since the end of Reconstruction. Trotter’s criticism was that Washington was not fit to be seen as a leader of African-Americans and that he had basically — he calls him an imported boss — that he was basically somebody who was seen as a leader by white Americans and that black Americans were [underserved by that.]”
On re-writing Boston’s black history: “I remember when I started working on the book and I would tell other historians what I was doing, a lot of them reacted with the rhetoric that we know about Boston. You know, Boston was a place where there was abolition before the Civil War, and then we kind of learn a little bit that Martin Luther King, Jr. went to school here, and then we learned about busing.
“And really, the black community in Boston is one of the oldest African American, African-descended communities in the Americas. And despite the small numbers compared to cities like New York or cities like Philadelphia, the black community has always had an impact on the region’s politics and has always had an impact on the way the region reacts and enacts racial policy and racial thought.
“And so, I really want to examine what does black civil rights look like in a city like Boston, where many people don’t consider that that history is long and is as significant as it is. Trotter is somebody who was as much a part of the city of Boston as Boston was a part of him. And it’s not to say that he’s exceptional or the city is exceptional; it’s to say what happens when we look at African American history through the lens of a city or region or a space that we don’t traditionally think of looking at it.”
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