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In celebration of the 150th birthday of civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, Class of 1895, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, historian Keisha N. Blain, and family members of Trotter spoke at an IOP forum Thursday.
The event, titled “Reimagining Our Radical Roots,” was co-hosted by the Center for Public Leadership’s William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice. The forum marked the opening of a two-day celebration of Trotter, the first African American Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and founder of the Niagara movement.
Following opening remarks by Trotter Social Justice Collaborative Director Cornell William Brooks, Bacow addressed the forum, connecting the celebration to modern events.
“It’s a special day because we celebrate [Trotter’s] life. But it’s also a special day because of what happened today,” he said. “Because of the life of another Harvard graduate — not a Harvard man, a Harvard woman — Ketanji Brown Jackson, confirmed as a justice of the United States Supreme Court.”
Bacow also read aloud from an essay Trotter wrote for his 30th Harvard reunion. In the essay, Trotter narrates his experiences working to advance civil rights and social justice.
“I will tell you that is a glimpse of a life truly devoted to Veritas, truly devoted to truth — a life truly devoted to social justice,” Bacow said of Trotter. “He was an extraordinary man, and he was a Harvard man — a person of outstanding talent that we proudly claim as one of our own.”
Tokya E. Dammond, a family member of Trotter, said in an interview after the event that he appreciated Bacow’s inclusion of the letter.
“I think that, to us, was the most valuable part of his speech, and I thank him very much for that,” Dammond said.
The event featured a panel with other members of the Trotter family, including civil rights activist Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, journalist Mary Ellen Butler, filmmaker and producer Lalou Trotter Dammond, Asian Pacific Consortium in Employment member Christopher Trotter Day, and student activist Skylar Aldridge.
In a keynote address, Blain recounted how Trotter was inspired to champion civil rights after witnessing a white barber in Cambridge refuse to serve a Black Harvard student. She also explained how Trotter went on to found the Boston Guardian, a newspaper she called “an important element of Black radical activism.”
Blain lauded Trotter for working to hold former President Woodrow Wilson accountable. After criticizing the president’s “role in deepening” racial inequality, Trotter was barred from future meetings with Wilson, she said.
“Trotter’s actions expressed an unwavering commitment to racial justice,” Blain said. “Trotter used his seat at the table to attack the root of the problem by calling out the hypocrisy of a president who didn’t mind securing the votes of Black Americans as long as he didn’t actually have to do anything to improve conditions for Black Americans.”
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