William Monroe Trotter, Class of 1895, should have his portrait hanging in University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s office, argued Kennedy School professor Cornell William Brooks in an interview on Tuesday.
“Because who else?” Brooks asked. “What other activist who’s a graduate of this place, who had such a long range of influence in such a pioneering way that can be seen in the present?”
The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Kennedy School, helmed by Brooks, launched a two-day celebration of Trotter’s life on Thursday, his 150th birthday.
Brooks, Bacow, and Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf gave opening remarks during a kick-off event on Thursday afternoon before Keisha N. Blain, a fellow at the Kennedy School, delivered the keynote address. On Friday, affiliates can attend panels about reparations and voting rights and attend “advocacy workshops” throughout the day.
Trotter graduated from Harvard College in 1895, where he became the first Black member of Phi Beta Kappa in the school’s history. He went on to become one of the most radical and prominent civil rights activists of the early 20th century, but is today lesser-known than some of his contemporaries.
Brooks believes it is time for Harvard to claim Trotter more prominently.
“Harvard needs to ask itself, ‘What can we do to lay hold to, and to lift up, and to push forward this legacy of social activism, and advocacy, and social justice represented by literally the first Black member of Phi Beta Kappa from here at Harvard?’” Brooks said.
“Harvard has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize his legacy,” Brooks added.
Trotter, who grew up in Boston, was the product of wealthy and prestigious parents.
His father, James Monroe Trotter, was born into slavery in Mississippi, but raised in freedom. James Trotter was a Civil War veteran, serving in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment, composed of Black volunteers. After the war, he married Virginia Isaacs in Ohio, where William Monroe Trotter was born in 1872.
In Boston, James Trotter received a federal appointment to serve in the United States Post Office, where he was the first Black employee. He later became the highest-earning federal employee in Washington, D.C., after President Grover Cleveland appointed him to serve as the city’s “recorder of deeds.”
“[William Monroe Trotter] was a well-connected young man,” Brooks said. “He grew up in a household of relative power and influence, and a household in which national and global affairs were discussed on the regular.”
When James Trotter died, he left his son almost the equivalent of $1 million, according to Kerri K. Greenidge, an assistant professor at Tufts University.
Greenidge said Trotter’s family had a rich history of “armed protest,” explaining that James Trotter was a leader “in fighting for equal pay for Black soldiers” while serving in the Union Army. James Trotter later left his job in the Post Office because Black men, unlike their white colleagues, were not given promotions beyond their initial appointment.
“Trotter’s family was definitely rooted in this idea that just because you were a Black person who had some money or some status, you had an obligation to use that — and use your position — to assist others,” Greenidge said.
It was William Monroe Trotter’s status as a Harvard College student that allowed him to meet another future leader of the civil rights movement — W.E.B. Du Bois, who was a Harvard graduate student at the time.
According to Brooks, Trotter and Du Bois became close during their time at the school.
“They dined together, they went to plays together,” Brooks said. “Du Bois took a fancy to Deenie Trotter, who became Trotter’s girlfriend, and subsequently his wife.”
“They were like romantic rivals,” Brooks added.
While the two future civil rights activists became close to each other at Harvard, Brooks believes that Trotter fit in a lot better at the University than Du Bois did.
“Du Bois felt like he was in — but not of — Harvard,” Brooks said. “Trotter, having grown up here, just took it as a matter of course that people would accept him.”
Today, every email Brooks sends from his Kennedy School account ends with a quote from William Monroe Trotter: “Harvard was an inspiration to me because it was the exemplar of true American freedom, equality, and real democracy.”
“I think he became a little less sunny as he grew older,” Brooks added. “But at that point in time, as an undergraduate — pretty sunny disposition.”
The friendship that Trotter and Du Bois developed at Harvard led them to help found the Niagara Movement together in 1905. Trotter left the organization in 1907 and Du Bois went on to create the NAACP.
The NAACP, Brooks said, was “essentially an integrated, multiracial group of people dedicated to racial justice.”
“Trotter, on the other hand, thought that organizations dedicated to racial justice for Black people should be led by Black people,” Brooks explained, saying Du Bois and Trotter diverged when it came to the question of “who needs to run the organization dedicated to Black uplift.”
Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, Trotter’s great-niece, attributed the split, in part, to Trotter’s personality.
“Trotter was a person who spoke his mind, and he was not very compromising,” she said. “He wasn’t someone for gradualism, he wanted to see things made different right away.”
“Trotter was definitely someone who believed you had to be in the streets talking to people and figuring out what they wanted,” Greenidge added.
Trotter was able to speak his mind to ordinary people through the Guardian, a radical newspaper he self-funded and published alongside his wife and his sister.
According to Greenidge, Trotter believed that “the main goal of the press was that it was the voice of the people.”
“He really had this very different view of the news even than most people would think of today,” she said, “which is that it was completely independent and that he relied on copy from Black writers.”
Brooks described Trotter as an “activist journalist” who used the Guardian to make cases of injustice go viral.
“I would argue, Trotter was Black Twitter before there was Twitter,” Brooks said. “Anyone with an iPhone and an attention to social justice is seeing what Trotter pioneered 100 years ago today.”
Most notably, Trotter used the Guardian to organize a boycott of “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that offered a positive depiction of the Klu Klux Klan. Michael A. Curry, a former president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, called the film “white racial pornography.”
Curry said though Trotter was a journalist who believed in the First Amendment, he understood the importance of preventing “The Birth of a Nation” from being shown.
“He knew that releasing that film would empower America and glorify the KKK and anti-Black movements across the globe,” Curry said. “So he waged a war against those images.”
Through the Guardian, Trotter managed to get “one out of every two Black men in New England” to join his protest of “The Birth of a Nation,” Greenidge said.
“Many people respond to propaganda with counter-propaganda,” Brooks said. “He responds to propaganda with counter-protests. Big difference.”
Harvard’s programming celebrating Trotter will run through Friday, concluding with a conversation between Brooks and Greenidge at the Kennedy School. But “the most important celebration of Trotter’s legacy,” Brooks said, “is not on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday.”
“That’s the first day after the 150th anniversary celebration of his birth in terms of Harvard reclaiming — or claiming — his legacy,” he said.
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.