A new biography of Boston anti-racist leader William Monroe Trotter
The early 20th-century Boston-based Black militant William Monroe Trotter isn’t as well-known as his peers (and sometime rivals) W.E.B. Du Bois or Ida B. Wells. But perhaps he should be, Tufts historian Kerri Greenidge argues in this new biography of Trotter. Greenidge follows the historiographical approach of familiarizing the past through reference to the present. Trotter, his friends and enemies, his milieu, are placed in the frameworks of present debates around race and politics. This is an approach with strengths and drawbacks.
William Monroe Trotter grew up in reasonable comfort, part of an abolitionist family. His father served in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War and made a good living in various government posts. Trotter attended Harvard and inherited both parts of his father’s real estate business and his dedication as a “race man.” A radical independent streak defined Trotter’s career. Like his father, he defied the dominance of the Republican Party in Black political life at the time, first as part of the “negrowump” movement of reformist Republicans and later becoming one of the first major Black Democratic leaders. From his time at Harvard onward, Trotter opposed Booker T. Washington, his assimilationism, and his “Tuskegee Machine,” which dominated much of Black political life. Trotter was never afraid of direct action, from a raucous disruption of a group of Booker Washington acolytes, which involved spreading cayenne pepper on a speaking lectern, to attempts to shut down viewings of The Birth of a Nation. He had his own platform in his newspaper, the Guardian, which carried the torch for Black militancy through the early 20th century, a time now seen as the “nadir” of Black life in the US.
Trotter’s independence came with costs. History may vindicate him in alienating Booker Washington and his allies, but Trotter’s self-righteousness and insistence on control over all aspects of any project he worked on also drove away allies like W.E.B Du Bois. Black Radical is full of incidents of Trotter bull-headedly creating problems for himself and the movements he purported to help lead. The same stubborn insistence that led him to defy Woodrow Wilson to the President’s face over federal segregation hurt Trotter’s more positive relationships as well. While organizations that he helped found and then left, like the NAACP, took the fore of the ongoing civil rights struggle, Trotter lapsed into obscurity and financial woes, likely killing himself in 1934.
Greenidge reads Trotter’s life in the light of contemporary concerns and debates. This runs from how she sets the stage—there’s a lot here on Trotter’s ancestry, placing him in a long lineage of Black resistance, a very contemporary move—to the basic arguments in the book. Every political fight Trotter engages in has its contemporary echo, in Greenidge’s telling. The unreliability of white liberal or progressive allies is rehearsed in the failure of scions of old abolitionist families to adequately protest paternalistic racial policies. Those opposed to Trotter’s coruscating vitriol directed at both Black and white elites and his direct action campaigns, from Tuskegee assimilationists to the more legally oriented NAACP, are on the side of “respectability politics” as understood in contemporary debates.
Part of what makes Trotter a hero in Greenidge’s estimation is how consistently he wound up on what she sees as the right side of these debates—most uncompromising towards racism of both the direct and the patronizing variety, aligned with the most oppressed, in favor of the most direct action. It’s worth noting, as Greenidge herself does, a doozy of an exception—Trotter’s insistence that men lead and women follow, which among other things led him to dismiss anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Greenidge never claims Trotter was perfect.
What she does claim is that Trotter is relevant in large part because his work presaged contemporary anti-racist concerns. It’s hard to prove influence in any event, and harder still when trying to restart a conversation around a somewhat obscure figure from the past. Greenidge seems to be pointing more toward an extended history of struggle where the concerns of the past are quite similar to those of the present, rather than arguing that Trotter has the same sort of direct impact on later generations of activists like Du Bois had. Much like Trotter’s forebears, runaways and abolitionists, are a fitting ancestry for him, so Trotter makes a good fictive ancestor for the Black radicals of today, the argument seems to go.
It is not this white reviewer’s place to decide who is or isn’t a role model for leaders in the anti-racist struggle, but Greenidge certainly presents a William Monroe Trotter who deserves to stand with the greats. Greenidge’s decision to ground this biography in the concerns of the present helps get this impression over to the reader. It also leads to some anachronisms and confusing unanswered questions in parts of the text. Two examples will suffice.
Greenidge cites Trotter’s involvement in the “negrowump” movement as a young man as an early sign of his political independence. Black voters largely supported the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Civil War. The “mugwumps” were a reform movement within the Republican Party, led by figures such as Horace Greeley and Carl Schurz. They railed against the corruption of professional politicians and called for civil service reform, and called for political independence—the threat of bolting to the Democrats or running third-party or “fusion” tickets—as a way to achieve their goals. It makes sense why Black voters frustrated by mainstream Republicans taking their votes for granted might look with favor on the mugwumps. One problem: The mugwumps were even less enthusiastic for civil rights than the mainstream Republicans, calling for an end to the federal intervention that sustained multiracial democratic governance in the Reconstruction-era South. How did the “negrowumps” like Trotter square this circle? The reader of Black Radical doesn’t find out. They get just enough context—enough of the sort of patronizing mainstream Republican attitudes that rankle contemporary sensibilities so—to take on board the impression that Trotter was an independent political actor, and no more on this question.
There’s also the matter of what we mean we say “progressive.” Greenidge makes much of Trotter’s stormy relationships with white “progressives,” with many a nod toward the ever-disappointing persistence of faulty attitudes and fecklessness among the “white progressives” of today. By the time Theodore Roosevelt was president, Trotter was a Democrat and firmly opposed to TR’s favorite (and only, and highly intermittent) Black advisor, Booker Washington. Trotter backed Democratic progressive Woodrow Wilson, but came away bitterly disappointed with the president who resegregated the federal bureaucracy, telling Wilson as much to his face. To what extent do progressives of the early 20th century map on to “progressives” of our time? Greenidge lets the similarity in terminology do a lot of the work for her. That progressives of the two periods are similar or have a genealogical relationship is a valid (though not necessarily correct) argument to make—but it has to be made. It’s not a given, with all of the differences of both content and context across the century separating Trotter’s time from ours. Greenidge doesn’t make the argument here. She scores her contemporary points—“dunks on” white progressives, to use social media terminology—and moves on.
None of this is to suggest that the “negrowumps” were in the wrong, or that white progressives—then or now—don’t deserve to be dunked on. What these points illustrate is the trade-off Greenidge makes in framing Trotter’s life through the frameworks of contemporary anti-racist thinking and practice as systematically as she does in Black Radical. Greenidge’s Trotter is eminently usable, a repository of examples of how to (and sometimes how not to) be a courageous anti-racist agitator and organizer. How much does this usability interfere with a fully fleshed-out picture of the man and his times? Ultimately, the reader’s answer to that question will likely depend on why they picked up Black Radical. Perhaps a readership of contemporary activists might see an overly zealous attachment to the contexts of the past as defensiveness towards the past’s failings, the kind of attitude spouted by defenders of indefensible statues. Balancing contemporary relevance with attentiveness to the infinite complexities of the past is difficult, and Greenidge is hardly alone in this struggle. As it stands, the balance Greenidge strikes provides interesting insight into the long history of the Black freedom struggle in Boston.
Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter. By Kerri Greenidge. W.W. Norton. 432 pp., $19.95.
Peter Berard is a writer and organizer who lives in Watertown, MA. For more of his work, check out peterberard.substack.com.