New Book on Race and Radicalism Reminds Us Inequality Is Still a Problem

"Black Radical" by Kerri Greenidge tells the story of a civil rights agitator who empowered working Black people at the turn of the 20th century
Author Kerri K. Greenidge is director of American Studies at Tufts University and co-director of the African American Trail Project at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.
"William Monroe Trotter saw how what was happening in the U.S. had implications and connections to what’s happening globally in terms of human rights," which remains true today, said Kerri Greenidge. Photo: Anna Miller
February 21, 2020

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In Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter, the hero’s story starts at the end. It’s 1934, at the depth of the Great Depression, and Trotter, the nation’s “foremost advocate for black protest,” is perched on the edge of the roof of a three-story Roxbury building.

Born in 1872 in Ohio to free African American parents, his family moved to the Boston area soon after his birth. He grew up in the North at a time when many enslaved people were still fleeing race-related violence in the South.

His father, James Monroe Trotter—a famed political activist, federal appointee, and lieutenant in the Union Army—was frequently away and favored William’s two sisters. He was tough—physically and emotionally—on his only son and instilled in him two key traits: a demanding and uncompromising nature, and a sense of racial exceptionalism.

William Trotter attended Harvard, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1895, and went on to launch The Guardian newspaper, which was one of the most important newspapers of the national Black press. He used its pages to speak to Boston’s Black population, or “colored,” as he insisted was the only proper term to encompass the variety of Black people in Boston, who came not only from Africa, but also the Caribbean and Canada.

Listen to Kerri Greenidge read a passage from the Introduction of her new book “Black Radical.”

For thirty years, he published The Guardian with a mission of encouraging Black people to be “satisfied with nothing less than our full citizenship rights.” He eschewed the incremental and more moderate politics of his arguably more famous rival, Booker T. Washington, a civil rights leader based at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and founder of the National Negro Business League, who supported racial compromise.

Author Kerri K. Greenidge, director of American Studies at Tufts and co-director of the African American Trail Project at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, said Trotter’s radical approach helped advance his cause, but he paid a price for it personally. Ultimately, it led to his tragic end.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Greenidge about her new book, which landed on the New York Times critics’ list for top books of 2019, and why Trotter’s story is still relevant all these years later.  

Tufts Now: William Trotter inspired generations of Black citizens in Boston and across the nation. He led rallies, lobbied to make lynching a federal crime, and he crossed class lines, meaning he was a member of the elite class who also appealed to the poor. Why isn’t he more well-known in Boston’s history?

Kerri Greenidge: I think two reasons. One is the practical reason that he never wrote about himself very extensively. He never gave an interview that I could find where he talked about his life or even his feelings beyond what he was doing in terms of civil rights. That’s an obstacle to a traditional historian.

Second, because he had no children. There were no offspring who later wrote about what it was like being his child. His wife, Geraldine “Deenie” Louise Pindell Trotter, preceded him in death, so she never wrote anything about him.

I also think that because he was so difficult and prickly in his personality, a lot of people didn’t like to be around him as a person—but admired him as a leader. For a long time, people stayed away from writing about him because he wasn’t somebody who people automatically liked, and that can color who we remember and who we don’t.

The fiery cover of "Black Radical," which tells the story of William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights advocate who lived in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.

He was a misogynist. He was somebody who, until relatively late in his life, had this attitude that the women in his life were automatically supposed to be the foot soldiers in whatever he was doing. I do think that he was able to accomplish so much and stay so grounded in his struggles because he had their support. He was lucky enough that both of his sisters were equally brilliant in their own right. His wife basically ran The Guardian when he was unable to do so.

He came around to appreciating women, but that really wasn’t until after his wife died, when he began to talk in The Guardian about the role of women. It speaks to the way that activists, particularly male activists, often rely on women.

Today’s radical movements looks different than radicalism in Trotter’s time. What do you think he would say about radicalism in today’s climate?

He would be discouraged that many—not all—activists operate from an ahistorical place. Trotter was always reflecting on radical abolitionists of the past and the fight against slavery, because that was very close to his family history. I think he would be, much like he was in his own time, critical of activism that functions from a place of ahistorical anti-intellectualism, where people didn’t engage with what has come before.

He would be encouraged that more people are on the side of some form of justice than were on the side of justice during his time. And he would be encouraged that there is more attention globally to the African American struggle and to struggles of people who are dispossessed and disenfranchised.

I think he would be heartened that today there is a large group of people who admit that institutional racism and mass incarceration are problems that exist. And he would be encouraged we’re not living in a time like he lived in, where just diagnosing the problem was a radical step.

Trotter died more than eighty years ago. What can we learn from his life story that will help us today?

We tend to think that, because we live in a place that we suppose is “liberal,” it doesn’t have racial issues. Right? But he was very big on pointing out that racial issues didn’t exist in just the South—they had manifested throughout the country.

Trotter spoke a lot to the role of media in protest and social movements. Toward the latter part of his life, he saw how what was happening in the United States had implications and connections to what’s happening globally in terms of human rights. In that way, his story feels very contemporary to me. Greenidge's book landed on the New York Times critics’ list for top books of 2019.

What was the reaction to Trotter’s sudden death? What ripples and effects did it have on the black community in Boston and nationwide?

Trotter killed himself in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, at a time when most activists had written him off. The Guardian was failing, and a couple of weeks before he killed himself, he got news that The Guardian couldn’t be printed because it was bankrupt.

That ended up not being true; his sister and his brother-in-law bought it out and paid for it to be back on the stands. But he had been, in his perspective, forgotten by people. He was completely poverty stricken. He could no longer gather the crowds that he gathered in the beginning of his career, and part of that was just because the landscape had changed.

When he died, the response amongst Black Americans and the diaspora was immediate. When his friend and sometimes rival, W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, received the telegram that Trotter died, he immediately ordered The Crisis—the official magazine of the NAACP—to put a picture of Trotter on the front page.

Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, wrote from England at the time that he was shocked, but he also understood why Trotter would have killed himself. Even many of his detractors wrote that they respected him, even if they didn’t always understand him or like him as a person.

His death shows the price of what it takes to be an activist. By the end of his life, he spent every single week engaging with these issues, writing about and investigating them. That tends to take a toll on people, one that a lot of us don’t often acknowledge. People who are activists often struggle with their own place in the world and their own mental health issues.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.