This is the anchor of the Yarmouth- later renamed the Frederic Douglass
William Monroe Trotter stowed away as a steward on the Yarmouth to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Ida Wells-Barnett had been asked by Marcus Garvey to announce his incorporation of the Black Star Shipping Line. Which eventually purchased the Yarmouth and named it after Frederic Douglass. The Black Star Line’s goal was Negro empowerment via an all-Negro shipping Line.
William Monroe Trotter and Ida Wells-Barnett 1895-1934
William Monroe Trotter was proud to be the son of James Trotter, a veteran of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment that distinguished itself during the Civil War. James Trotter had always advocated for the rights of Negroes, even when it meant refusing his pay until the salaries of Negro soldiers in the 54th were commensurate with the salaries of white soldiers. After the war, James Trotter settled in Boston, which had become a haven for people of color during the early to mid-19th Century. He worked at the post office and published the first book on the history of Negro Music in The United States. William Trotter’s mother was Virginia Isaacs Trotter, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemmings.
William Monroe Trotter grew up in the white neighborhood of Hyde Park in Boston. He attended Harvard University and became the first black man to be awarded Phi Beta Kappa at the University. Trotter’s fellow classmate W.E.B Dubois observed that Trotter tended to associate with his white friends and was something of a big man on campus. Trotter hoped to go into banking. His father had left him an inheritance of $20,000.
Although Trotter experienced little racism at Harvard Yard, he found it impossible to find a decent job after graduation. The year was 1897, one year after Plessy V. Ferguson had been passed by the Supreme Court. Trotter became a real estate broker and mortgage specialist, but it was not lost on him that his skin color was preventing him from having the type of life he had expected to have. He married a pretty blonde woman of mixed European and African ancestry (therefore she was a Negro) named Deenie. W.E.B. Dubois had also been interested in Deenie. Although the two men would collaborate on civil rights causes in the future, Dubois had an up and down relationship with Trotter.
Trotter came to believe that a great problem facing Negroes in the United States was that Booker T. Washington had become the spokesman for the race. This occurred due to Washington’s popular “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech in Atlanta in 1895. Washington had stated that blacks needed industrial education and could forgo equal rights and the right to vote. Washington appeared to have said that blacks should earn the right to equality after they had gotten better educated as a race. Trotter found this outrageous. Ida Wells-Barnett and her husband Ferdinand, the only black District Attorney in Chicago, agreed. Although Trotter and Wells-Barnett would not meet until several years after Washington’s speech, they had similar reactions to the man who was to become the leading Negro civil rights leader after the death of Frederic Douglass. Wells-Barnett and Trotter demanded full social and political equality between blacks and whites. They were considered radicals.
Trotter began his civil rights career as the leading opponent of Booker T.Washington. This was not an easy position to take. Powerful Americans like President Theodore Roosevelt and Industrialist and Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie believed strongly that Booker T.Washington’s stated acceptance of second class status for Negroes was politically and economically helpful for the United States because it justified the current racial situation in the country. Trotter, whose very existence seemed to contradict Washington’s message, became his leading opponent. When Washington came to speak in Boston in 1901 Trotter led a protest against him that turned into a riot. He was arrested for inciting the riot, eventually serving two weeks in the Boston city jail. James Michael Curley, future long-time mayor of Boston was also in the Boston Jail during this time. While Curley got saltwater baths every morning and a Thanksgiving Feast, Trotter served his time in an 8×10 cell with no special privileges. The incident established Trotter as Booker T.Washington’s leading opponent. Trotterism came to mean not accepting second class status as an African-American.
In 1904 Trotter started the Boston Guardian Newspaper, which was committed to full social, political and economic equality for Negroes. In 1905 Trotter and W.E.B. Dubois held the Niagra Conference in Ontario, Canada (no hotels on the American side of the Niagra Falls would rent a room to a Negro). Here it was resolved that a new organization, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P), be created to advocate for the civil rights of Negroes with the goal of full social equality.
Both Ida-Wells Barnett and William Monroe Trotter distrusted the N.A.A.C.P. because it was to be managed by white benefactors, specifically Mary White Ovington. Trotter believed a Negro rights organization should be run by Negroes. He did not join. Ida Wells-Barnett was snubbed at the N.A.A.C.P. meeting in Chicago later that year. She had been left off the ballot for the Chicago officers of the N.A.A.C.P. which had her feeling slighted and angry. Her previous take-charge attitude and outspokenness had rubbed the Brooklyn born Mary White Ovington the wrong way. Wells never forgave Ovington and stated in Crusade for Justice that the N.A.A.C.P. was often ineffective because it was too often influenced by views of the wealthy Mrs.Ovington. In fairness to Ovington, W.E.B. Dubois worked well with her and she encouraged him to become the great civil rights leader he became. Both Trotter and Wells proved to be great fighters for civil rights but organizationally they were both too uncompromising to stay with anyone group for too long.
Trotter had been outraged by the failures of Republican Presidents Roosevelt and Taft to address civil rights injustices against blacks. He helped turn out the vote for the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson during the 1912 election. Wilson won but he would not reciprocate Trotter’s support. The Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress and quickly went about segregating the Federal Government and attempting to pass a miscegenation law for The District of Columbia. A group of concerned African-Americans that included Ida Wells-Barnett joined Trotter’s National Equal Rights League to journey to Washington D.C. to confer with President Wilson in 1913. Trotter was insistent that Wilson had allowed for the segregation of the federal government. Wilson would later insist that Trotter had been impertinent. Wells insisted that Trotter had been more than fair, merely persistent, something white people disliked in a Negro. Another meeting was held a year later. During this meeting Trotter complained that Wilson had allowed Postmaster General Burleson, a Texan, to segregate the federal government, effectively relieving several African-American men from their long-held positions in the postal and treasury departments. Wilson mentioned that he thought segregation was protecting Negroes, to which Trotter strongly objected. Although it was reported in many Negro and white newspapers that Trotter had been out of line with President Wilson, Wells-Barnett maintained in her autobiography that Trotter was insistent, not rude.
Trotter had a right to be rude, even if Wells notes that he wasn’t. The fact was that his civil rights had evaporated throughout his adult life because whites in America were willing to allow blacks to be deprived of them. During his youth, a person of color could shop in a store or go to a restaurant in downtown Boston, but by 1914 this had become impossible. Now Trotter was witnessing the southern conquest of the federal government via the Democratic Party, with disturbing results for Americans of African descent.
Things did not get any better in 1915 with the film release of D.W.Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a historical drama depicting the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the Reconstruction Era and black people as dangerous, ignorant beasts. In his excellent book on Trotter and D.W Griffith The Birth of a Nation, author Dick Lehr reveals that President Wilson maintained a regular correspondence with Thomas Dixon, the author of the Klansman, the book that Griffith used as the basis for his film. Lehr reveals that although it is untrue that Wilson publicly praised the film, D.W. Griffith advertised that he had after Wilson attended a screening of the film at the White House. Birth of a Nation was a tremendous commercial success. Both Wells-Barnett and Trotter were furious that such a misrepresentation of history could be so popular with white audiences.
Wells-Barnett invited Trotter to leave his “hub” of Boston and come to the Midwest so that he could speak to audiences about his experiences as a civil rights leader. Both Trotter and Wells-Barnett were big fans of each other. Both could never find an organization that they could remain with for long. Both were better suited to being journalists and editors, heralding the need for Negro social equality while reporting on the oppression that blacks in the United States endured on a daily basis.
World War I was raging and President Wilson was struggling to keep the United States neutral. When the United States finally did declare war on the Central Powers Wells-Barnett concerned herself with garnering support for Black Troops stationed near her home in Chicago. Trotter broke with W.E.B. Dubois over his call for full Negro participation in the war effort. Trotter believed it was foolish not to demand redress for injustices towards Negroes first, rather than to hope for them later. Trotter’s National Equal Rights Leauge met in Washington to discuss the meaning of the War for African-Americans. The N.E.R.L. stated:
Despite progress, we are still surrounded by an adverse sentiment that makes our lives a living hell…We believe in democracy. We hold that this nation should enter the lists with clean hands. (The Guardian of Boston: Wiliam Monroe Trotter by Stephen R.Fox, 1970 Kingsport Press, Kingsport, TN.)
When the armistice was signed in November, 1918 Wells-Barnett, Trotter and other members of The National Equal Rights League were desperate to send representatives to the Paris Peace Conference. Just as the territorial prerogatives of European nationalities were being considered, the N.ER.L. believed that black people in the United States, Europe, and Africa should have their rights considered as well. The N.E.R.L.noted that people of African descent were being mistreated throughout the world and that just as European nationalities had rights to be addressed, so to did people of other races. Many future Garveyites were feeling the same way, although Wells-Barnett and Trotter would not support Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement.
The N.E.R.L. held a meeting in Washington D.C. that was sparsely but notably attended. Ida Wells-Barnett and Americas first Negro Millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker, were in attendance. The group alienated Walker and Wells-Barnett by voting them as delegates but stipulating that they should pay their own way to France for the conference. The United States government had begun investigating subversives during the war. In a perverse form of affirmative action, a Negro agent named Walter Loving reported on N.E.R.L.’s activities and highlighted Trotter and Wells as the most subversive members of the organization, due to their insistence on full social equality for Negroes. Based on Loving’s recommendations, the U.S. State Department denied passports to the N.E.R.L. delegates.
Wells-Barnett went to Baltimore where she spoke with Marcus Garvey about his desire to send representatives to the Paris Peace Conference. She and her husband had hosted Garvey a year earlier when he had come to Chicago looking for money to start a school for Negroes in Jamaica. Garvey had decided to become a race leader after reading Booker T.Washington’s Up From Slavery. He was dismayed when he went to Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama only to find that the great leader had recently died. Wells-Barnett was impressed with Garvey’s newfound popularity and agreed to visit him in New York. The Federal Government was also investigating Garvey and took notes of the Baltimore meeting he and Wells-Barnett participated in.
William Monroe Trotter was distraught. The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 had taken his wife Deenie. She had been his greatest friend and supporter since their marriage twenty years earlier. He resolved that the only way to keep going was to throw himself even further into his goal of attending the Paris Peace Conference. He had his aunt give him a crash course in cooking and then traveled ot New York City, determined to hang around the piers of Manhattan until he could find a ship going to France that would take him on as an Assistant Steward. In January 1919 he found just such a post when a Maltese Cook aboard the S.S.Yarmouth agreed to take the portly 42-year-old with him to Le Havre, France. The ship sailed on January, 9th. The conference was already underway. Trotter scribed letters for the illiterate cook and peeled potatoes as the Yarmouth slowly made its way across the Atlantic, arriving during the first week of May. Although he was forbidden to go ashore, Trotter convinced the ship’s officers to let him onto the dock to mail letters for the crew. He did not return to the ship. Instead, he headed for Paris. Presenting himself ragged and dirty at the home of an American Negro couple named Mr.and Mrs.Thomas Kane.
The Kane’s did not help Trotter after giving him a bed for the night. But he made friends and ended up staying at the Hotel du Bon Pasteur on Rue St-.Anne.There he started turning out petitions and news releases for the French Press. In this way, he was able to inform the French about the difficult conditions Negroes faced in The United States. Trotter made a strong impression on the French. He was also treated as a hero by black audiences back in the United States, who saw his effort in getting to France as an indication that this outspoken Bostonian would go to great lengths to obtain the rights that he and his people were being denied.
1919 would see the worst racial violence in the United States since the days of Reconstruction. Riots also took place in Liverpool and Cardiff, English ports where there were larger concentrations of black people. Whites were angry that blacks had migrated during the war years to take and compete for jobs. Blacks fought back when attacked by whites. Trotter found this heartening. For much of his adult life, it had seemed that black people were content to follow the advice of Booker T.Washington and accept second class citizenship. Wells-Barnett was disheartened by “The Tide of Hatred” that never seemed to abate.
Marcus Garvey welcomed Ida Wells-Barnett to New York City in 1919. He showed her his laundry, his hotel and his business supply factory all of which were operated by his United Negro Improvement Corporation (U.N.I.A). He complained that he could not find good help and skilled employees and that this was holding back his enterprises. He asked her to announce his next great idea, an all-Negro shipping line. Wells refused. She felt that since he was having trouble with his smaller operations there was no way he could succeed at having a shipping line. In her autobiography, She acknowledged that Marcus Garvey had energized blacks as no leader had previously but lamented that he had let all the attention go to his head. Ironically, Garvey’s downfall occurred as a result of his attempt to make his Black Star Shipping Line a reality. Garvey purchased the S.S.Yarmouth, the same ship Trotter had served as an Assistant Steward, and renamed it The Frederic Douglass. Unfortunately, the ship was in dilapidated condition by the time Garvey purchased it. The Black Star Line went bankrupt in 1922 and Garvey was eventually imprisoned after being convicted of mail fraud for selling stock in a company he new to be insolvent.
Trotter did not like Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa idea. He vowed never to use the term Negro in his newspaper in 1919, the same year Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association U.N.I.A. rose to prominence. During the 1920’s he worked with Cyril Briggs African Blood Brotherhood and was not shy of working with Communists either according to Briggs. His goal remained full social and political equality for African-Americans, a name he preferred to the term, Negro. Wells stayed closer to Chicago where she continued to work on grassroots campaigns to improve the lives of Negroes in her community. Through their work for social justice and their condemnation of white supremacy William Monroe Trotter and Ida Wells-Barnett kept the lights on, they kept pushing their country to live up to its creed of life, liberty, and justice for all.
fair use Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter