Category Archives: Radical Civil Rights Leaders of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Ida Wells and William Monroe Trotter

Articles about the two fiercest African-American civil rights leaders of the early 20th Century: Ida Wells-Barnett and William Monroe Trotter. After The Plessy V.Ferguson Supreme Court Decision made Segregation legal in the United States, African-Americans in the North, as well as the South, were subject to intense discrimination and segregation. Wells-Barnett and Trotter were unique because they refused to subscribe to Booker T.Washington’s call to accept second class status for African-Americans, which at this time, meant any person of any African descent.

Ida

                                     

Ida Wells-courtesy Library of Congress

idawell2.jpg  Ida Wells

Ida Wells was born a slave in 1862. Her earliest memory was of walking to Pine Bluff, Arkansas with her parents after the end of the civil war so that her father, a skilled carpenter, could find work. Throughout Reconstruction Ida’s family lived a middle class existance. Her father had plenty of work. Ida’s mother had five more children.  Ida recalled in her autobiography Crusade for Justice  that her family had contact with her grandfather, her father’s former owner, who treated his mixed race son more like a son than a slave because he did not have any other children. That all changed when Ida’s father voted Republican against his father’s wishes. Ida’s life changed when her parents died of yellow fever.She became the head of household for her five brothers and sisters. She trained to be a teacher and took a job in Memphis at a segregated school.While traveling aboard a train to attend a teacher’s conference, Ida was forcibly removed from the first class car while white passengers cheered. She succesfully sued the railroad and won in a lower court, but the case went to the Tenessee Supreme Court after Reconstruction was over, so she was found to have been using the case for“harassment” and forced to pay court costs of $200.  

        Wells found that she loved newspaper work once she started writing for her church newspaper. Eventually She became editor of The Free Speech newspaper in Memphis. During the early 1890’s  Ida’s friends Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and Lee Stewart  opened a grocery store  in Memphis at a place called The Curve, where the new electric light rail line curved. They called their business The People’s Grocery Store. The men were in direct competition with a white grocery store owner. The neighborhood around the curve was a Negro neighborhood so the white store owner lost business. One day a fight broke out after some white boys and some black boys got into an argument over a game of marbles.The black boys beat the white boys. That night a white mob attacked the Negro grocery store and took its three owners out of town where they were tortured, shot and lynched.

Ida had found her calling as a journalist. For the next twenty-five years she would tirelessly advocate for an end to lynching. In her newspaper Ida challenged the white authorities of Memphis to arrest the men who murdered her friends.Since the authorities did nothing, she encouraged black famillies to move west. Many of them did. The city’s railroad operators relied on Negro labor. As a result of Ida’s encouraging black families to move the railroad company developed a labor shortage. The railroad managers met with Ida to beg her to stop encouraging blacks to leave town. Ida refused. In her autobiograpy she explains her reasoning:

                                This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was.An excuse

                                to get rid of Negroes who were aquiring wealth and property and thus

                                keep the race terrorized and “keep the nigger down.”

        

She refused to stop writing about the lynching of Moss, McDowell and Stewart and soon began investigating every lynching she heard of. To her surprise every single lynching that had occurred during the past three months had started as something else but was then told to the public as having to do with rape. Ida, whose own father was the product of a union between a white slave owner and his slave, printed an editorial about what she knew to be the truth: that white women sometimes had affairs with black men, just as white men sometimes had affairs with black women. This was too much for the white people of Memphis to bear. Her newspaper office was attacked and her printing press was destroyed by an angry white mob. A price was put on her head. She left Memphis for New York.

        In New York Ida wrote about the south for The New York Age newspaper. She was given the opportunity to speak at some newly created womens’ clubs. These were important organizations created by and for women so that they could hear lectures and act upon the important issues of the day. Ida would later be influential in helping to found the first African-American womens’ clubs.

Frederick Douglass came to see her. They formed a friendship that would last the remainder of the great man’s life. He was particularly touched that the young woman from Memphis did not mistreat his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass, a white woman who was often scorned by black women who visited him at his home in Rochester, New York.

        In 1893 Wells journeyed to England upon a steamship. She was terribly seasick throughout the voyage. After 9 days the ship arrived in Liverpool, England. She was taken in by Mrs.Isabella Mayo, the publisher Anti-Caste, a pamphlet that sought to combat racial prejudice as it existed in The British Empire. Wells gave speeches about lynching and the south’s treatment of Negroes throughout the British Isles. She was amazed that she was able to dine publicly with whites for the first time in her life. For the first time Ida realized that there were white people she could trust. Ida traveled throughout the British Isles to speak about the evils of lynching in the United States.  Despite the postivie reception her speeches recieved,  the trip ended on a sour note. One of Mrs.Mayo’s collegues, Mrs.Impey had written a love letter to a man named Dr.Ferdinands, a man of Indian descent who worked for Anti-Caste. Mrs.Moody, a stern Calvinist, demanded that Ms.Impey be ostracised. Ida refused to do so, pointing out that Mrs.Impey had merely expressed her feelings for the man. Mrs.Mayo called Mrs.Impey a nymphomaniac, a word Ida had never heard before. Then she cut Ida off too. It would be one of many times that Ida’s honesty and outspokeness got her into trouble and kept her from ever being part of a larger organization for long.

Upon returning to the United States Ida struggled with deciding where to live. She was effectively banished from her native south because several men had sworn to shoot her on sight, a sort of southern Infitada for her outspokeness on lynching, which was viewed as an attack on white womanhood due to Ida’s insistance that rape was a pretense for the lynching of black men and that blacks and whites often had consensual affairs.

She traveled to Chicago, Illinois to work with Frederick Douglass on the World’s Fair. Negroes had been excluded from the  planning of the event. Mr.Douglass, the leading African-American of his time, had to settle for space to speak at the Haitian exhibit (he had been the U.S. ambassador to Haiti). For Wells, the great irony was that wherever she saw Douglass go at the fair, she observed him being mobbed by white people who wanted to shake his hand.

In 1894 a civil rights minded newspaper called The Inter Ocean arranged for Wells to return to England to drum up support for her anti-lynching campaign. In Liverpool Ida met the Reverend C.F. Aked who had committed himself to furthering the cause of brotherhood between the races after learning of a lynching while attending the Chicago World’s Fair. She lived with Aked and his wife for six months. For her the most amazing part of living in Liverpool was how fair minded and welcoming it was to people of color.

To a colored person who has been reared in the peculiar atmosphere which obtains only in free (?) America it is like being born into another world, to be welcomed among persons of the highest order of intellectual and social culture as if one were one of themselves.

Here a “colored” person can ride in any sort of conveyance in any part of the country without being insulted; stop in any hotel or be accommodated in any restaurant one wishes without being refused with contempt….The privilege of being once in a country where “A man’s a man for a’that,” is one which can best be appreciated by those Americans whose black skins are a bar to their receiving genuine kindness and courtesy at home.

The fact that she could experience such freedom in Liverpool, the former captial of the British slave trade, gave Wells hope for her own country. Hope that would not be reciprocated in her own lifetime.

Wells had a succesfull stay in England. She witnessed many British society people sign up for the anti-lynching campaign in the United States. They promised to pressure The Episcopal Church of the United States to get more invovled in the issue of civil rights for Negroes. But again Wells faced controversy. The prohbition advocate Miss.Francis Willard was in England at the same time as Ida. Willard had stated that southern women she knew were afraid to go out at night and that lynching may have been a tragic necessity. Wells would have none of this. She battled Willard in the press, which had the effect of alienating some of her white benefactors who were Willard’s personal friends. Wells accused Willard of segregating her Temprance organization (it was segregated in the south- as was everything else).Willard played down her comments and the fact that her organization was segregated.

Wells returned to the United States in November, 1894. She  lived in Rochester, New York with Susan B.Anthony, the renowned womens’ suffragist. Anthony was clear eyed about the racist sentiment that existed throughout the United States. She recalled that she had allowed women’s suffrage groups to segregate as a matter of political expedience. Wells expressed her opinion that Anthony had been mistaken. Anthony accepted Wells’ opinion. Anthony maintained the world would be better when women got the vote. Wells questioned this, remarking that women had a tendancy to have “a petty outlook on life.” Despite their differences the two women remained friends. Both were saddened when Frederick Douglass passed away in 1895. Anthony because Douglass had been the only man to attend her first women’s suffrage convention in 1848. Wells because she believed Douglass to be “the greatest man the Negro Race has ever produced.”

Ida toured the United States throughout 1895 in an effort to gain support for her anti-lynching campaign. She had published a documentary of all the lynchings committed in the United States for 1892,1893 and 1894. At the end of the year she was broke and exhausted.

She happily decided to accept the hand of Attorney Ferdinand.L.Barnett of Chicago, which had been offered to her before she had gone to England. Ida and Ferdinand had four children, one of whom they gave the middle name Aked after Ida’s favorite minister. Despite the fact that she was the mother of young children Ida remained involved in civl rights causes. Her work would be doubly difficult in the face of the United States Government aquiesance to the racism of its white population when  The 1896  Supreme Court Decision in Plessy V. Ferguson found segregation to be legal. For the next 58 years, the federal government of the United States would more often be in support of the rights of white bigots  than of the rights of its citizens of color.

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The anchor points: Wells-Barnett and Trotter

137 501 Fort Hill Road anchor A.jpg

This is the anchor of the Yarmouth- later renamed the 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 duirng 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 he 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 Untied States. William Trotter’s mother was Virginia Isaacs Trotter, a descendent of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemmings.

William Monroe Trotter grew up in the white nieghborhood 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 “Caste 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 politcally and economically helpful for the United States because it justified the current racial situation in the country. Trotter, whose very existance 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, grandfather of future President John F.Kennedy, was also in the Boston Jail during this time.While Curley got salt water 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 equaltiy.

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 outspokeness 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 infeffective 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 any one 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 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 insistant 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 persistant, something white people disliked in a Negro.  Another meeting was held a year later. During this meeting Trotter compained 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 mainstained in her autobiography that Trotter was insistant, 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 correspondance with Thomas Dixon, the author of the Klansman, the book that Grifith 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 misrepresenation 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 Untied 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 Natonal 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 perogatives 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 insistance 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 new found 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 himeslf 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 under way. 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 lenghts 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 grass roots 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.

        

williamTrotter The Guardian of Boston_0.pngfair use Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter

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Anchor Points: William Monroe Trotter and Ida Wells-Barnett’s Connection to the Anchor

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Filed under Radical Civil Rights Leaders of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Ida Wells and William Monroe Trotter

Ida Wells

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Filed under Radical Civil Rights Leaders of the late 19th and early 20th Century: Ida Wells and William Monroe Trotter