In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor of Communications Tom Nelson recounts the life and achievements of pioneering journalist William Monroe Trotter. The column was published in The Times-News of Burlington and the Fayetteville Observer.
By Tom Nelson
Remembered in the heart of a loving God but often forgotten in the hearts of fickle men is the name of William Monroe Trotter.
Some people believe Trotter to be a descendant of one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello in Virginia. It might very well be true as ancillary evidence supports that belief. But William Monroe Trotter does not need Jefferson’s derivative gravitas to call attention to himself.
William Monroe Trotter stands alone.
Trotter owned and reported for a newspaper called The Guardian. The Guardian has been out of business for a half-century but in its heyday, The Guardian was one of few black-owned newspapers in the United States. And one of the most influential. The Guardian’s success should surprise no one given William Monroe Trotter’s background.
Trotter was a Harvard graduate, Class of 1895. Phi Beta Kappa.
It was just after graduation from Harvard that William Monroe Trotter bought The Guardian which at the time was a relatively unknown Boston newspaper. That was early in the last century. During the next 50 years Trotter’s newspaper interpreted events of the day as they affected the black American community.
William Monroe Trotter made The Guardian unique because unlike many of his more parochial peers, Trotter understood that the black American community was as diverse in opinion as any other group in America. Trotter gave attention to these many perspectives particularly in the years from 1915 to 1934.
William Monroe Trotter showed pluck enough times to mark his personality. Reporting on race rioting that took place in the summer of 1919 in Chicago, Trotter gave voice to the black Americans involved. To this very day, Trotter’s Guardian newspaper serves as a complementary window to view past race relations in America, particularly the more gruesome aspects.
William Monroe Trotter’s Guardian courageously, consistently and certainly pushed for a federal law to ban lynching in America. It was for Trotter nothing less than a sacred mission.
Trotter had a spontaneity of spirit in addition to pluck. He was denied a passport by the American government when he wanted to travel to Paris as a reporter for The Guardian. He intended to make his presence known among the American delegation at the peace conference convened to end World War One.
Trotter did not mince words about his mission to France.
William Monroe Trotter was going to Paris to make sure that black Americans who fought to make the world safe for democracy during the First World War would themselves enjoy democracy in America after that war.
Denied his passport but not his pluck, Trotter got a job as a cook on a freighter bound for France, jumping ship on arrival and making his way to Paris, he had his say.
Once at President Woodrow Wilson’s White House, there was a movie screening of the film “Birth of a Nation.” The film is a sympathetic look at the Ku Klux Klan.
William Monroe Trotter told President Wilson how very insulting even perverse of purpose such a film was to American values. That took some guts.
William Monroe Trotter is a name only a few men speak of today. But in heaven, where things count, he is among the American angels.
We Americans would do well in this month set aside to remember consequential black Americans to give pause and to thank William Monroe Trotter for making our country a better place. He, like Thomas Jefferson, famously risked his life, his fortune and his sacred honor for the greatest experiment in history called America.
Trotter, however, took that risk not just once but each day.