The first in a month-long series of stories
commemorating Black History Month
By modern-day media standards, the Boston Riot of 1903 wasn’t
much of a riot.
It was a noisy disturbance at most, and, particularly noisy to those
who packed the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church to support the featured
orator, Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. was the preeminent voice on race relations in America
at the turn of the century. From where he sat, and that was frequently
with U.S. presidents, the “Negro problem” would disappear
if the recently freed slaves would just learn to accept their role
in society — at the bottom, in the fields, toiling still.
“We shall not agitate for political or social equality,”
Washington declared in his famous Atlanta Compromise speech. “Living
separately, yet working together, both races will determine the
future of our beloved South.”
That sort of southern obeisance was widely accepted at the time
by liberal whites and a lot of blacks, even in Northern cities like
Boston, where the small black population depended on the white community
for jobs and political patronage.
Monroe Trotter wasn’t one of them. He had his own money and
his own politics and he used both to help start the Guardian, a
weekly newspaper. It’s mission, Trotter wrote, was to serve
as “an organ which is to voice intelligently the needs and
aspirations of the colored American.”
Trotter’s needs and aspirations were different than Booker
T’s, especially on the issue of education, where Trotter,
a Harvard man, believed that blacks should learn the classics instead
of learning only about vocational trades and agriculture, as Washington
argued. For nearly two years Trotter openly attacked Washington
in the pages of the Guardian, and his upcoming speech in Boston
provided Trotter a rare chance to confront Washington directly.
“The policy of compromise has failed,” Trotter wrote.
“The policy of resistance and aggression deserves a trial.”
The speech was scheduled on July 30, 1903. Trotter had prepared
a handful of questions — nine of them to be exact —
and based on the tone of his editorial published a week before the
scheduled speech, none of them could have been exactly objective.
In fact, it was more than a matter of philosophical differences
between Trotter and Washington. It was personal.
“In view of the fact that you are understood to be unwilling
to insist upon the Negro having his every right (both civil and
political), would it not be a calamity ay this juncture to make
you our leader?” Trotter wrote. “Don’t you know
you would help the race more by exposing the new form of slavery
just outside the gates of Tuskegee than preaching submission? Are
the rope and the torch all the race is to get under your leadership?”
Quite naturally, Washington wasn’t listening to those sorts
of questions, much less answering any of them, especially not while
he had the podium inside the jammed church.
“As soon as I began speaking,” Washington wrote later,
“the leaders, stationed in various parts of the house, began
asking questions. In this and in a number of other ways, they tried
to make it impossible for me to speak.”
One of those “other ways“ was what Washington described
as a “stench bomb” thrown into the crowd, supposedly
by Trotter. No one really knows whether that part of the story was
true. One thing is pretty clear: things quickly got out of control.
Historians paint a chaotic scene: radicals hissing and booing at
Washington while others hissed and booed amid shouts of “Throw
Trotter out the window.” For his part, Trotter stood on a
chair and shouted his questions. The shouting quickly turned to
shoving and only ended when billy-club wielding cops plowed through
the crowd and arrested Trotter and his associate, Greenville Martin.
Both were charged with inciting a riot and disorderly conduct, fined
$50 and imprisoned for thirty days. Washington supporters were quick
to pounce on the unruly Trotter.
“If the Boston Negro is not capable of understanding so able
a representative of his race,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
editorialized, “…What is to be expected of the other
It was a small price to pay. The sensationalized media coverage
of the so-called Boston Riot demonstrated that Washington was not
the only voice in the nation’s racial wilderness. There were
other voices — angrier, more militant, voices — that
were willing to confront any notion of racial inequality. Washington
no longer owned a monopoly on black leadership; national attention
had found William Monroe Trotter, Jr.
And more than most, Trotter understood the power of the press.
He knew he needed a wider audience to change the miserable condition
of most blacks – and the stubborn attitudes of most whites.
But none of those efforts afforded Trotter a national platform.
All of that changed when Trotter started the Guardian with Rev.
Williams Scott and George W. Forbes. The first issue appeared on
Nov. 9, 1901, and cost a nickel. Trotter opened the Guardian’s
office in the same building that housed William Lloyd Garrison’s
fiercely abolitionist Liberator. And kept a bust of Garrison on
his desk. Trotter and his Guardian had just as much passion against
any form of racial inequality.
The Guardian became his life’s mission. “With its establishment,
Trotter said, “my decision to enter the lists against discrimination
because of color took a tangible form.”
He published the newspaper almost without fail, missing only two
issues between 1901 and 1934, even writing during his 30-day sentence
in Boston. It quickly became a national institution, catching the
attention of another Harvard man, W.E.B. Dubois. He described the
Guardian as “bitter, satirical and personal… it was
well-edited, it was earnest and it published facts. It attracted
wide attention across the country; it was quoted and discussed.”
And that was the Guardian’s role, Trotter once explained —
“propaganda against discrimination based on color and denial
of citizenship rights because of color.”
“We want laws enforced against the rich as well as the poor;”
Trotter once wrote, “against the capitalist as well as the
laborer; against white as well as Black... We want a decent education
for our children... They have a right to know, to think, to aspire.”
He devoted his energies to running the Guardian.
In 1910, he organized a successful demonstration against the Negro-baiting
play, The Clansman in Boston. In 1915, he again picketed the Tremont
Theater where the racist D.W. Griffiths film “Birth of a Nation”
was being shown. When he refused to leave the theater lobby, police
arrested him. He was later tried and acquitted. But unable to prevent
the showing of the film as it went on, with the backing of popular
Irish Mayor James Michael Curly, to have a successful run in Boston.
As the watchdog against discrimination, Trotter was unafraid to
take his protest to the White House. Dissatisfied with Roosevelt
during the 1912 election, the Guardian endorsed Woodrow Wilson in
the hope that he would prove a better friend to the Negro. That
hope seemed misplaced when Wilson appointed five southern white
men to his cabinet, including a Texan, Albert Burleson, to the head
the U.S. Post Office, a substantial employer of blacks.
At an early cabinet meeting, when Burleson proposed separating the
Washington postal clerks by race, Wilson gave his permission. Wilson
wasn’t done. He sent a racial signal of his own by naming
a white southerner as minister to the republic of Haiti, a post
that had customarily gone to blacks. Unlike Trotter, Wilson’s
classmates knew where he stood on issues of race. According to one
Princeton alumnus, Wilson was “the best narrator of darky
stories that I have ever heard in my life,”
On Nov. 12, 1914, Trotter led a delegation from the National Independent
Political League to the White House to protest the president’s
wandering so far from his campaign pledge for “absolute fair
dealing’ toward black Americans. Trotter had met with Wilson
a year earlier and asked him to look into halting the re-segregation
of federal departments. Wilson agreed to do so, and now in answer
to Trotter’s question told him that his cabinet officers had
ordered the move because of “friction between colored and
white clerks.” Wilson continued: “Segregation is not
humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
Trotter had heard enough. “Two years ago,” Trotter told
Wilson, “you were regarded as a second Abraham Lincoln ...
Now we colored leaders are denounced in the colored churches as
traitors to our race... For fifty years white and colored clerks
have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness,
doing so even through two democratic administrations. Soon after
your inauguration, segregation was drastically introduced.”
Wilson interrupted. “If this organization is ever to have
another hearing before me it must have another spokesman. Your manner
“In what way?” Trotter asked.
“Your tone, with its background of passion.”
“But I have no passion in me, Mr. President, you are entirely
mistaken; you misinterpret earnestness for passion.”
The meeting went on like that for forty-five minutes, with the two
men repeatedly interrupting each other – until Wilson bluntly
told Trotter that he was the one to do the interrupting and asked
abruptly asked the delegation to leave. Infuriated, Trotter then
did what Wilson considered unforgivable. Standing on the White House
grounds, he held a press conference and detailed what had just happened.
The episode made national news. The story ran on the front page
of The New York Times. Quite naturally, the mainstream press sided
with Wilson and characterized Trotter as poor representative of
his race and having “superabundant untactful belligerency.”
A Texas newspaper went even further.
“The Tucker darkey who tried to ‘sass’ the president,
“ wrote the newspaper, getting Trotter’s name wrong,
“is not a Booker T Washington type of colored man. He is merely
With the onset of the Great Depression, Trotter struggled to put
out the newspaper. He soldiered on until 1934 when he died after
a mysterious fall from the roof of his Lower Roxbury apartment building.
Many called his death a suicide without offering any real evidence
other than conjecture. One thing was clear. Trotter died with little
money, and worse, unappreciated by those he had faithlessly served
and unrecognized by the new generation of black immigrants to Boston.