Abstract

This article argues that during the first two decades of the twentieth century, William Monroe Trotter’s Boston Guardian challenged “post-truth” politics at the heart of America’s exploitative racial project both at home and abroad. Trotter’s reinvigorated Black radical press exposed a fundamental lie at the heart of American racialization: that lynching, segregation, and violent white domination were natural features of United States exceptionalism, and that “the colored people themselves” (both at home and abroad) were responsible for their own subjugation. Through the Guardian’s campaign against racial disinformation espoused in mainstream Black newspapers, Trotter influenced the New Negro radicalism of Cyril V. Briggs, Hubert Harrison, and the African Blood Brotherhood.

On August 21, 1902, newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter led a group of fellow Black Bostonians to the Massachusetts State House. The group, which included nearly two hundred “finely dressed colored people from across Boston and Cambridge,”1 was there to protest the recent arrest and pending extradition of a North Carolina field hand named Monroe Rogers. While local white newspapers like the Boston Globe insisted that Rogers’s case represented “yet one more example of the unfortunate consequences of the negro problem,” Trotter wrote in the Guardian that “the forces that brought Monroe Rogers to Massachusetts are the same forces that brought yesterday’s fugitive to Boston during the days of Douglass and Garrison—[the] economic exploitation and race proscription that made [the] country what it is.”2 In placing the Rogers case in the context of racial exploitation in an as-yet-unreconstructed South, Trotter situated the Guardian’s subsequent Rogers protest within a long Black radical tradition against “the global forces of racial capitalism.”3

The facts of Rogers’s case were simple, and they were clearly presented to Black readers in Trotter’s Guardian and in Boston’s other Black radical publication, the Colored American.4 Rogers fled Charlotte after a white landowner accused him of arson. Although Rogers maintained that he was innocent, that he merely confronted the white man for unpaid wages, the white landowner insisted that Rogers attacked him, burned down the barn, and then fled. In a state where two Black children, aged fourteen and seventeen, were recently lynched while in state custody on public vagrancy charges—and where, in 1898, white vigilantes staged a violent political coup against duly elected Black officials—North Carolina, as Trotter pointed out, “[could] not be expected to enforce any clause in the fourteenth amendment, which has been steadily weakened by our so-called white friends in Congress.”5 And so, when authorities discovered Rogers’s whereabouts, then filed papers for the Black man’s extradition on charges of arson and assault, Rogers’s family and friends turned to Trotter and the Guardian for help. Trotter, in turn, launched a national publicity campaign through the Guardian. In weekly editorials, interviews, and updates of a publicly supported “Rogers Defense Fund,” the Guardian campaign demanded that Massachusetts’s Republican governor and attorney general grant Rogers asylum on the grounds that the Black man’s right to equal protection could not be guaranteed in North Carolina. This was the reason that two hundred “finely dressed colored people” gathered at the State House on August 21. Galvanized by weeks of Guardian coverage and fundraising for Rogers’s defense, they awaited news from the governor’s meeting with Trotter and Rogers’s attorneys. It was the first time that a northern sitting governor met with a group of Black citizens who demanded, publicly and unapologetically, white political accountability for state-sanctioned anti-Black violence.6

The Guardian’s publicity of Monroe Rogers’s case, and the reaction by American newspapers, both Black and white, to Trotter’s insistence that the “colored press” become a vehicle for Black radical protest, illustrates how Black gatekeepers used the press to propagate the racial lie at the heart of American politics during the era that the scholar Rayford W. Logan called “the long nadir.”7 This was the lie that, as Booker T. Washington told the New York Times in 1900, “the only way to stop [white supremacy] is . . . to bring about such general education, not only in books, but in industry and thrift, as will make such acts as that which provoked the lynching fever abhorrent, and then to educate public sentiment up to the point where the people in all parts of the country will see that we can only have the highest civilization if the law is enforced regardless of race or color.”8

At the time that William Monroe Trotter launched the Guardian’s Monroe Rogers protest, American newspapers spread the notion that a lack of Black “education, industry and thrift,” not federal neglect of civil rights and white supremacist violence, created the so-called Negro problem of disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching. As Ida B. Wells put it in Southern Horrors (1892), the national press, both Black and white, was riddled with “unreliable and doctored reports” of southern racial violence. Thus, in order to end lynching, and challenge the segregation, economic marginalization, and disfranchisement that produced it, the public had to learn the depths of anti-Black violence that was so often ignored by the mainstream white press. As Wells concluded, such exposure was the duty of the Black press, since the “Afro-American papers [were] the only ones to print the truth.”9

Although Wells’s challenge to the Black press during the 1890s launched an international anti-lynching movement, chronicled by Paula Giddings, Mia Bay, and other scholars,10 by the time Trotter used the Guardian to galvanize radical Black protest against Monroe Rogers’s extradition, American newspapers were committed to either downplaying the realities of violent white supremacy—as the Boston Globe did when it accused Trotter of “stretching things to the extreme”11—or ignoring the consequences of federal neglect of civil rights. Additionally, most local newspapers, like Wilmington’s Semi-Weekly Standard, insisted that “lynching was rare,” that North Carolina governor Aycock was “a friend of the negro,” and that the Massachusetts governor “pretended a concern” for a “southern way of justice” that his Yankee sensibilities were too naive to understand.12 This national narrative that cast white racial violence as an anomaly, and Black people as objects of uplift rather than citizens denied their rights, allowed Booker T. Washington to play an outsized role in Rogers’s fate. When North Carolina’s governor contacted Washington personally to ask how he should handle the Rogers case, the Tuskegee president advised that he not “give in” to “the unreasonable demands of colored Boston’s tiny but vocal minority.”13 In response, Aycock sent an additional officer to Boston, where a bailiff who was supposed to transport Rogers back to Brockton accepted a bribe to put the Black man on a Charlotte-bound train instead.

Washington’s role in denying Black Bostonians’ demands for justice while upholding lies propagated by the white press anticipates our current era of “post-truth” politics through which Black revolution is sacrificed for the interests of Black power brokers indebted to white supremacist money and legitimation. In our current political moment, mainstream media outlets continue to heed the advice of Black conservatives during on-air debates over police reform—as CNN did most recently by having Van Jones (who is neither a historian, activist, nor elected official) moderate a supposedly unbiased discussion of the Trump administration’s proposed criminal justice reforms.14 Similarly, during William Monroe Trotter’s time, Black accommodationists like Washington dominated the popular narrative of the so-called Negro problem despite the fact that Tuskegee’s preservation, not radical dismantling of state-sanctioned anti-Black racial violence, had always been Washington’s focus. As Trotter told his readers, after hearing that Monroe Rogers was immediately found guilty and sentenced to solitary confinement, “The colored people of Massachusetts here have example of what a man will do when he is ambitious for power alone.” Washington urged Governor Aycock to pursue Rogers, Trotter concluded, because allowing mass Black protest to successfully challenge anti-Black state and federal policy threatened the very foundation of American racial conservatism from which the Tuskegee principal drew his power. This foundation was the belief that token Black achievement like Washington’s compensated for the massive anti-Black racial violence, disfranchisement, segregation, and economic marginalization wrought by American social, economic, and racial policy since Reconstruction’s collapse. “The Negro’s interest,” Trotter concluded—that is, the interest of the Black masses—“[was] sacrificed for Tuskegee.”15

Despite Washington’s intervention, and the fact that justice was never awarded to Monroe Rogers, the Guardian’s ability to rally Black, mostly working-class communities against southern racial injustice and northern racial apathy was the first step toward reconstituting the Black press as a tool to mobilize the masses toward radical liberation. Over the next two decades, even as the paper itself declined in quality, Trotter used the Boston Guardian to transform what had become a conservative Black press into a vehicle for radical transnational Black community protest that anticipated the New Negro politics of the 1920s. In so doing, Trotter challenged American newspaper culture, which propagated white supremacist anti-Blackness during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Agitate! Agitate! Agitate! The Guardian vs. the Tuskegee Machine

When William Monroe Trotter started the Guardian in 1901, the Black press, in the words of the scholar Todd Vogel, had been “redefin[ing] class, restag[ing] race and nationhood, and reset[ting] the terms of public conversation” since 1827.16 Back then, New York’s John Brown Russwurm and Samuel B. Cornish vowed to “plead [their] own cause” in what the scholar Britt Rusert describes as “a growing culture industry of anti-black imagery [that] both fed off of racial science’s anti-black theories and further amplified those claims.”17 Unlike white antislavery texts, which argued for Black humanity under a white gaze,18Freedom’s Journal sought “a medium of intercourse between [Black] brethren in the different states of this great confederacy.”19 By the end of the Civil War, African Americans produced over a dozen newspapers, mostly short-lived and in the North, that cultivated a radical Black consciousness rooted in the idea that, as Trotter later put it, “the spirit of protest, of independence, of revolt” undergirded all demands for racial justice.20

By the time Booker T. Washington gave his famous “separate as the fingers” speech at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in 1895, however, the Black press had become a tool for Republican Party partisanship and conservative racial accommodation. The decline of the radical Black press was due, in part, to the changing marketplace for Black cultural production, as well as to the rise of disfranchisement, lynching, and segregation that muted Black leaders’ public demands for civil rights.21 Additionally, by 1900, with rising Black literacy rates and the expansion of a national Black middle and leadership class, “the colored press” expanded to more than two hundred weekly and monthly newspapers, magazines, and periodicals that attracted readers from the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. But the cost of production, combined with competition from an increasingly sensationalistic and cheap “yellow journalism” modeled after Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, meant that most “colored weeklies” succumbed to the tabloid style “post-truth” journalism so popular at the time. For instance, when T. Thomas Fortune, the most respected Black editor of the 1880s and 1890s, founded the New York Freeman in 1883, he transformed what was originally known as the New York Rumor—a four-page weekly with headlines like “Negro Woman Gives Birth to White Baby” and “Negro Men—A Dying Race?”22—into the most intelligent Black political newspaper of the time. While Fortune criticized his fellow Black editors—who he accused of “blindly following a Republican Party that has forsaken you”23—he also used the Age (the new name for the Freeman) to foment a radical Black political independence movement. This political independence, as the scholar Millington Lockwood shows, argued for “race over party” as a way to empower northern Black voters against capitalist exploitation and the rising tide of Jim Crow.24

Although the Age was eventually co-opted by Booker T. Washington, which made Fortune into one of the Guardian’s favorite objects of ridicule,25 the Age’s gift for using weekly Black publications to foment working-class Black activism had a significant impact on Monroe Trotter’s own editorial work. Monroe Trotter grew up reading Fortune’s editorials. And his father, a veteran lieutenant of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts Regiment, was a self-professed negrowump—the term coined by Fortune during the 1880s to describe “Independent colored men unwilling to sell themselves or their race for a mess of pottage.”26 Trotter Sr. was a frequent contributor to Fortune’s Age, and he owed his federal appointment in Grover Cleveland’s administration to his leadership of Black political independents during the 1880s. Although Fortune’s early political independence—as well as the activist bent of Harry C. Smith’s Cleveland Gazette, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s Woman’s Era, and Ferdinand Barnett’s Chicago Conservator—influenced the Guardian’s promise to put “race before partisanship,” by 1902, the majority of “colored weeklies” urged Black allegiance to the Republican Party and blind loyalty to Booker T. Washington’s racial accommodation. As Trotter later pointed out, the “timidity of the colored press” in the face of constant racial violence, disfranchisement, and segregation meant that in order to wage battle against the forces of “economic and race proscription,” Black editors needed to sever all ties to the Republican Party, refuse affiliation with the Black church (Baptist, Presbyterian, and African Methodist Episcopal), and resist subsidization by Booker T. Washington’s so-called Tuskegee Machine.27

The fact that Monroe Rogers’s case was ignored by southern Black newspapers that received financial support from Tuskegee, and that those papers that acknowledged the case, like Charlotte’s Colored American, emphasized the restraint of white governors rather than the militant potential of Black community resistance, indicates that Monroe Trotter was not speaking hyperbolically when he said that Black people were being “duped into their own re-enslavement” by a press “controlled and financed by and for the Wizard of Tuskegee.” While some scholars, like Washington’s most recent biographer, Robert J. Norrell, call for a reappraisal of Washington’s “politics of accommodation”—Norrell, for instance, concedes that Washington played a role in the conservative takeover of Pauline Hopkins’s Colored American but stops short of indicting Washington for the real-life consequences of his ties to white politicians like Governor Aycock28—Trotter’s Guardian was not as forgiving. “A weekly is valued only for what it stands for and what it does, not for what it intends,” he stated, soon after he was released from prison for his involvement in the so-called 1903 Boston Riot. “Any Benedict Arnold of the colored race who stands on the side of southern tyranny and Republican Party negligence is as dangerous to our prosperity, and the prosperity of our brethren across the globe, as [Henry W.] Grady and [Secretary of State Elihu] Root. Do not be fooled by those in sheep’s clothing, colored people,” he concluded, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”29

Thus, when William Monroe Trotter used the populist energy unleashed by the Monroe Rogers protest to transform the Guardian into “the greatest race paper, dedicated to justice for the colored people, around the world,” he reclaimed the activism of the antebellum Black press to define turn-of-the-century Black newspapers as a medium to “hold a mirror up to nature.” This mirror, Trotter believed, would expose and radically defy white supremacy in all its forms.

Of course, neither early twentieth-century Boston, nor William Monroe Trotter, are recognized for their seminal place in transnational Black radicalism. While scholars like Minkah Makalani and Keisha Blain have located Black radical political consciousness among Caribbean migrants and working-class Black women in Harlem, respectively,30 Boston is frequently overlooked due to its small Black population (less than 4 percent in 1910), and its reputation for liberal reform rather than radical revolution.31 When William Monroe Trotter started the Guardian in 1901, however, African-descended people in Boston and its surrounding cities were uniquely prepared for the transnational Black radicalism that Trotter and the Guardian espoused. Specifically, a long history of political independence, and community ties, both economically and personally, to Black communities across the diaspora, meant that greater Boston’s Black community supported a transnational politics that became foundational for New Negro radicalism in the aftermath of World War I.

In 1900, when Trotter first considered creating a weekly that would “stand against the white lies propagated by the Globe, the Herald, and the Times,” greater Boston’s Black community was known for its political independence and its ethnic diversity, two factors that the scholar Winston James posited as “key ingredients” in the radicalism that Caribbean migrants brought to native born Black communities in early twentieth century Harlem.32 Because property-holding Black men had been voting in Massachusetts since the 1780s, most Black communities, both across greater Boston and throughout the state, were wedded less to party and more to Fortune’s idea that Black northerners must stop “habitually overlook[ing] their own interests in conserving the interests of white politics.”33 This political independence was so strong that, by 1905, when the Guardian urged Black northerners to vote “only for those people and platforms who contend for the colored people all of the rights and liberties that the Constitution is bound to respect,” Boston was known as the origin of the New England example. This example, first noted by the Boston Evening Transcript,34 provided a model for northern Black communities to use their power as swing voters to steer local elections against Republican stalwarts who either remained silent or openly supported southern disfranchisement and Roosevelt’s so-called lily-white strategy.35

Because Black Bostonians were less tied to the Republican Party, they were often more willing than their counterparts in other cities to engage with transnational, radical political discourse, including communism, socialism, and Black nationalism. As early as 1888, for instance, Boston’s Colored Democratic Club made Henry George and Karl Marx essential reading for members,36 while the Racial Protective Association, which helped organize the Monroe Rogers protest, published articles on peasant revolts in Jamaica and South Africa to show Guardian readers that “the cause of Rogers is the cause of colored people the world over.”37

Black Boston’s political independence combined with the community’s ethnic diversity to create a radical consciousness that saw the press as a vehicle for revolution and American racial injustice as part of a Western system of “exploitation wrought by color proscription.”38 Since the first Federal Census in 1790, Black Boston, like Black New England generally, included a significant minority (10 percent) who were foreign born. This percentage remained constant at each state census through the twentieth century, and by 1910, foreign-born “colored” people—mostly from the British Caribbean, Cape Verde, or South America—were nearly 20 percent of Black communities in Cambridge and New Bedford and in Providence, Rhode Island.39 As the scholar Marilyn Halter has shown, migrants of the African diaspora often possessed a racial and political consciousness that differed from their African American counterparts,40 including, as Makalani has shown, their recognition of racial capitalism as a system endemic across the global South.41 Trotter published these migrants’ transnational politics in the Guardian, including weekly correspondence from the Panama Canal, Barbados, St. Kitts, and the Bahamas.42 By 1910, the Guardian was such a staple among Cape Verdeans on Cape Cod and in Providence that Black Catholics started a fundraiser to translate the newspaper into Portuguese.43

Such strong ties between Black greater Boston and the early twentieth-century African diaspora made the Guardian a weekly whose global appeal attracted and influenced a variety of radical activists. Marcus Garvey acknowledged this appeal when he gushed over the expansion of his Universal Negro Improvement Association across New England in 1919. As Boston’s UNIA surgeon general, Joseph D. Gibson, reported, Trotter’s use of the Guardian to foment Black led, mass action—most recently during nationwide protests against D. W. Griffiths’s racist film Birth of a Nation in 1915—meant that Bostonians did not present “as many discriminations as in some other places. Since we have organized the U.N.I.A. there,” Gibson concluded, “we have got a zealous field of workers who have the spirit of determination to go back to our country knowing that we are living in an alien country.”44

The Guardian’s combination of political independence, mass Black political mobilization, and deep connection to transnational Black racial and political consciousness meant that, by the dawn of World War I, Trotter’s radicalism influenced a new generation of Black editors who were unwilling to abide by the racial propaganda of the mainstream press. Just as Trotter used the Guardian to reclaim the radicalism of antebellum Black newspapers for a twentieth-century challenge to white supremacy and Black accommodation, Hubert Harrison and Cyril V. Briggs, Caribbean radicals based in Harlem, collaborated with Trotter to reimagine Guardian-style mass protest as a transnational movement against “White world supremacy” determined and controlled by “the colored people themselves.”

Trotter’s connection to Hubert Harrison began in 1910, when Trotter supported Harrison’s article criticizing Washington and racial conservatism in the New York Sun. Born in St. Croix, Harrison was a committed radical who lectured about socialism, “race pride,” and proletarian revolution in his adopted city of Harlem. When the New York Sun reprinted statements that Booker T. Washington made to the London Morning Post about the “state of our current negro problem,” Harrison offered a sharp rebuttal to Washington’s rhetoric about thrift, patience, and the “general good will” of white Americans. In response, Harrison criticized what he saw as Washington’s willingness to “cower and shuffle before [his] white masters.”45 Segregation, lynching, and disfranchisement actually increased under Washington’s leadership, Harrison pointed out, and Washington, as Trotter stated in 1902, “puts himself and Tuskegee before the good of his people.”46 Although Harrison’s criticism led to his dismissal from his civil service job and further ostracism by more moderate Black writers at the New York Age, Harrison found support from Trotter and the Guardian. Trotter published Harrison’s speeches on the newspaper’s front page and invited Harrison to speak before his National Equal Rights League in Harlem. As a result, Harrison touted Trotter as the “only true race man” of the “so-called negro leaders.”47

In addition to Harrison, the Guardian’s radicalism also caught the attention of Cyril V. Briggs. Briggs was a Nevis-born reporter for the New York Amsterdam News who, like Trotter and Harrison, was frustrated by the racial conservatism of his fellow reporters. Specifically, Briggs lamented that few Black journalists acknowledged the “capitalistic motives” of the United States and its European allies in the Great War. When a Military Intelligence Bureau report ordered censorship of Briggs’s alleged “communistic threats,” nobody in the all-Black Amsterdam News stood by Briggs’s contention that the Great War was fought “for the interests of capitalists against worldwide colored liberation.” And as calls to silence Briggs and other alleged “dissidents” spread through the American Negro Press Association, only the Guardian offered to publish Briggs’s editorials and condemn press censorship. In fact, Trotter praised Briggs for describing what he also saw as “a selfish motive [in the war] by [America’s] segregationist president and his allies abroad.”48

As Briggs later stated, Trotter’s willingness to publish and support elements of communism, socialism, and traditional Marxism in the Guardian indicated that he was “not afraid to socialize with Reds” in the interests of racial justice. To Briggs and other Caribbean radicals, then, Trotter truly was “the stormy petrel of the times, one of the most militant, dynamic, and popular (with the man in the street) leaders of his day. He was utterly selfless in his dedication to the fight for Negro freedom.”49 It was this selflessness that led Trotter to support Black radical publications by Briggs and Harrison even as his own publication, the Guardian, declined in quality and circulation.

The Guardian’s Decline and the Rise of the 1920s New Negro Press

Although the Guardian maintained relatively decent circulation numbers during its first decade of publication—it consistently reported weekly sales of two thousand or more between 1902 and 191150—additional shifts in Black newspaper culture during the 1910s exposed the Guardian’s weaknesses. Between 1900 and 1910, before the Chicago Defender redefined the meaning of Black newspaper success, most “colored weeklies” averaged a circulation between one thousand and three thousand papers a week. The most popular newspapers—the Colored American in Washington, DC, the New York Age, and the Richmond Planet—averaged no more than four thousand sales per week, even as monthly magazines like Voice of the Negro sold close to five thousand papers a month. Unlike better-selling newspapers and magazines, however, the Guardian survived because of the outsized role that it played in galvanizing radical Black protest that more moderate newspapers warned their readers against. Much like the Monroe Rogers protest in 1902, which raised money for Rogers’s lawyers and urged readers to support Rogers’s defense through public displays outside the State House, dramatic demonstrations by “the colored masses” were a hallmark of the Guardian. These demonstrations included nationwide protests in 1906 against the Roosevelt administration’s dismissal of Black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas; in 1915 against D. W. Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation; and in 1916 on behalf of a Black woman, Jane Bosfield, who was denied a job at a Massachusetts State Hospital because of her race.51

And yet, while Trotter’s use of the Guardian to foment Black-led protest against white supremacist violence made the newspaper a powerful tool for populist political mobilization, the paper lost money over time as Trotter refused advertisements from skin-bleaching and hair-straightening companies and rejected copy from any source he deemed “a Benedict Arnold of the colored race.” With the loss of lucrative advertising revenue, which was only made worse by Trotter’s rapidly dwindling life savings used to fund the enterprise, the Guardian was often plagued by misspellings, grainy photographs, and an unappealing layout. In contrast, newspapers like the Chicago Defender used whatever ad revenue they could to produce aesthetically pleasing dailies that showcased short fiction, poetry, and photographic spreads as well as political editorials.

Still, even as Black people across the country subscribed to longer and more comprehensive publications, the Guardian made up in political impact what it never earned in revenue. This was because, as W. E. B. Du Bois stated, “The Guardian was bitter, satirical, and personal; but it was well-edited, it was earnest, and it published facts.” And because it inspired Black working people to challenge white supremacy and anti-Black terror on their own radical terms, “[the Guardian] attracted wide attention among colored people; it circulated among them all over the country; it was quoted and discussed.”52

Although the Guardian was never a money-making venture, and despite the fact that, by World War I, popular and less political “colored dailies” sold better, the paper’s value as a tool for Black populist protest inspired a new generation of radical “colored weeklies.” The Crusader, published by Cyril V. Briggs, and the Voice, published by Hubert Harrison, transformed the Guardian’s radical challenge into a Black-led rebellion against calls by Black moderates and white progressives to “close ranks” around the Wilson administration during World War I.53

The catalyst for Harrison’s and Briggs’s ventures into radical newspaper publications modeled after the Guardian was the brutal lynching of Ell Persons in Memphis on May 22, 1917. Although spectacle lynching increased during 1916 and 1917—including a particularly brutal attack on a mentally disabled man named Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas—the sadistic nature of Memphis’s white mob was shocking even to seasoned radicals like Trotter. Persons was accused of murdering a sixteen-year-old white girl, violently forced to confess, then stolen from jail by a mob of nearly five thousand white people; the mob then watched as he was burned alive. Although Persons’s brutal murder was planned and publicized by local white vendors, who sold postcards of the massacre across Tennessee, neither Memphis authorities nor Tennessee’s attorney general investigated the killing. And although the press did not ignore the event, as it had during Monroe Rogers’s ordeal fifteen years before, the sensationalistic headlines and vows by the mostly white NAACP to investigate were more performative than substantive. Despite the fact that Black Memphis was taunted by white neighbors, who threw Persons’s severed head into the “negro section” of the city, no national news source followed the Guardian’s lead by linking the tragedy to federal neglect of civil rights.54 Within days of the killing, as Du Bois’s Crisis denounced white Memphis while ignoring the federal government’s decades-long failure to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, the Guardian editorial denounced Persons’s lynching and urged “colored people around the globe” to demand “federal enforcement of anti-lynching legislation” through Black mass protests across the country.55

Trotter and Harrison organized these mass protests by using the Guardian to coordinate Black community demonstrations scheduled for the week of June 10, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York City, Boston, and Providence. At the first demonstration in New York City on June 12, Harrison led hundreds of Black people in calls for federal anti-lynching legislation, then introduced the crowd to a rising star in Caribbean radicalism, the Jamaican lecturer and newspaper editor Marcus Garvey. Harrison then boarded a midnight train to Boston, where he spoke again at Trotter’s Faneuil Hall rally the next day. By June 17, similar demonstrations spread to Providence, New Haven, Cleveland, and Chicago, and even though neither Trotter nor Harrison could attend them all, the thousands of Black people who heeded the Guardian’s call to “gather as far and as wide as we are able to demand what the colored people deserve” cheered as Harrison, Trotter, and their supporters denounced “mob justice” and called for “a liberty congress for the colored masses.”56

To formalize their collaboration, Trotter and Harrison launched a national Liberty League in Harlem on July 4, 1917, where Harrison unveiled the inaugural issue of his Guardian-inspired newspaper, the Voice. Over the next three years the Voice became the official publication of the Liberty League, while the Guardian exploited Trotter’s national notoriety to attract readers to the cause. The Voice, which scholars have acknowledged as a “main publication of the radical New Negro movement,”57 was a direct descendant of the Guardian’s transnational, radical Black journalism. The two publications coordinated Harrison’s and Trotter’s editorials to reach multiple Black audiences at the same time, a saturation of the radical Black reading public that galvanized mass mobilization around Trotter’s proposed anti-lynching bill. As Harrison told readers in the Voice’s inaugural issue, and also printed on the Guardian’s first page, “Since lynching [is] murder and a violation of Federal and State laws, it [is] incumbent upon the Negroes themselves to maintain the majesty of the law and own the lawbreakers by organizing all over the South to defend their own lives whenever their right to live [is] invaded by mobs which the local authorities [are] too weak or unwilling to suppress.”58

Yet, rather than compete with one another for sales, the Voice and the Guardian collaborated to spread the radical principles of their National Liberty League, principles that included armed Black self-defense, Black-led community protest, and lobbying Congress for Federal anti-lynching legislation.59 Although many scholars of Black politics during World War I ignore the significance of the Liberty League, concentrating instead on the NAACP, Red Summer, and the 1919 Pan-African Conference,60 the League’s importance in cultivating Black radical consciousness through the Voice and the Guardian cannot be overstated. By 1918, the League had thousands of Black, mostly working-class members who represented autonomous community organizations of their own, including the Jamaican League of Harlem, the West Indian Society of Boston, and Trotter’s National Equal Rights League. Most importantly, because the League was founded on the radical Black populism cultivated by the Voice and the Guardian, it had enough popular support to hold a national Congress in Washington, DC, during congressional debate over the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill. Sponsored by Missouri Republican Leonidas Dyer, the bill eventually gained the support of the NAACP, but not until after the Liberty League lobbied Dyer and Massachusetts congressman Frederick Dallinger (a longtime Trotter associate) to draft legislation that allowed the federal government to investigate and prosecute white mob violence in the absence of state and local enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As the Voice told readers in advertisements for the League’s DC Congress in 1918, the entire purpose of the radical press was to “present to the U.S. Congress and the National Government the claim of Colored Americans to share in the World Democracy, and to seek guarantees of abolition of civil and political disabilities.” These claims were not merely to American citizenship, denied since Reconstruction’s collapse, but to the principles of “world democracy” championed by the United States in Europe. As the Liberty League announcement repeated in the Guardian and radical Black newspapers across the country, “Lest we forget, Colored Americans are the only race-group in any country fighting Germany who are now proscribed. They are the only race-group which has not made united and formal demand for full rights. Ask and it shall be given unto you, said the Scriptures.”61

Unlike the NAACP, which allied itself with the War Department, the Liberty League was the only Black-led, national organization to meet during World War I, and the only one to raise money to send Trotter to Versailles to present the “demands of the colored people” before the world. Although Trotter made the trip surreptitiously after the War Department denied passports to all African Americans except W. E. B. Du Bois and Tuskegee president Robert R. Moton, his was the only trip supported entirely by donations from Black communities themselves; likewise, his demand for “colored world democracy” was the only appeal that demanded immediate self-government and economic self-determination across Africa, Asia, and the global South.

While the Voice, like the Guardian, mobilized Black radical protest through the Liberty League, Cyril V. Briggs’s Crusader reimagined the Guardian’s radicalism as a movement to dismantle European colonialism and capitalist exploitation worldwide through armed Black resistance and transnational Black militancy. Although Briggs did not attend the Liberty League Congress in 1918, he was so convinced that Trotter alone represented the essence of what he called the “New Negro revolution” that he put the editor’s portrait on the new magazine’s cover.62 Like the Guardian, the Crusader vowed to “hold a mirror up” to a world “that is what it is for the colored people, not what it should be.”63 Although much like the Guardian nearly twenty years before—the Crusader, for instance, aimed for “a new solution” as the New Negro “[began] to recognize that the salvation of his race and an honor able solution of the American Race Problem call for radical action”64—the Crusader went beyond the political mobilization of Trotter’s Equal Rights League. Instead, the Crusader became the official organ of Trotter’s and Briggs’s militant African Blood Brotherhood (ABB).

Briggs created the ABB in September 1919, while Trotter was in Harlem as part of a national tour celebrating his trip to Paris. Trotter’s popularity among the “colored masses” meant that he could attract working people to Briggs’s proposed African Blood Brotherhood, a self-proclaimed “secret, protective organization of the race” dedicated to the “immediate protection and ultimate liberation of Negroes everywhere.” In addition to Trotter and Briggs, the Brotherhood was a collection of Marxists, Socialists, and radical integrationists united by a nascent Afrocentrism. Like members Arturo Schomburg, Wilfred A. Domingo, and Richard B. Moore, ABB members were mostly Caribbean born, although those who were not, like Omaha newspaper editor and longtime Trotter supporter George Wells Parker, adhered to the Black nationalist belief that people of African descent had a long, proud, and documentable past that informed all aspects of world history. Between its founding in 1919 and its dissolution in 1925, the ABB argued for armed, Black self-defense, both in the United States and across what Trotter referred to as “the colored world.” Much like the argument for Black political independence that the Guardian first espoused in 1902, however, the ABB argued that “the colored people of the world” should not align themselves with a particular party. Rather, as the Crusader stated in its invitation to readers, members of the Brotherhood must devote themselves to the “emancipation of the Negro race all over the world” through armed resistance and the eradication of “[Black] exploitation at the hands of capital.”65

Trotter and Briggs issued the ABB’s “Program and Aims” at Marcus Garvey’s UNIA Convention in August 1920. Along with Randolph’s Socialism and Otto Huiswood’s trade unionism—embodied in the demands for “Industrial Development” and “Higher Wages for Negro Labor, Shorter Hours, and Better Living Conditions”—the ABB platform reflected the Pan-Africanism of Schomburg (a pledge for “Cooperation with the other Darker Peoples and with the Class-Conscious White workers”), Trotter’s radical integrationism (described as both “A Liberated Race,” and “Absolute Race Equality—Political, Economic, Social”), and commitment to “A United Negro Front.” Most importantly for the “black masses,” the Brotherhood vowed “the fostering of Race Self-Respect” and “Organized and Uncompromising Opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.”66

Much like the Guardian’s Monroe Rogers protest in 1902 and the Liberty League’s presentation of the “demands of the colored people” at Versailles in 1919, the ABB’s legacy was not in its longevity or its size but in its cultivation of radical New Negro political consciousness across Black communities radicalized by World War I. While formal membership in the ABB never numbered more than a few thousand—“mostly in Harlem among West Indians,” as Briggs put it—the Brotherhood’s use of the Crusader and the Guardian to spread “an entirely new, radical orientation in the colored peoples’ thinking” was evident in Black Tulsa’s defense against the state-sponsored race massacre of 1921.

Neither Trotter nor Briggs were anywhere near Oklahoma in May 1921, when white Tulsans attacked the thriving Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” But the Guardian and the Crusader were popular in the city. Tulsa’s returning Black soldiers followed Trotter’s and Harrison’s Liberty League exploits in their local newspaper—the Tulsa Star publicized Trotter’s lectures across Kansas and Missouri during the summer of 1920—and by early 1921, Black Tulsans had their own branch of the African Blood Brotherhood, through which they read the Crusader and vowed to protect their community from white assault.67 When the violence started on May 31, the commander of Tulsa’s ABB post wrote directly to Briggs and described the event in detail, emphasizing the lies spread through the “capitalist press” about Black community aggression against white firemen. Unlike the thousands of Black mob violence victims before them, however, Tulsa’s “colored men and women” fought gallantly to the death. “Not even the militia reinforcements to our enemies proved able to drive out the Negro fighters until their bombing aeroplanes began circling above the Negro lines and dropping bombs upon them,” the ABB commander insisted. “These aeroplanes were the ones that dropped incendiary bombs upon the Negro section and started the fire that wiped it out. They are supposed to have been operated by the military.” Even after the racist violence ended and Black Wall Street was ruined, the Tulsa ABB remained defiant, insisting that those who died did so defending themselves, their community, and the “dignity of colored peoples across the world.” “Certainly the Negro heroes who fought to the death at Tulsa in defence of Negro honor and manhood and the helpless women and children behind the lines have gained Valhalla and have been recognized fit inmates for whatever Paradise exists on the other side,” the commander concluded. “As to the accusation that the Tulsa Post of the African Blood Brotherhood ‘fomented and directed the Tulsa riot,’ the first part is a lie, and whether we directed Negroes in their fight in self-defence is certainly no crime in Negro eyes, and is left for the white Oklahoma authorities. For ourselves, we neither deny it nor affirm it.”68

While white America saw in Tulsa an example of subversive political forces “inciting the negroes,” Trotter, Briggs, and ABB members saw a powerful declaration by “the colored people themselves” that the New Negro would not abide white supremacist violence without a fight. As President Harding withdrew federal troops from Tulsa, Trotter and Shaw submitted a petition to Massachusetts governor Gregory Cox demanding that President Harding send federal aid to the Tulsa victims. James Weldon Johnson also sent a letter on behalf of the NAACP, although his humble statement that “an utterance from [the president] at this time on the violence and reign of terror at Tulsa, Oklahoma, would have an inestimable effect” was far more conciliatory than Trotter’s statement that “citizens of Massachusetts look to you in giving aid to the afflicted, and they will stand behind you in any endeavor to punish the guilty and to make such inhuman and barbaric crimes forever impossible in this land of freedom and justice.”69

As the national press fanned the flames of white fear, blaming the “secret organization of angry Negroes” for attacking helpless white Tulsans in some act of “primitive revenge,” Briggs wrote a letter to the New York Times. In it, he denied the Brotherhood’s involvement and pointed to the true origins of the riot—white-supremacist hatred that targeted the successful all-Black business district in Greenwood. He also declared that the Brotherhood would not back down or retreat and that it would continue to have “negroes organized for self-defense against wanton attack.” The entire incident began after a white man tried to unarm a Black man legally carrying his own firearm. “Haven’t negroes the right to defend their lives and property when they are menaced,” Briggs concluded, “or is this an exclusive prerogative of the white man?”70

With white liberals arguing for investigation of “rabid Negro vigilantes,” and the Klan using the myth of ABB vigilantism to defend its right to exist, Trotter urged the Brotherhood to use Marcus Garvey’s upcoming UNIA Convention to transform the Brotherhood’s militant rhetoric into “A United Negro Front.” On June 19, he joined Briggs at St. Mark’s Lyceum in Harlem for a public meeting to emphasize the ABB’s commitment to “negro self-defense” and New Negro politics of all kinds. One ABB member presented documents “seized from Tulsa” that proved Klan complicity in the attack, then brought the crowd to its feet when he told them to “dispense” with white-led reform organizations like the NAACP. “Our aim is to allow those who attack us to choose the weapons. If it be guns, we will reply with guns. If the attack is made through the white press, the negro press will defend us.” In joining forces with radical New Negro organizations—those that were “not controlled by the whites”—the ABB called on “every negro tired of lynching, peonage, jim-crowism and disfranchisement to come out and hear our plan of action for removing these injustices which we suffer, with others, as workers. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have your liberation to achieve.”71

The Guardian’s Legacy and New Negro Radicalism

Much like the Monroe Rogers protest, which was significant because of the radicalizing effect it had on Black communities rather than the immediate effect it had on federal civil rights enforcement, the Liberty League and the African Blood Brotherhood were important for their political effect on radical New Negro political consciousness rather than for either organization’s institutional longevity. At the UNIA meeting in 1921, the ABB broke with Garvey over ideological conflict. Briggs and Trotter emphasized the revolutionary promise of “colored peoples’ liberation in the context of the recent Russian Revolution, while the Garveyite tendency, as Briggs stated, “to look at every white face as per se an enemy” alienated radical integrationists like Trotter, as well as “most class conscious negroes” who saw racial capitalism, not mere racial hatred, as the greatest force in “the race’s degradation.”72 The Liberty League, meanwhile, dissolved by 1919, when Harrison and Trotter split over the effectiveness of his clandestine trip to Versailles. By the time Trotter helped design the Negro Sanhedrin in 1925, the radical veterans of the ABB, the Liberty League, and Trotter’s own Equal Rights League were so disillusioned by the conservatism of Sanhedrin leaders—most notably, Howard University professor Kelly Miller—that Trotter refused to attend the organization’s inaugural convention. By 1928, when Trotter turned his attention to desegregation of the Boston City Hospital and local support for the Communist-affiliated League of Negro Freedom, Harrison had died prematurely of a heart attack, while Briggs was firmly entrenched in revolutionary Marxism. The most radical Black weeklies—the UNIA’s Negro World and A. Philip Randolph’s Messenger—were controlled and edited by a younger generation of activists, while the Guardian limped along as a shell of its former self. By 1929, for instance, much of the copy published in the former “greatest race paper in the world” were recycled articles from the Messenger, the Negro World, the Pittsburgh Courier, or the Daily Worker.

Yet, Trotter’s role in the radical Black press is evident in the Guardian’s lasting effects on what Black communities themselves expected from their newspapers. In 1902, Trotter had been one of the only Black editors to use his platform to galvanize Black community support for a Black man fleeing southern racial violence. By the 1920s, newspaper-led fundraisers for Black southerners against white racial violence were commonplace in the Crisis, Opportunity, and the Messenger. Indeed, use of the Black press to hold “colored leaders” accountable to Black communities was an accepted practice by the end of the 1920s. Just two decades before, when Trotter used the Guardian to expose the racial lie at the heart of Booker T. Washington’s conservative accommodation, he faced law suits, censorship, and ridicule. And although the politics and ethnic diversity of Black Boston made the Guardian a vehicle for transnational Black radicalism at a time when such distinctions were often ignored, by the 1930s, Black newspapers like the Communist-supported Liberator and organizations like the African American Press Association were global in racial outlook and receptive to the idea that the Black radical tradition motivated global liberation. More than any other Black editor of his time, William Monroe Trotter revolutionized the twentieth-century Black press by acknowledging its seminal place in countering the racial lies propagated by white, Western media around the world. As New York’s West Indian Benevolent Society stated at Trotter’s death in 1934, the Guardian “was the boldest publication against the white lies and propaganda spewed forth in every daily, every magazine, every newspaper in America. Those of us who lived during the trying days of the World War will never forget how Mr. Trotter continued the fight for equal justice at a time when others were willing to declare a moratorium under the guise of patriotism.”73

Notes

1.

“Negro Protest in Boston,” Boston Daily Globe, August 22, 1902, 5.

2.

“The Rogers Case,” Boston Guardian, August 4, 1902, 2.

4.

“Monroe Rogers,” Colored American 6, no. 1 (November 1902): 22.

5.

“Habeas Corpus,” Boston Guardian, August 11, 1902, 2.

6.

The Monroe Rogers case, and Trotter’s use of the Guardian to galvanize northern Black activism against the institutionalized white supremacy in which the case emerged, are chronicled in the third chapter of my biography of William Monroe Trotter. See Greenidge, Black Radical, 134.

8.

Booker T. Washington “An Interview in the New York Times, Boston, MA, November 22, 1900,” in Harlan, Booker T. Washington Papers Vol. 5: 1899–1900, 677–78.

11.

Boston Daily Globe, August 4, 1902, 10.

12.

The Semi-Weekly Messenger, August 15, 1902, 2.

13.

“The Monroe Rogers Case,” Boston Daily Globe, August 29, 1902.

15.

Boston Guardian, September 6, 1902, 5.

19.

Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827, 1.

20.

Boston Guardian, April 9, 1904, 4.

21.

Both Brown and Giddings, in their biographies of Pauline E. Hopkins and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, respectively, argue that the expansion of the Black middle class, particularly the rise of what Anna Julia Cooper called the “colored woman’s era,” expanded the market for literary and cultural production by Black activists and writers, particularly through a national Black press. Yet both women paid mightily for their consistent challenge to the racial status quo—Wells following her exposure of white attacks on her Memphis newspaper, and Hopkins after her magazine published literature and essays critical of southern conservative. See Brown, “Witness to the Truth; Giddings, Ida, 230–45.

22.

New York Rumor, August 10, 1881, 1, 3.

23.

New York Freeman, August 14, 1886, 2.

25.

As early as 1891, before he became Washington’s ghostwriter, Fortune begged Washington for $200, one of many debts accrued from the paper itself and from Fortune’s own struggles with alcoholism. See “T. Thomas Fortune to Booker T. Washington, New York, NY September 11, 1891,” in Harlan, Booker T. Washington Papers, 3:72.

26.

“Colored Independence,” The New York Age, January 15, 1885, 1. The term negrowump was a play on the term mugwump, which newspaper editors during the 1880s used to describe anti-corruption Republicans who voted for President Grover Cleveland in 1884. See Summers, Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.

27.

In 1902, for instance, only 22 of the 230 Black newspapers listed by the annual newspaper catalogue were independent. The rest were subsidized by either the Republican Party or a church. N. W. Ayer and Sons American Newspaper Annual 1902, 1412–14.

29.

Boston Guardian, January 3, 1904, 2.

30.

Although neither Makalani nor Blain mention Trotter or Boston in their analysis, my understanding of the Guardian as a vehicle for radical Black political mobilization owes much to Makalani’s notions of Harlem’s transnationalism during World War I and Blain’s analysis of the Black women radicals that Trotter’s misogyny purposely ignored. See Makalani, “Liberating Negroes Everywhere”; Blain, “Pan-Africanism and Anticolonial Politics.” 

31.

For example, historian Stephen Kantrowitz has referred to Black Boston’s nineteenth-century protest tradition as “fighting for freedom” rather than challenging the exploitative economic and colonial systems that characterized the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. See Kantrowitz, introduction to More Than Freedom .

33.

T. Thomas Fortune, “Negrowump” New York Freeman, August 14, 1886. Note that the New York Age changed its name frequently during the 1880s, from the New York Globe, to the Freeman, and finally to the Age. For more on the Age, see Alexander, T. Thomas Fortune.

34.

“Analysis of the Negro Vote in Boston,” Boston Evening Transcript, November 12, 1903.

36.

Cleveland Gazette, January 15, 1888, 3.

37.

Boston Guardian, September 13, 1902, 2.

38.

Boston Guardian, September 26, 1909, 2.

42.

Boston Guardian, February 20, 1907.

43.

Boston Guardian, August 13, 1910, 4.

44.

“Report of Boston Meeting Boston MA May 1, 1920,” in Hill, Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 2: 321–25.

45.

Hubert Harrison, “Insistence upon Its Real Grievances the Only Course of the Race,” New York Sun, December 8, 1910; Perry, A Hubert Harrison Reader.

46.

Boston Guardian, August 3, 1902, 1.

47.

Boston Guardian, September 3, 1918, 1.

48.

Boston Guardian, September 10, 1918, 2.

49.

“Cyril V. Briggs, interview by Theodore Draper, March–June 1958,” Theodore Draper Papers, box 21, folder 19, Emory University Library.

53.

W. E. B. Du Bois, “Close Ranks,” Crisis 16, no. 3 (July 1918): 111.

54.

“The Lynching At Memphis,” Crisis 14, no. 4 (August 1917): 185–88.

55.

Boston Guardian, May 27, 1917, 2.

56.

Boston Guardian, June 20, 1917, 1–2.

58.

“The Liberty League of Negro Americans: How It Came to Be,” Voice, July 4, 1917; Perry, A Hubert Harrison Reader, 86–88.

59.

Voice, July 11, 1917, 2.

60.

Megan Ming Francis and Chad Williams, for instance, provide brilliant analysis of Black organization and military mobilization during World War I and its aftermath. Yet the Liberty League is barely mentioned. See Francis, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, 172; Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, 277–78.

61.

Boston Guardian, June 6, 1918, 1.

62.

Crusader 2, no. 1 (September 1919): 2.

63.

Crusader 1, no. 2 (August 1918): 1.

64.

Cyril V. Briggs, “The American Race Problem,” Crusader 1, no. 1 (September 1918): 2.

65.

“Summary of the Program and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood (Formulated by 1920 Convention),” Documents from the Comintern Archives on African Americans, 1919–1929, New York Public Library, 1993.

66.

“Summary of the Program and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood (Formulated by 1920 Convention).” The summary was written in May 1920, although there is no record of the formal ABB meeting that Briggs said took place in “early Spring” to produce the summary.

67.

“Trotter Talks on Peace Conference,” Tulsa Star, July 10, 1920.

68.

Crusader 4, no. 5 (July 1921): 5–6.

69.

“Military Control Is Ended at Tulsa,” New York Times, June 4, 1921.

70.

“Denies Negroes Started Tulsa Riot,” New York Times, June 6, 1921.

71.

“Urges Race Retaliation,” New York Times, June 20, 1921.

72.

Cyril Briggs, “The Negro Convention,” Toiler 4, no. 190 (October 1, 1921): 13–14.

73.

“A Negro Leader Dies,” Blackman 1, no. 5 (May–June 1934): 2–4.

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