Black Radical History Research at LMEC

ArticleAn Interview with Dr. Kerri Greenidge

Michelle LeBlanc
February 23, 2021
1542 words

I recently interviewed Dr. Kerri Greenidge, author of Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter, about how she used the collections of the Leventhal Map & Education Center to ask questions about race and space in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Boston.

Dr. Greenidge’s book is available at the library and for purchase at your local bookstore.

Dr. Greenidge’s book is available at the library and for purchase at your local bookstore.

William Monroe Trotter, an activist for racial justice, was born in 1872 and raised in Hyde Park. A graduate of Harvard University, Trotter founded the Boston Guardian, an independent newspaper established to promote equal rights for Black people, and used his platform to speak out against racial segregation and calling for equal voting rights. In 1905 he joined forces with W.E.B. Du Bois and other Black activists to found the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the modern NAACP.

Dr. Greenidge, Mellon Assistant Professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University, used historical maps to better understand how Trotter inhabited and engaged with his world. Her book is a rich study of the life and work of Trotter, an often-divisive figure, who had a profound effect on the foundations of modern-day civil rights movements.

The text of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

ML: How did using the Leventhal Map & Education Center collections help you better understand the world of William Monroe Trotter?

Bird’s Eye View of Hyde Park from 1890. Check out the map and zoom in here.

Bird’s Eye View of Hyde Park from 1890. Check out the map and zoom in here.

KG: When I was working on the book, it was really important for me to get a feel for the space that historical actors walked in and how they navigated their cities. In particular, what did Hyde Park, MA look like in 1872 when Trotter was a child and how did it change by the time he went to Harvard in 1895? I tried to figure out where people were and dissect what the neighborhoods looked like since Trotter was particularly into grassroots community organizing.

ML: What kinds of maps did you use to do this research?

KG: The Sanborn Fire Maps of Boston were a godsend to see how the neighborhood looked and how it changed. I used census records to correlate with the maps to figure out where a particular constituency was located that Trotter is talking about. Hyde Park doesn’t really become a town until 1868 and then in many maps it’s just listed as Norfolk County (Hyde Park was annexed by the City of Boston in 1912 and became part of Suffolk County). Part of my research in the map collection was looking at as many maps as I could find of Norfolk county and Hyde Park. Hyde Park changed really drastically in a ten year period [1870s and 1880s] and that is when the Trotters were living there.

James Trotter [W.M. Trotter’s father] also rode the tide of [a] real estate boom after the Civil War, buying property that can be found on the maps throughout Boston, Dorchester and Hyde Park.

ML: What other kinds of documents did you use in tandem with the maps aside from census records?

KG: I focused a lot on voting returns since I wanted to concentrate on Black politics and mobilization. You can find them in newspaper articles and magazines as well as election reports of the early twentieth century. For example, Trotter claimed that John F. Fitzgerald (grandfather of President John F. Kennedy and mayor of Boston 1906–1908 and 1910–1914) got the Black vote as a Democrat in the 1905 election which was unheard of at the time. I had to go back and figure out if that was true. Fitzgerald won an overwhelming majority in a Black district and I spent a lot of time looking at voting returns and correlating them with maps and then correlating that with census data.

ML: What is one question you were asking about the relationship of race and space as you were doing your research?

KG: My approach, particularly looking at Boston and New England at that time, was to go into the sources without the assumption that Black people would live where I thought they would live or even that an entire block was all African American people. Statistically, up until the 1920s that wasn’t true. You might have four houses on a street in Boston’s South End neighborhood that are all occupied by African Americans and yet the four houses next to them are all occupied by Jewish immigrants. I broke this down with census records to uncover what looks like a Black community is not entirely Black people.

Also, I used maps to break down where people came from. Another thing I found out, by correlating with the census records and mapping, was the extent to which Caribbean migrants, who had been coming to Boston for a long time, were living around where Trotter lived. It led me to deduce that the ways that he was talking about politics in Barbados or Jamaica was because his neighbor had literally just come from Jamaica and had been a politician there.

Trotter moved to the South End of Boston when it was a center of the Black community. The Jewish Reform Society was right next to where he lived. He had a column in his newspaper (the Boston Guardian) that talked about the pogroms against Jewish people in Europe. How was he getting such a vivid portrayal? It might have been, and this is all speculation, but he was very connected into this community of Jewish immigrants who lived next door to him. Many of those people had just come from Eastern Europe where these atrocities were taking place.

Above, the Trotter family home is visible here under the name of W.M. Trotter’s partner, activist Geraldine Pindell Trotter.

ML: here are multiple buildings and institutions that bear Trotter’s name. Is there one that you think really embodies his work?

KG: The school [Trotter K-8 in Boston, founded in 1969] encompasses his vision for the city and racial politics (the school was founded with the goal of being an integrated school selected equally by both Black and white families). The Trotter Institute at the University of Michigan modeled their early childhood intervention program after the Trotter School in Boston.

One of Trotter’s biggest initiatives was trying to run Black candidates for the Boston School Committee and he was pretty successful at that. Black people had representation on the School Committee up until the 1920s and represented schools that had both Black and white students. Boston had a reputation for having high quality, desegregated public schools. That started to deteriorate by the 1920s as housing and school segregation became more entrenched.

ML: What is one thing you think that everyone should know about Trotter and his legacy in Boston?

KG: Trotter pointed out that equality happened by people on the ground doing what needed to be done. He believed that these were the people who had to decide what the schools looked like, they had to vote in every election. If the city didn’t listen, it would become a city for the elite.

The maps were important to uncover how people moved through the city. Boston was not nearly as visibly segregated as it became in the 1940s and 1950s. Until 1940, the Black population of Boston was around 5%. But in Greater Boston, you had Black populations in places like Cambridge, Chelsea, Lynn, and Worcester. Trotter was able to stage mass protests because he was tapped into those communities. Those communities had family ties in Boston and came into the city often, going to church on Sundays. If you look at the maps, you realize that these communities are living closer together than you think. If Greater Boston were a city, you realize that one community might be living right over a town border from the other.

As a historian, this is where the mapping became so important. When Trotter was talking about “world for the people of color”, and that the people of color in Massachusetts had more power than they thought they did, this can come across as kind of grandiose. But then you look and say, actually, if zoning laws were slightly different, there would have been much larger voting blocks for Black communities.

Trotter really saw, despite his relative privilege, that the salvation of a city, in order to be its most equal, would require the working class to decide what that would look like. He believed that working people, “the genteel poor” as he called them, had to decide politically what their destiny would be and that would be beneficial to the entire society.