Main Content

Black clerks at the Treasury Department in the late 19th century.

Library of Congress

Civil Rights activist and journalist William Monroe Trotter caused a stir in 1914 because he strongly protested President Woodrow Wilson’s support for segregation of black federal employees in the workplace. Trotter came to the White House as a founder and representative of the National Independent Political League, a militant organization that fought for racial and social justice, and the publisher of The Guardian, a Boston newspaper dedicated to the fight against racial discrimination.

In a meeting with Wilson, Trotter directly challenged the president for permitting the segregation of black and white government clerks. Angered by this confrontation that questioned his integrity, President Wilson declared himself "offended" and had Trotter removed from the White House. Trotter then took his case to the press and ridiculed the president for introducing segregation into the federal work force as a means to prevent racial friction. The activist noted that black and white clerks had worked together without problems for more than 50 years. Trotter devoted his career to the fight against racial discrimination and to the development of independent political action in the black community. He led numerous non-violent protests and demonstrations against conservative black leaders like Booker T. Washington for being too accommodating and attacked films and plays that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. At that time Trotter’s confrontational tactics were highly controversial, but his activism and approach became a model for the Civil Rights Movement from 1940 to 1970.

Footnotes & Resources

Read more: Henry Chase, "Memorable Visitors: Classic White House Encounters," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 26-33.