Born in slavery in Mississippi, James Monroe Trotter was educated in Ohio and became a schoolteacher. In June 1863 he and his friend William H. Dupree traveled to Boston to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Both were commissioned second lieutenants in 1864 but had to wait a year for official recognition. Trotter was one of most prominent spokesmen in the dispute over equal pay for African American soldiers.
After the war, Trotter and Dupree returned to Ohio, married sisters Virginia and Maria Elizabeth Isaacs, and moved to Boston where they obtained good positions in the U.S. Postal Service. In 1878 Trotter published a groundbreaking survey of African American music. His distinguished war record and support of the Democratic Party led to appointment as District of Columbia Recorder of Deeds in 1887, the highest government office open to blacks. Trotter’s passionate commitment to equality inspired his famous son, William Monroe Trotter.