Equal Rights

In 1915—the year Booker T. Washington died—three descendants of Elizabeth Hemings made their mark campaigning for the rights of women and African Americans in different corners of the nation.  In Los Angeles Frederick Madison Roberts unveiled a new masthead for his newspaper—a black Lady Liberty amid Californian mountains and orange groves—and protested the screening of D. W. Griffith’s incendiary film, Birth of a Nation. On the opposite coast William Monroe Trotter was arrested and jailed for leading a demonstration against the film at a Boston theater. And in the nation’s capital, Coralie Franklin Cook wrote a heartfelt plea for the enfranchisement of women, published in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. These three dedicated their careers to the cause of equal rights and became vocal opponents of Jim Crow.

Madison Hemings descendant Frederick M. Roberts owned and edited the weekly Los Angeles newspaper, the New Age, in which he championed a golden West of equality and opportunity, encouraged black business enterprise, and launched fierce attacks against all forms of discrimination.  Roberts achieved success in government service, becoming the first African American to serve in the California state legislature.  In his sixteen years as a legislator, he focused on civil rights issues and promoted a broad range of public welfare initiatives.  His daughter Patricia Roberts remembered, “We were always brought up to be proud of our heritage.”

Joseph Fossett descendant William Monroe Trotter attended Harvard University and became the first African American elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  He established the Boston Guardian newspaper in 1902, in which he championed equal rights and vehemently opposed the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington. Trotter was one of the founders, with W.E.B. DuBois, of the Niagara Movement, which served as a forerunner to the NAACP. Together they drafted its Declaration of Principles: “We pray God that this nation…will return to the faith of the fathers, that all men were created free and equal, with certain unalienable rights.”  Trotter’s grand-niece, Peggy Preacely, noted, “I had to do something in my lifetime to make a difference because Uncle Monroe did.”  Inspired by her ancestors, she was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Coralie Franklin Cook, born into slavery, was the first descendant of a Monticello slave known to have graduated from college.  She taught at Storer College and was one of itts first female trustees.   After moving to Washington, D.C., she joined the faculty of Howard University.  A long-standing member of the Washington school board, she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, which strove to empower black women by example and improve conditions for African Americans.  In her 1915 Crisis essay “Votes for Mothers,” Cook wrote, “Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color.  It cripples the individual, it handicaps progress, it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.” She was a committed suffragist and joined forces with Susan B. Anthony, but eventually left the movement, feeling it had “turned its back on women of color.”

Cook, Trotter, and Roberts can represent all other Monticello descendants who did not make headlines but who also took stands in the continuous effort to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” They literally built their churches and schools after Emancipation, made sacrifices to educate their children, cast votes in hostile southern towns, and helped desegregate schools and playgrounds.  Many Getting Word participants shared their recollections of the civil rights movement and their varied efforts to fight for equality.

Frederick Madison Roberts
William Monroe Trotter
Coralie Franklin Cook (West Virginia University Libraries)

Read More


“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his…
“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

Coralie Cook publishes “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1915.

“I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his status as a father? yet you ask me to say something about ‘Votes for Mothers,’ as if mothers were a separate and peculiar people.  After all, I think you are not so far wrong.  Mothers are different, or ought to be different, from other folk.  The woman who smilingly goes out, willing to meet the Death Angel, that a child may be born, comes back from that journey, not only the mother of her own adored babe, but a near-mother to all other children.  As she serves that little one, there grows within her a passion to serve humanity; not race, not class, not sex, but God’s creatures as he has sent them to earth.

It is not strange that enlightened womanhood has so far broken its chains as to be able to know that to perform such service, woman should help both to make and to administer the laws under which she lives, should feel responsible for the conduct of educational systems, charitable and correctional institutions, public sanitation and municipal ordinances in general.  Who should be more competent to control the presence of bar rooms and ‘red-light districts’ than mothers whose sons they are meant to lure to degradation and death?  Who knows better than the girl’s mother at what age the girl may legally barter her own body?  Surely not the men who have put upon our statute books, 16, 14, 12, aye be it to their eternal shame, even 10 and 8 years, as ‘the age of consent!’

If men could choose their own mothers, would they choose free women or bondwomen?  Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color.  It cripples the individual, it handicaps progress, it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.  I grow in breadth, in vision, in the power to do, just in proportion as I use the capacities with which Nature, the All-Mother, has endowed me.  I transmit to the child who is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh and thought of my thought; somewhat of my own power or weakness.  Is not the voice which is crying out for ‘Votes for Mothers’ the Spirit of the Age crying out for the Rights of Children?”  (The Crisis, 10, August 1915)

“An Act Of Separation”

...When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of contact,” as being the most powerful…
“An Act Of Separation”

Lewis Woodson uses the Declaration of Independence in his argument for separate black settlements.

…When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of “contact,” as being the most powerful means of destroying antipathies, the history of our own country must have entirely escaped your memory.  The very act which gave it political existence, was an act of separation.  Is the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, therefore, a “weak and foolish” document, and were its framers “weak and foolish” men?  Have you forgotten the history of the separation of the Friends, the Methodists, and even the Presbyterians?  Of the utility of these several separations I do not now pretend to speak.  My object in referring to them is, to show that other men than me, or old father Abraham, have been “weak and foolish” enough to resort to separation, and the formation of societies of their own, as a means of curing existing antipathies.

The principle which I have endeavored to maintain in my three preceding letters on separate settlements is this, that it is right, and in accordance with the mind of God, for men whose condition has been rendered unhappy in one place, to better it if they can, by removing to another; and that the manner, time, and place of such removal, should be exclusively matters of their own choice.  And through what kind of glasses you were looking, Mr. Editor, when this simple principle appeared to you like “colonization magnified,” I am at a loss to know.  Those which I use are a plain pair of Parisian manufacture;–and when I look at it through them, it has no such appearance.  Purchasing contiguous tracts of land from the Congress of our native country, and settling upon them, so as to have society, churches, and schools of our own, without being subject to the humiliation of begging them from others, looks very much like being exiled to the cheerless coast of Africa, don’t it?  Surely your readers will be able to distinguish the difference….

But I can assure you that in the West it [issue of separate black settlements] is not merely a matter of theory; it has long since been reduced to practice.  My father now resides, and has been for the last eight years residing in such a settlement, in Jackson county, Ohio.  The settlement is highly prosperous and happy.  They have a church, day and Sabbath school of their own.  The people of this settlement cut their own harvests, roll their own logs, and raise their own houses, just as well as though they had been assisted by white friends.  They find just as ready and as high market for their grain and cattle, as their white neighbors.  They take the newspapers and read many useful books, and are making as rapid advancement in intelligence and refinement as any people in the country generally do.  And when they travel out of their settlement, no colored people, let them reside where or among whom they may, are more respected, or treated with greater deference than they are….” (“Augustine” [Lewis Woodson] to editor, 13 July 1838, in Colored American, 28 July 1838)

“The Strength She Gave Him In The Battle”

Trotter’s Tribute To His Mother /  VIRGINIA ISAACS TROTTER / April 25, 1842—October 16, 1919 /  MOTHER / Mother love…
“The Strength She Gave Him In The Battle”

William Monroe Trotter pays tribute to his mother, Virginia Isaacs Trotter.

Trotter’s Tribute To His Mother /  VIRGINIA ISAACS TROTTER / April 25, 1842—October 16, 1919 /  MOTHER /

Mother love she had for her children in all its tenderness and sternness, in all its earnestness and pleasantry, in all its ambitiousness and indulgence, in all its love and leniency, yet with hope and strong appeal for their rectitude and achievement.

As all real mothers do, she labored for them and with them, holding high the standard for private life and public attitude.  Born in her [line or lines evidently left out] from her saintly mother was her devotion to God and to moral ideals, and from her father, Tucker Isaacs, brave devotion to liberty and equality without the insult of restriction because of color.  Her husband held racial self-respect and assertion of rights above all else.

Thus it was she taught her son to stand against any denial of right because of race as a principle of self-respect.  It was not strange she encouraged him when he entered the lists against race discrimination as only a true mother can, daily offered him cheer and confidence, and backed him for organ and organization with her earthly means.  The strength she gave him in the battle never can be his as when she maintained her aid and interest until heart and mind were stilled by death itself.  That her sacrifice may not have been in vain we fight on.  God give us strength and success and give her bliss above.

Her son, / WM. MONROE TROTTER. October 16, 1930. (Philadelphia Tribune, 7 Apr. 1932)

“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social…
“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In 1922, Frederick Roberts warns of the growing threat to the ideals of the Founders.

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social equality is raised, the whole American idea of fair play is laid aside in favor of mob force and lynching bees.  The result is that our national tranquility is shaken to the roots, and the very life of American ideals is threatened.

In the west, on the other hand, the athletic ideal governs the relation between the races.  Here the American idea of fair play prevails.  The race issue is never present in politics, but rather Negro and Caucasian vote on all questions from a moral and purely objective viewpoint.

The problem of racial disorder in the south is not a Negro problem, but a purely American one.  If in one corner of the land law and order may be set aside to favor the passions of a group, why is it not feasible to do the same thing in other parts of the country?  Thus the very existence of the principles, upon which our nation was founded are at stake.   (San Jose Evening News, 2 Sep. 1922)

“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In…
“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

Pearl Roberts speaks of her husband’s political views and career.

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In 1918, he ran for Assemblyman and people thought he was crazy, but he was elected.  He was there for 16 years, four terms.  He was the first black elected to an official position in the state of California.  He was the first black elected to a state office west of the Mississippi…. 

He didn’t like the word “Negro.”  He used the term “Americans of African descent.”  He wanted to stress the fact that we were Americans and should be treated as Americans.  Whereas most newspapers would say, “another Negro lynched,” his newspaper would say, “another American lynched.”  (Pearl Roberts typescript autobiography, Roberts Collection, African American Museum and Library at Oakland)