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.