This article is part of a special collaboration between Michigan in Color and Groundcover News. Read the rest of the joint issue here.
This article is a reprint and originally appeared in Groundcover News in Issue 5, Volume 10, [May 2019].
“The Trotter Multicultural Center serves as an iconic and programmatic symbol for all students; as an open and inclusive facility that fosters intercultural engagement and strengthens connection between and among communities; as a supportive and environment to those committed to social justice and diversity; and as a space that celebrates the tradition and legacy of the Trotter Multicultural Center and the activism of students.”
– University of Michigan Vision Statement for the new Trotter Multicultural Center
In the 1960s, young Americans, especially college students, found themselves in revolt. Activism to change the world was in full effect. There was activism for women’s liberation, including reproductive rights. There was activism to protect the environment and save the planet. There was activism for educational diversity, equity and inclusion. And of course, there was a major civil rights movement to end racial injustice, social injustice, economic injustice, healthcare disparities, racism, poverty, militarism, discrimination and inequality.
With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and the involvement of millions of “ordinary” people, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The following year, in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Both were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. That same year, President Johnson came up with a non-discrimination executive order; it created a national office for affirmative action compliance. The key goal of this executive order was to encourage colleges, K-12 schools, state governments, local governments and businesses to take serious actions to recruit, train and retain people of Color. The federal government wanted any organization that was getting government contracts to help promote diversity, equity and inclusion in America. The Civil Rights movement pushed for a multiracial democracy and Johnson’s administration used the compliance power of the federal government to ensure more multicolored and multi-cultural college campuses and workplaces.
The assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, on April 4, 1968 was an earthquake that shook the moral conscience of our nation. It led to riots and profound demonstrations in most of the major cities and towns. There was sadness everywhere. Dr. King’s death led to increased activism by Black students and their multiracial allies. Those activists did sit-ins, protests and even occupied buildings which housed university presidents and other administrators. There was always a list of demands.
At the University of Michigan, students demanded more students of Color be admitted, more faculty and staff of Color be hired, that a building be designated as a U-M multicultural center and that a Center for Afroamerican and African Studies be established. The implementation of the above demands, among others, was gradual, and some have yet to be met. In the early 1970s, the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center was first established off-campus at the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and South University Street. The University’s community of students, administrators, faculty, staff and alumni were happy to see the relocation to a more central campus location.
William Monroe Trotter was an African American journalist, civil rights activist and real-estate businessman in Boston. He was born on April 7, 1872 in Chillicothe, Ohio and died April 7, 1934, in Boston. After Trotter graduated Phi Kappa Beta with a distinction from Harvard University, he founded and edited The Guardian, a progressive newspaper that was published in the building that had previously housed an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.
During the early 20th century, Trotter helped W.E.B. Du Bois and other civil rights activists organize a group to achieve racial equality: the Niagara Movement. That effort led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Trotter was a fearless activist. He challenged the “pragmatic” views of Booker T. Washington in 1903 and was arrested for heckling Washington at AME African-American Church in Boston. He pushed back against presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on questions of racial inequality, segregation and discrimination.
In 1919, against the wishes of the U.S. government, Trotter was named a delegate to the National Equal Rights League at the Paris Peace Conference.
Descended from Sally Hemings
William Monroe Trotter’s father, James Trotter, was born a slave in Mississippi. James’ father was the white slave owner of James’s mother, Letitia; she and her children were set free by their master after their owner married. Letitia and her mixed-race children (including James) were sent to Cincinnati, a northern city with a supportive community for free Black people.
Young James Trotter fought on the Union side during the Civil War and was promoted to lieutenant in the famous 55th Massachusetts Regiment.
Trotter’s mother was Virginia Isaacs. Like William’s father, she was a Black American of mixed race said to have been born free. Her mother was born a slave and lived at Monticello, the primary slave plantation of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Virginia Isaac’s mother was Ann Elizabeth Fossett. She was the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth “Betty” Heming, a slave who gave birth to six children by owner John Wayles, including Sally Hemings, who all looked white but were born into slavery.
As Ann Arbor welcomes the Multicultural Center to its new central campus location, let us remember that shared values of many among the University of Michigan — activism, social justice, excellence, civic engagement and community engagement — are part and parcel of William Monroe Trotter’s legacy. There is so much that has changed since the 1960s and 1970s. Some challenges remain. But to have a “Michigan in Color” is to have a “Gorgeous Mosaic.” Dr. King’s dream shall never die. His hopes for pluralism, diversity and inclusion still live. On this campus, the difference is beautiful.
Will Shakespeare, Groundcover vendor No. 258, can be reached at email@example.com.