How Lalou Dammond turned her personal history into documentary material
Director Lalou Dammond (one half of duo Joaquin + Lalou, of Biscuit Filmworks) dives into the life and times of her revolutionary relatives who have stood up to white supremacy, faced down presidents, and fought relentlessly for Black civil rights in her newest documentary, A Part of the People.
Even before Lalou Dammond started diving into her family history, she knew that she had revolutionaries in her past.
As a director, Dammond has a singular focus on the truth, on showing new angles, on giving new perspectives. While she knew that she wanted to create a documentary about her famous ancestor, William Monroe Trotter, a publisher and Black rights activist in the early twentieth century, her research helped her uncover even more connections to radical activism. She began to connect to Trotter on a deeper level, and her work seeks to unearth the overlooked stories of Black activists.
As a part of our special reporting for Black History Month in the United States, we sat down with her to talk about her work and research for her documentary in-progress, A Part of the People, and why Trotter's life continues to be relevant, even a century after his most notorious act against white supremacy.
Who was William Monroe Trotter?
Lalou Dammond: William Monroe Trotter was my great, great uncle on my father’s side. He is descended from the enslaved Hemings family of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. He was a Harvard graduate and a radical civil rights activist in the first half of the 20th Century who led protests against various issues, helped found civil rights organizations, and famously confronted President Woodrow Wilson for segregating the federal government. Trotter co-founded the influential Black newspaper, The Guardian.
Who are some other people who have inspired you?
My great, great, great grandmother, Ellen Craft, is perhaps the person in my family who most inspires me. Ellen was born into slavery in Georgia, the daughter of an enslaved Black woman and a white slave owner. Her mother was also the daughter of a Black enslaved woman and a white slave owner, and Ellen was very light-skinned. She and her husband planned their escape together. She sewed herself men’s clothing, cut her hair, and passed as a white man (because women could not travel alone), purchasing train tickets to travel from Georgia to free Philadelphia, bringing William with her on the voyage as her 'slave'. She further elaborated her costume by traveling as an invalid—wrapping her head in a bandage, so she didn’t have to speak much, and putting her arm in a sling, so she didn’t have to sign her name (she did not yet know how to write.)
Black history and American history are one story.
Against a backdrop of terror, they made the trip, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1848. They went on to become active abolitionists in Boston, before fleeing to England when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and their freedom was once again at stake. After the Civil War, they returned to the United States, and back to Georgia, where they opened a school for freed slaves. Their escape was recounted in a book they wrote called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which is still in publication today.
Above: William Monroe Trotter; Ellen Craft; William Craft.
James Monroe Trotter, William Monroe Trotter’s father, is also a central figure of inspiration in our family’s history. James Monroe was a politically active businessman and a militant civil rights activist in the latter part of the 19th Century. He was a lieutenant in the Civil War who fought for equal pay for Black soldiers, was the first Black man hired by the US postal service, was the second Black man after Frederick Douglass to be appointed the Recorder of Deeds in Washington DC, which was the highest federal position available to Black Americans at that time. He was the author of the book Music and Some Highly Musical People, published in 1878, which was the first comprehensive survey of American music published in the United States. His political activism and firm outlook greatly influenced his son William Monroe.
We’re in a moment in history where white supremacism has resurfaced in mainstream American political life, at the same time that a powerful force has grown in the march for Black equality.
My aunt, Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, has also been an inspiration to me for her fight for civil rights. As part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she traveled from Harlem to the South where she protested segregated businesses and registered Black voters. She went to jail twice during this period and has spent the rest of her life involved with various civil rights activities.
Above: James Monroe Trotter; Dr. Dorothy Cotton (left) and Peggy Dammond (right)
How much power did the press have in the early 1900s? How did Trotter become so important?
Newspapers had a very prominent role in American life in the early 1900s and often held strong social and political sway. William Monroe Trotter’s Guardian spoke forcefully on social and political issues that affected Black people. In the editorial pages (and in-person), he frequently attacked the accommodationist policies of Booker T. Washington, the prominent southern Black leader of the Tuskegee Institute, who believed that Black people should not agitate for equal rights and that they could attain equality through hard work. Trotter, knowing that racism, not a lack of hard work, was what was in the way of Black equality, gained a lot of admiration from Black people, especially the working poor and middle class, putting him (and The Guardian) at the center of a Black populist political movement.
Black American History is so underrepresented in the American consciousness—we are taught a hodgepodge version in schools. So much is left out, or erased, that denialism has been the de facto position for much of our history.
Trotter was also involved with various civil rights activities that kept him amongst the leaders of the movement at the time. He organized many protests, the most famous of which was the protest of D.W. Griffith’s racist feature film The Birth of a Nation. These protests included a series of marches and rallies against the film’s screening in Boston and were noteworthy for being the first of their kind—peaceful protests by large groups of Black people, which influenced civil rights activism thereafter.
The Birth of a Nation protests were preceded by the well-documented meeting between Trotter and President Woodrow Wilson, which is the centerpiece of this film. After receiving assurances that Black people would be treated fairly in his administration, Trotter endorsed Wilson’s candidacy in the pages of The Guardian. Once elected, however, Wilson unceremoniously segregated the federal workforce. Since Reconstruction, Blacks and whites had been working side-by-side in Washington without issue. Wilson, a southerner with white supremacist views, acquiesced to the southern white supremacists in his new administration, and quickly set about pushing Black workers out, or to lesser jobs.
When I really delved into his story, I felt this intensely personal link to him and his uncompromising vision.
Trotter mounted a campaign in various Black newspapers across the country to petition Wilson to take action against segregation. He presented the petition to Wilson in 1913, to no effect. He managed to gain a second meeting with him in 1914, where he forcefully condemned the segregation to Wilson’s face. Wilson, disliking “the passion” with which Trotter spoke, responded by kicking him out of his office. This incident made the national news pushing Trotter’s quest further into the spotlight, cementing his populist celebrity amongst working-class Black Americans.
Above: The Niagara Movement; William Monroe Trotter; The Guardian, July 1902
This documentary focuses on a flashpoint—Trotter’s faceoff with Woodrow Wilson, a white supremacist president—why this moment?
I chose to focus the film on this particular moment for two reasons. One, because it built up to what I think of as Monroe Trotter’s most fearless moment, which provides for a strong character arc. And because thematically, I think it has renewed relevance today. We’re in a moment in history where white supremacism has resurfaced in mainstream American political life, at the same time that a powerful force has grown in the march for Black equality. To me, the recounting of Trotter’s meeting with Wilson provides a dramatic narrative arc on these two issues, with which we can draw parallels to what is happening in America today.
What part of this project has surprised you the most?
I think what surprised me the most was how connected I feel to Monroe Trotter. This may sound unsurprising since he is part of my family and his activism has always been something our family is very proud of. (And I get my middle name from him.) But to say that Trotter was difficult is an understatement at best! He had many sides to his personality that made him almost unbearable for many to deal with. That said, when I really delved into his story, I felt this intensely personal link to him and his uncompromising vision.
It is important to reflect on how we got here, and to recognize that history is made of accumulated steps so that we can decide how we want to affect our steps moving forward.
How are you telling this story?
My intention is to tell this story primarily through archival materials, including the transcripts from the Trotter/Wilson meeting, with a narration voice-over. Because there is so little archival footage or photography of Trotter himself, I am considering a form of recreation for some things, in the style of photography and documentary film footage of the day. Structurally, it is about this moment in time, and the events unfold chronologically. I want to portray the meeting between Trotter and Wilson as viscerally as I can so that when we reach the halls of the White House, the stakes are ratcheted up as high as possible.
Above: Booker T. Washington, The Guardian 1913, The White House c. 1914; Woodrow Wilson c. 1917
Why is it important to tell Trotter’s story now? What makes it vital to the movement now?
Black American History is so underrepresented in the American consciousness—we are taught a hodgepodge version in schools. So much is left out, or erased, that denialism has been the de facto position for much of our history. I think as we face these gigantic issues today, it is important to reflect on how we got here, and to recognize that history is made of accumulated steps so that we can decide how we want to affect our steps moving forward. It has been very moving to see the overwhelming support of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year, and important to have as so many people recognize that Black people are unequally treated by the police and by the criminal justice system to catastrophic effect. But I would argue that it is equally important to understand the other, less violent forms of racism that run as a through-line in American history. That the segregation Monroe Trotter protested in Woodrow Wilson’s office 100 years ago exists in many forms to this day—in housing, in schools, in the workforce. Areas where white Americans have ultimately been much less willing to affect actual change.
To me, the recounting of Trotter’s meeting with Wilson provides a dramatic narrative arc on these two issues, with which we can draw parallels to what is happening in America today.
What do you want people to take away from A Part of the People?
To quote the historian Jonathan Holloway, "Black history is profoundly illuminating.” It shines a light on how well we meet our nation’s lofty ideals. I would add that Black history and American history are one story. I think those are the things I’d like people to take away from this film.