James Monroe Trotter

James Monroe Trotter
James Monroe Trotter was the first Black person to be employed by the U.S. Postal Service. Public Domain


James Monroe Trotter was an educator, Civil War veteran, musical historian and Recorder of Deeds. A man of many talents, Trotter was patriotic and believed in ending racism in American society.  Described as a “genteel militant,” Trotter promoted and encouraged other African Americans to work hard regardless of racism.


  • Published the first comprehensive study of music in the United States. The text, Music and Some Highly Musical People highlights the history of music in the United States—especially African American musical genres. The text has been reissued twice. 
  • First Black American to be employed by the United States Postal Service.

The Life of James Monroe Trotter

Enslaved from birth, Trotter was born on Feb. 7, 1842, in Claiborne County, Miss. Trotter’s father, Richard, was an enslaver and his mother, Letitia, was an enslaved person.

In 1854, Trotter’s father freed his family and sent them to Ohio. Trotter studied at the Gilmore School, an educational institution established for formerly enslaved people. At the Gilmore School, Trotter studied music with William F. Colburn. In his spare time, Trotter worked as a bellboy at a local Cincinnati hotel and also as a cabin boy on boats en route to New Orleans.

Trotter then attended Albany Manual Labor Academy where he studied the classics.

Following his graduation, Trotter taught in school for Black children throughout Ohio. The Civil War began in 1861 and Trotter wanted to enlist. Yet, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the military. Two years later, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Black men were allowed to join. Trotter decided he needed to enlist but Ohio would not form any units for Black soldiers. John Mercer Langston urged Trotter and other African American men from Ohio enlisted in Black regiments in neighboring states. Trotter  travelled to Boston where he joined the 55th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry in 1863. As a result of his education, Trotter was classified as a sergeant.

In 1864, Trotter was wounded in South Carolina. While recuperating, Trotter taught reading and writing to other soldiers. He also organized a regiment band. After completing his military assignment, Trotter ended his military career in 1865.

By the end of his military career, Trotter had been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.

After his military service ended, Trotter relocated to Boston. While living in Boston, Trotter became the first Black man to be earn employment with the United States Post Office. Yet, Trotter faced great racism in this position. He was ignored for promotions and resigned within three years.

Trotter returned to his love of music in 1878 and wrote Music and Some Highly Musical People. The text was the first study of music written in the United States and traces the history of music in the U.S. society.

In 1887, Trotter was appointed as a Recorder of Deeds for Washington DC by Grover Cleveland. Trotter held this position after North American 19th-century Black activist Frederick Douglass. Trotter held the position for four years before it was given to U.S. Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce.

Personal Life

In 1868, Trotter completed his military service and returned to Ohio. He married Virginia Isaacs, a descendant of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. The couple relocated to Boston. The couple had three children. Their son, William Monroe Trotter, was the first African American to earn a Phi Betta Kappa key, graduated from Harvard University, published the Boston Guardian and helped to establish the Niagara Movement with W.E.B. Du Bois.


In 1892, Trotter died from tuberculosis at his home in Boston.  

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Lewis, Femi. "James Monroe Trotter." ThoughtCo, Nov. 19, 2020, thoughtco.com/james-monroe-trotter-biography-45268. Lewis, Femi. (2020, November 19). James Monroe Trotter. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/james-monroe-trotter-biography-45268 Lewis, Femi. "James Monroe Trotter." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/james-monroe-trotter-biography-45268 (accessed June 3, 2023).