Fredrick McGhee

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McGhee, c. 1890s

Fredrick L. McGhee (October 28, 1861 – September 9, 1912), a black civil rights activist and one of America’s first African American lawyers. McGhee, born as a slave but who later was able to achieve a substantial career as an attorney and become one of the civil rights pioneers, was a contemporary of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

McGhee was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, to Abraham McGhee and Sarah Walker, who were slaves. His father, from Blount County, Tennessee, was a literate black slave who learned how to read and write without being formally educated, and later became a Baptist preacher. Abraham McGhee taught his three children, Mathew, Barclay and Fredrick, how to read and write. Abraham McGhee died in 1873 and soon Fredrick’s mother died leaving her three sons orphans.

McGhee was able to attend Knoxville College in Tennessee, and graduated with a degree in law in 1885. Although he began his legal career in Chicago, McGhee settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became the first black lawyer admitted to the bar in that state. With a much smaller black population from which to attract clients, McGhee primarily represented whites, gaining a reputation for competence and oratory. He also became the first African American lawyer admitted to the bar in Tennessee and Illinois. He was one of the most highly skilled criminal lawyers of the Old Northwest.

In his law practice, McGhee once won a clemency from President Benjamin Harrison for a client who was a black soldier falsely accused of a crime.

In 1886, he married Mattie B. Crane. The couple had one daughter.

Despite his success as a criminal lawyer, he was primarily a race relations advocate. By the early 1900s, McGhee became interested in the national discussion concerning racial discrimination and social equality. In 1905, McGhee with Du Bois and others formed one of the first national civil rights organizations, the Niagara Movement, which was an attempt by more radical blacks to directly and honestly oppose the conservative actions and views of Booker T. Washington. The Niagara Movement was the forerunner of the NAACP. In September 1905, Du Bois went so far as to give McGhee full credit for creating the more radical entity, stating, "The honor of founding the organization belongs to F. L. McGhee, who first suggested it."

McGhee was very active politically. He was chosen to be a presidential elector by the Minnesota Republican party in the spring of 1892, but after protests by white Republicans, he was replaced before the start of the 1892 Republican National Convention, which was held in Minneapolis in June. McGhee remained a party member until the spring of 1893, when party bosses reneged on another political promise. Frustrated, McGhee changed his allegiance to the Democratic Party (United States), becoming one of the first nationally prominent black Democrats at a time when nearly all blacks were Republicans.

McGhee converted from the Baptist denomination to Catholicism at a time when the vast majority of African Americans were Baptists. He was very active in Saint Peter Claver Church, a Roman Catholic church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

McGhee died in 1912, at age 50, of pleurisy, three years after the founding of the NAACP.