A national spokesman for civil rights
One hundred years ago, Fredrick McGhee was known as one of Minnesota's most prominent trial lawyers. His road to the state's courtrooms followed a most unlikely route. He was born in Mississippi slaves' quarters in 1861, just months after the Civil War broke out. He and his family made their way to Knoxville, Tennessee, after the war, where Fredrick graduated from college, and then to Chicago, where he worked as a waiter to pay his way through law school. In 1889, he settled in St. Paul, where he became the first African American admitted to practice law in Minnesota.
Had McGhee spent all his time in Minnesota advocating for his clients, his contribution would already have been significant. He was known as a powerful, forceful orator, a formidable presence in the courtroom. But McGhee's influence didn't end there. After he converted to Catholicism, he became one of the founders of St. Peter Claver Church, still an important gathering place for St. Paul's African Americans. He became involved in national politics, first as a Republican and then as a Democrat. And in 1905 he was one of a group of thirty-two men, led by W. E. B. DuBois, who founded the Niagara Movement, which called for full civil liberties and an end to racial discrimination. The Niagara Movement was the catalyst for the 1909 founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). McGhee founded Minnesota's first NAACP chapter. Years later, the group's chairman, Roy Wilkins, recalled that "it was through him that the NAACP reached St. Paul and [our house at] 906 Galtier Street."
"McGhee was not simply a lawyer," wrote W. E. B. DuBois in a 1912 obituary for his friend. "He was a staunch advocate of democracy, and because he knew by bitter experience how his own dark face had served as excuse for discouraging him and discriminating unfairly against him, he became especially an advocate of the rights of colored men."
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