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MPR’s Cathy Wurzer interviews author Paul Nelson about his book "Fredrick L. McGee: A Life on the Color Line."

"Fredrick L. McGee: A Life on the Color Line" chronicles the life of Minnesota's first African American attorney. Book follows McGee from his birth into slavery in 1861 through his career as a criminal attorney in St. Paul. McGee practiced in Minnesota for over twenty years. He was respected by both the white and black communities and was well-known for his work in civil rights.

This file was digitized with the help of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).


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SPEAKER 1: Adams was interested in building up the Black community here and making it more self-sufficient. And in order to do that, a professional class was needed. There was none, and we're talking about 1889. The black community was tiny.

In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, maybe 2,000 people so far as people know now. But they had a newspaper and Adams, as I say, wanted to build a professional class. So he started with lawyers by going to Chicago and getting McGhee.

SPEAKER 2: Well, he was a criminal attorney. What big cases did he handle?

SPEAKER 1: The case that got him the big splash almost right away after coming here, 1890, was getting presidential clemency for Lewis Carter, who had been convicted of rape at Fort Snelling and was serving time at Stillwater.

He was a Black soldier, like McGhee, originally from Mississippi convicted of raping a white German girl. There was some doubt about his guilt and the evidence was contradictory.

But, anyway, McGhee using his political connections and the legwork that was always a hallmark of his career, secured presidential clemency for him. And that made big headlines. This was 1890. He arrived here in 1889.

SPEAKER 2: What was his relationship with other Black leaders at the time?

SPEAKER 1: Early on, like everyone else, almost everyone else, he was a great supporter of Booker T. Washington, who became the preeminent Black leader in about 1895.

And McGhee was under Washington's spell at the beginning, too. He referred to him as the highest ideal of Negro manhood. And he continued to feel this way until about 1902.

That was the year that the Maine civil rights organization of the time, the National Afro-American Council, had its national meeting here in Saint Paul, a meeting that was arranged by McGhee, organized by McGhee.

McGhee pleaded with Washington to come. So Washington did come, something which McGhee I'm sure was pleased about, and then quickly came to regret because Washington and his forces manipulated the workings of the council, specifically the council elections, in a very cynical way.

And that's when he broke from Washington and joined up with the other dissidents, principally William Monroe Trotter of Boston. And then soon after that, W.E.B. Du Bois came over and joined McGhee and Trotter as the main opponents of Booker T. Washington.

SPEAKER 2: How would you rate Frederick McGhee as a civil rights leader?

SPEAKER 1: Here in Minnesota, he should be remembered, I think, as the most important civil rights leader of the turn of the century era because he was a founder or an officer in every civil rights organization that started here or all the national organizations that had a following here.

He was important nationally and very well-known nationally. He was never quite in the top ranks of leadership that was so dominated by Washington, Trotter, Du Bois, and T. Thomas Fortune. That in a way, there wasn't so much room for anybody else at the top.

SPEAKER 2: This part of Minnesota history, Fred McGhee's era, you don't really hear a whole lot about.

SPEAKER 1: No. Well, really, that part of American history is so far from fully explored below the level of the great national leadership.

To me, there's this wonderful American story of the first post-emancipation generation, of which McGhee was one of the leading figures out there trying to make their way in the world, trying to figure out what do we do. Who are we? How do we find our place?

And it's happening here in Minnesota, too, in a small way, and yet it's all the same themes of striving, trying to build businesses and institutions, trying to get an education out, trying to be Americans and trying to be Minnesotans, and yet participate in all the great themes that are going on in the country at the time.


Digitization made possible by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

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