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Fredrick L. McGhee

Fredrick L. McGhee

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A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912

Author Paul Nelson, Foreword by David Levering Lewis

Minnesota Historical Society Press (February 1, 2002)

The biography of a pioneer in early desegregation, anti-lynching, and civil rights cases, and a tireless activist and organizer for African American civil rights.


Distinguished by his hawk-like gaze and shock of silver hair, his forceful oratory and fierce advocacy, Fredrick L. McGhee was Minnesota's first African American attorney and an intelligent, tireless civil rights organizer. He moved onto the national stage when he helped found the Niagara Movement—the forerunner of today's NAACP, which McGhee later helped spread across the Midwest. Years later, NAACP chairman Roy Wilkins would remember of McGhee that "it was through him that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reached St. Paul and [our house at] 906 Galtier Street."

Despite McGhee's crucial role in early civil rights organizing, until now there has been no serious study of his life and work. Paul D. Nelson has meticulously reconstructed McGhee's life—from his birth into slavery during the Civil War, through his education and early career as a lawyer, to his eventual insight into the power the courts held as a force for political and social change. Nelson analyzes McGhee's legal strategies in important cases, such as the Hardy v. East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railway Co. case of 1891, the first attempt at desegregation in the United States, whose failed outcome led five years later to Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine of "separate but equal."

The succession of incremental advances and devastating setbacks in McGhee's remarkable and accomplished life deserve to be remembered alongside the victories won by the civil rights leaders he influenced and whose breakthroughs he made possible. Nelson's biography illuminates one of the darkest periods in American history and recognizes the role of one man who helped lead his people into the light.

  • 262 pages
  • 6.25 x 9.25 inches
  • ISBN: 9780873514255

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