Minnesota Historical Society

Fredrick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912

$ 17.95


Scribes Book Award Winner

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.

PAUL D. NELSON is an attorney-at-law and former managing editor of the Minnesota Law Review. For the last ten years, he has served as the executive director of Centro de Estudios Multiculturales in St. Paul.

DAVID LEVERING LEWIS has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography--for W.E.B. Du Bois, A Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. His other books include W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader and When Harlem Was in Vogue. He holds the Martin Luther King, Jr., chair in history at Rutgers University.


  • By: Paul D. Nelson. Foreword by David Levering Lewis.
  • Format: Paperback, 262 pp., 34 b&w illus., notes, index
  • Publisher: MNHS Press (2017 Paperback edition)
  • Paperback ISBN: 9781681340241



Praise for Fredrick L. McGhee:

"Paul Nelson has rescued an important figure in American history from undeserved obscurity. His biography of the civil rights pioneer Fredrick L. McGhee tells a remarkable story of achievement, accomplishment and triumph, and deepens our understanding of the struggle of African Americans in the dark decades before the dawn of the modern civil rights movement." -- Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP Board of Directors

"Throughout his singular life, Fredrick L. McGhee displayed a principled militancy and fierce intelligence. He was celebrated as one of black America's most representative men of distinction. No less an authority than W.E.B. Du Bois, the embodiment of black civil rights and professional probity, lamented McGhee's passing as a terrible loss. At last he is restored to his rightful place by Paul Nelson's biography. Nelson has a biographer's instincts--keen discernment, dogged determination, and the love of a good story." -- David Levering Lewis, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

You also Viewed

Join our Mailing List

Sign up to receive our daily email and get 50% off your first purchase.