On June 17, 1889, Frederick McGhee walked into the Minnesota State Capitol and made state history. That day, he became the first African-American ever admitted to practice law in Minnesota. He went on to become one of the state’s most influential trial attorneys and civil rights leaders of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
McGhee’s life started in slavery on a plantation near Aberdeen, Miss., where he was born a few months after the start of the Civil War. It’s likely McGhee’s family escaped from slavery around the time Union soldiers arrived in Mississippi in 1864.
His family eventually settled in Knoxville, and McGhee started his education in the area’s freedmen’s schools. Despite being orphaned at age 12, McGhee enrolled in Knoxville College — then a mix of a primary and secondary school — and moved to Chicago at age 16. He worked as a waiter while studying law and became an attorney in 1885 under Edward H. Morris, a prominent black lawyer.
Chicago seemed like the perfect place for a young black attorney; in the 1880s, the city was home to more than 10,000 African-Americans, including many in the middle class. McGhee joined the Autumn Social Club (which put on galas for the black community’s social elite) and even became the club’s president in 1888.
Arriving in St. Paul
But by June 1889, McGhee was in St. Paul, a city with only 1,500 African-Americans and another 1,300 in Minneapolis.
“He had not only to make a living in a town with a black community too small and too poor to support him, but also in a legal community that had never seen anyone like him,” wrote biographer Paul Nelson in Frederick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861–1912.
It’s not entirely clear why McGhee decided to leave Chicago for Minnesota, but within a year, he was in the local papers for his defense work.
Lewis Carter, a black soldier at Fort Snelling, had been convicted of the rape and robbery of a German woman and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Carter claimed he was innocent — and had been imprisoned for five years when McGhee took his case.
McGhee managed to get the victim to sign a clemency petition, and the petition made it all the way to President Benjamin Harrison. Harrison agreed that Carter had been punished enough and ordered his sentence changed to time served. Carter was released from prison in March 1890.
Local, national clients
McGhee’s career as a criminal defense attorney consisted mostly of representing African-Americans in cases such as assault and larceny. He also became the first African-American in Minnesota to defend a white man in a murder trial. His work ventured into civil rights as clients brought cases of discrimination against public accommodations, such as restaurant and apartments, for refusing to serve black citizens.
Civil rights also became a major part of McGhee’s life outside of his law career. During his life in St. Paul, he helped create six local civil rights organizations and served as a delegate to conferences for national organizations such as the National Afro-American League.
He became good friends with civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and in the early 1900s, while on a fishing trip in Wisconsin, the two hatched an idea for a new national civil rights organization.
The Niagara Movement
In July 1905, Du Bois gathered a few dozen African-American leaders, including McGhee, in Fort Erie, Ontario, to form the Niagara Movement, which advocated for full racial equality and an end to discrimination against African-Americans.
The organization’s demands were a direct challenge to Du Bois’ rival, Booker T. Washington, who argued that the black community should focus on hard work rather than agitate for civil rights; he felt equality would gradually occur over time.
McGhee headed up the Niagara Movement’s legal department for four years, including successfully defending a black woman arrested in Virginia for refusing to leave a first-class train car.
But he struggled with a lack of funding to handle national cases.
The Niagara Movement ended up short-lived, but its ideals were an important catalyst for the 1909 creation of the NAACP, co-founded by Du Bois, which still exists today.
McGhee started Minnesota’s first NAACP chapter, and his efforts heading the Niagara Movement’s legal department were fully realized a few decades later with the creation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
An advocate of democracy
McGhee died of a pulmonary embolism at age 50 in 1912, after devoting more than 20 years of his life to the law and civil rights. At his funeral in St. Paul’s St. Peter Claver Church, mourners overflowed the space, and a memorial service had to be held in a larger venue a week later.
In an obituary, Du Bois wrote, “McGhee was not simply a lawyer. 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.”
Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.