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YOUNGSTOWN Author uncovers a life of greatness



Published: Sun, July 21, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The book is on sale now.

By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Great stories are often discovered completely by accident.

That's the lesson learned by Youngstown-area native Paul Nelson. He stumbled across the name of a little-known 19th century black St. Paul, Minn., attorney -- a life story that Nelson would make known to the world in his book, "Frederick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912."

The book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, earned Nelson the 2002 Scribes Book Award as an example of what the American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects strives to promote. It can be purchased at various retail outlets.

Warren native

Nelson was born in Warren in 1951 where he remained until he was 8 years old. At that time his family moved to Canfield where he would stay through high school before heading off to attend college and law school in St. Paul.

Nelson made St. Paul his home, began practicing law and married another attorney.

After 11 years of practicing law, he'd had enough and looked to teaching, but after one year in the public school system he was unable to find a permanent position. It was decided that he would stay at home with the kids.

Right about that time, Nelson took a trip to the local library intent on borrowing a book that had received high favor from critics on the life of famed civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois. The book proved to be more than a quick, enjoyable read, for inside Nelson found what would preoccupy his life for the next decade.

Idea is born

The Du Bois biographer mentioned a close friendship between Du Bois and another civil rights advocate from St. Paul, Atty. Fredrick McGhee. Being a St. Paul resident and former attorney, Nelson was surprised he had never heard of the man.

He was also astonished that a black man in St. Paul in the 1800s held such favor as to be considered "distinguished."

"I just thought, this guy is described in the book as a distinguished black defense attorney; and I thought for a black man to be described as a distinguished black attorney in St. Paul more than 100 years ago -- wow," he said.

Nelson headed to the history center but found only a small file on McGhee containing a few pictures and other inserts. He continued digging through other old files and legal papers. He became increasingly impressed with his subject.

"I just kept finding stuff and the more I found the more I thought, 'Wow, what else did this guy do?'" he said.

Born a slave

Nelson learned that McGhee was born a slave in Mississippi, but his family escaped with Indian troops in 1864. He was orphaned at an early age and made his way to Chicago at 17 with only two years of formal education under his belt. By the time McGhee was 24 he had graduated from law school and was a partner with a leading black attorney in Chicago. He had also run for political office.

Nelson said McGhee later moved to St. Paul where his list of "firsts" began. He was the first black lawyer in the state and the first to try a murder case or bring civil and criminal cases before the state. He joined the state Republican central committee, later switching parties and becoming a leading national Democrat.

Nelson said McGhee also founded a list of civil rights organizations and fought against Jim Crow laws and other destructive forces against blacks.

First draft rejected

After four years of collecting data, Nelson had enough for a first draft of his book, which was rejected. He kept collecting data and several years later wrote the version of the book on sale today.

According to Nelson, McGhee was a great man lost on the shelves of history, but he is not alone. He said many great men and woman from that era of American history have yet to have their stories told, but he is not looking for those stories. He would rather wait for them to find him -- just as McGhee's did.

jgoodwin@vindy.com




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