His father, Abraham, a McGhee family slave from Blount County, had been sold 13 years before and sent to the John Walker cotton plantation near Aberdeen, Mississippi. Fredrick's mother, Sarah, already a slave on the Walker plantation, was the daughter of a "full-blood African from the continent."
Prospects for the future were grim. The day Fredrick McGhee was born, the Civil War was six months old and the first Battle of Bull Run had been fought.
McGhee lived through two historic episodes in U.S. annals - events that altered the political fabric of the entire nation and shaped its future forever - the Civil War and the Niagara Movement, which was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and provided the seed stock that grew into the Civil Rights Movement a century later. The movement that began as a reaction to the Jim Crow laws eventually reshaped the whole of 20th century America.
Fredrick McGhee rose to fame as Minnesota's first black lawyer and a respected social critic.
His journey is accentuated by drama, intrigue and mystery. And it was the divisive war that eventually provided him passage from the world of slavery in Mississippi to Knoxville, where his father grew up, and then on to freedom and the American dream.
Not much is known about Fredrick's father or mother, and piecing together Abraham's lineage from census and other records is also difficult.
One of the few details that has survived is a bill of sale for Abraham from Barclay McGhee, the son of Abraham's original owner, Dr. Alexander McGhee of Blount County, who died in 1842. Barclay sold Abraham to John Rorix, a slave trader.
The mystery begins with that sale. Why would a favored slave, who was taught to read and to write and the important skills of blacksmithing be sold? Especially in Tennessee, as slave chronicles say, where " there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows."
But Nelson, also an attorney, agrees with some historical sleuthing on the part of Steve Cotham, Knox County Historian and director of the McClung Historical Collection, that Abraham was sold for one of two reasons: either the McGhee family needed money, which was unlikely since they were wealthy landowners with enormous holdings in East Tennessee, or Abraham, for unknown reasons, had fallen from esteem.
Cotham believes Abraham was the son of two other slaves highly regarded by the McGhee family, James and Sally, who, along with their children, were eventually given their freedom. It is not clear from what is known about Abraham that he is the son of James and Sally, but that is the general belief by historians.
Once free, James and Sally moved to Monroe County. They took with them a son, Barclay, and a daughter they had named Sontafu. It is possible that Abraham was also their son, brother to Sontafu and Barclay, which is a significant McGhee family name.
How Abraham made it to the plantation in Prairie Station near Aberdeen, in Monroe County, Miss., in the mid-1840s is also somewhat speculative, Cotham says.
He believes that Abraham was sold in a round-about deal between Rorix and Lawson D. Franklin of Jefferson County, one of the largest slave traders not only in Tennessee, but the entire South. Franklin had many dealings with Mississippi landowners in and around the large plantation lands of Aberdeen.
Abraham and Sarah had sons Matthew, Barclay and Fredrick, all McGhee family names. By 1864, as the Confederacy was bending under the weight of the bitter onslaught of federal forces, fate moved to help Abraham and his family.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman devised a plan in which he and Gen. William Sooy Smith would merge forces in Meridian Miss., to take control of northern Mississippi.
Smith never made it to Meridian. He ran headlong into the hard-hitting Confederate cavalry under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and suffered an embarrassing defeat at the battle of West Point, Miss.
When Smith retreated through Prairie Station on his flight to Memphis, many slaves, seeing a way out, joined the troops.
Nelson believes Abraham seized the opportunity to move his family in this risky trip, and then made his way back to Knoxville, a section of the South he knew, and where the McGhee family were still powerful landowners, despite the war.
By 1869, Abraham, no ordinary slave and now a free man with skills, had returned to a city emerging from war's rubble as Reconstruction gripped the South. But the blacksmith died one year after returning, leaving Sarah with three sons.
Doing her best to provide, Sarah, illiterate and alone in a new land, became a washerwoman. A couple of years later, she, too, died, leaving her sons orphans.
By this time, Barclay, the oldest, and Matthew were working in Knoxville hotels as waiters, prized jobs at the time, and probably a result of their being able to read and to write. And in 1880, an old Knoxville directory shows that Fredrick was also a laborer.
From this point, the fine details of Fredrick's life are murky. Somehow, he was able to attend Knoxville College, which had just gotten off the ground as a Normal School.
In the office of the clerk of the state supreme court, Fredrick McGhee signed a couple of papers, took an oath, and made history: He became "the first colored lawyer who has been admitted to practice by the supreme court of this state."
And that was only the beginning. Already, the first two decades of Fredrick McGhee's life had been remarkable. Nelson writes: "To have done this despite all of the barriers, race and class chief among them, required not only ability and drive but something still more miraculous: imagination."
Discussing the biography from his home in St. Paul, Nelson says that information about Fredrick McGhee came largely from old newspaper files. Precious few original records have been preserved of the attorney and his life.
"What drove me crazy in the beginning," says Nelson, who started working on the book in 1993, "is how and when did they get out of Mississippi? The John Walker plantation had thousands of acres, and was one of the biggest in Mississippi at the time."
Nelson says he spent hours trying to determine the route of the McGhees from Mississippi, but one thing is certain, had they stayed, there might not be a Fredrick McGhee.
"After Emancipation in the 1860s (Jan. 1, 1863,), a lot of outrages took place."
Nelson says many white vigilante groups set fire to the homes of former slaves and murdered them. These errant bands were especially upset that blacks now enjoyed the privilege of voting, and they didn't want them voting in those heavily populated black counties.
Nelson also says that had Fredrick McGhee lived (he died in 1912 a few weeks shy of his 51st birthday), he would have been a "big shot in the NAACP. Who knows where McGhee was going at that time in his life?"
What Fredrick McGhee was up to was about changing the world around him. With his dynamism and determination, he stunned such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, the Harvard-trained intellectual, and Booker T. Washington, a powerful and influential black leader whose life spanned both the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1889, at the end of Reconstruction, the nation was undergoing vast changes. Civil rights laws had been repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883, reversing the rights of blacks under the Emancipation Proclamation. But by the early 1890s, the 14th and 15th Amendments had been bypassed and a series of racial laws known as Jim Crow were enacted both in the North and South. It was a time of racial unrest, and a time when Fredrick McGhee decided to act rather than sit on the safe sidelines.
He became involved immediately in the National Afro-American League formed by the extraordinary T. Thomas Fortune, also a former slave. And he began to challenge the Jim Crow laws in the courts.
"Fred McGhee was a race man," writes Nelson. "That is, one who devoted all the time and energy he could spare to the protection and advancement of his race."
In the wake of numerous black lynchings across the nation, McGhee, DuBois and others formed the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP, in 1904.
It is that sort of courage that Dr. Barbara Hatton, president of Knoxville College, says is so striking, even today.
"I have been so inspired by this man who couldn't do enough for his race. And he was not looking for anything for himself.
"He was obviously recognized as a leader of black people. He associated with Booker T. Washington, and DuBois. He was in the league of learned men.
"We are always studying the wrong things about black people, and we sometimes have less interest in the extraordinarily good ones," says Hatton.
"We ought to celebrate those who go far beyond the expectations of their birth. Here is a man who was born into abject poverty, he comes out of this, and the best he could hope for was to survive, but he changes history.
"I would rank him with a DuBois or a Frederick Douglass (one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement). His impact on history would be at that level," she says.
"He is among the unsung heroes that we must learn to lift up."
Photo: NYPL Digital Gallery (1904)
By Fred Brown, News-Sentinel senior writer
March 17, 2002