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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

How a St. Paul meeting of the National Afro-American Council reshaped the civil rights movement for decades

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
National Afro-American Council meeting, St. Paul, 1902. Booker T. Washington stands in the front row, hat in hand; McGhee stands two rows behind him. To Washington's left, Bishop Alexander Walters, then Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Over Walter's right shoulder, T. Thomas Fortune; over his left. W.E.B. Du Bois. Emmett Scott is behind Wells-Barnett.

In July 1902 St. Paul hosted the most important African-American political event of the year: the annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council (NAAC). St. Paul lawyer Fredrick McGhee organized it and hoped that it would produce a more united and effective national civil rights organization. The opposite occurred.

From the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1910, politically active black Americans tried again and again, without success, to create an effective national civil rights organization. The NAAC, active from 1898–1907, was one of the more successful experiments. It attracted many leading black citizens of the time, mostly in the North and border states.

Minnesota’s leading member was Fredrick McGhee, a St. Paul lawyer and NAAC legislative director. He persuaded the Council to hold its 1902 meeting in St. Paul. The events of that meeting profoundly affected the alignment of national civil rights groups.

The meeting’s organizers — mainly McGhee — hoped to use the St. Paul event to strengthen an organization that suffered from disunity and lack of central leadership. For this they needed Booker T. Washington.

At the time, Washington held a place in national life that would not be matched until Martin Luther King Jr. achieved his prominence. Black citizens and white opinion leaders acknowledged Washington as the leader of black America. He had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. White donors supported his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He was a black man—born a slave—who knew how to get the support of powerful white men.

But Washington kept his distance from the NAAC. When McGhee secured Washington’s commitment to come to St. Paul, it seemed possible he might lend his power to the organization.

Those who gathered included many of the most politically active African Americans of the early 1900s. Some remain well-known today: sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois; anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett; T. Thomas Fortune, founder of the NAAC’s predecessor, the Afro-American League; and Booker T. Washington himself.

The pre-meeting festivities on July 7 began with music—pieces by Bizet, Gounod, Handel, and Verdi, performed by accomplished black amateurs—and speeches. On July 9 the delegates, meeting in the State Capitol, got down to the business of setting the organization’s course for the coming year.

On July 10 Washington’s men staged a coup. In a lightly attended afternoon session the delegates approved a committee report recommending Fortune as the next NAAC president. Though elections were not on the agenda, the Washington men immediately installed Fortune in the president’s chair. Fortune was a gifted polemicist but financially dependent on Washington—in effect, his puppet.

The move threw the meeting into an uproar that lasted through the next day. Though Washington did not appear, his agents defeated all attempts to undo Fortune’s “election.” Instead of being an open, democratic organization operating with Washington’s public participation, the NAAC became his tool, controlled remotely.

Washington’s secretary Emmett Scott wrote a few days later, “[W]e completely control the Council now…It was wonderful to see how completely your personality dominated everything at St. Paul.”

The meeting concluded with a gala ball at the University of Minnesota Armory: men in tuxedos, women in finery, a white orchestra entertaining a black elite, and a false atmosphere of harmony. Washington did not attend.

His manipulations had done great damage. William Trotter, editor and publisher of the influential Boston Guardian, broke publicly with Washington in 1902. At the next meeting, held in 1903 in Louisville, Trotter and McGhee conspired to loosen Washington’s grip on the Council but failed. That same year Du Bois attacked Washington in his famous essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” The African American civil rights movement was now publicly split.

The events in St. Paul united Du Bois and McGhee in an alliance broken only by McGhee’s death in 1912. In 1905 they, with Trotter and others, formed the rival Niagara Movement. It led in 1910 to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Booker T. Washington died in 1915 and the NAACP went on to a long and productive life. The schism between Du Bois and Washington and their respective followers was inevitable, so great were the differences in personality and beliefs. The St. Paul events pushed it along.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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