Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Mattie McGhee, 1870-1933

By Thomas Dublin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

 

Mattie McGhee. Photographer, Harry Shepherd, ca. 1900.
Minnesota Historical Society

Mattie Crane was born in 1869 or 1870 in Kentucky or Tennessee (censuses vary on this point). The 1880 census found the family, consisting of widowed mother H. Crane and Mattie and brother Charles living on Chestnut St. in Louisville. Her mother did washing and ironing and Mattie and her brother attended school. In 1886 she married Fredrick L. McGhee and the couple adopted 2-year-old daughter, Ruth, in 1892. By 1900 the family resided in St. Paul, MN, where they were active Catholics and members of St. Peter Claver Church. Mattie sang in the church choir and in other venues. Fredrick, the first Black lawyer in Minnesota, developed a significant civil rights practice. He was described as a founder of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mattie's obituary noted that she "warmly seconded . . . all his battles for Negroes."

In 1898 Fredrick and Mattie McGhee were both active in the staging of "The Great Cuba Pageant" in St. Paul, an African-American expression of support for the Cuban independence movement. Dave Riehl has written that the pageant "placed hundreds of talented African-Americans on stage to sing, act, dance, cakewalk and declaim [in] . . . solidarity with Cuba and freedom." The performance led to a spirited debate in St. Paul's Black newspaper, The Appeal, as to whether including the cakewalk in the pageant contributed to stereotyping of Black culture by whites. Mattie McGhee argued that the cakewalk gained much of its current acceptance when white society people in New York included the dance in their social events.

Her husband passed away in 1912, but she continued to have a strong interest in race issues. In 1914 she met W.E.B. Du Bois and two years later she connected with Margaret Murray Washington. She continued to be in touch with Du Bois and in 1919 sent him a photo of Black nurses at Camp Sherman in Ohio. In 1925 she contributed to a fundraising effort for Fisk University, which Du Bois chaired. She also contributed to support The Crisis in 1932.

In November 1919, Mattie moved to Washington, D.C., joining her daughter Ruth. There her activism on race issues continued. In February 1921, McGhee joined a delegation of 60 Black women suffragists, who protested violations of the recently ratified 19th Amendment in Southern states that denied Black women their voting rights. The delegation, headed by the NAACP field secretary, Addie W. Hunton, met with Alice Paul, head of the National Woman's Party (NWP) on the eve of the party's national convention. Their purpose was to press the NWP to pass a resolution calling on Congress to investigate the failures of Southern states to enforce the 19th Amendment for Black women. Paul made no such commitment and the convention as a whole refused to endorse the call.

By 1925 Mattie and Ruth had moved to New York City. Mother and daughter were lodgers that year. By 1930 they lived on their own on West 150th St. in Manhattan. Mattie passed away in New York City in 1933 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul. Nina Du Bois, wife of W.E.B. Du Bois, attended Mattie's funeral, sent flowers on their behalf, and wrote back to her husband describing the service.

Sources:

Federal Manuscript Censuses, Louisville, KY, 1880; St. Paul, MN, 1900-1910; New York, 1930. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

New York State Census, New York City, 1925. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

Find-a-Grave death records for Frederick L. McGhee, Sept. 1912; for Mattie B. Crane McGhee, 1933. Accessible online with Ancestry Library Edition.

List of NAACP Delegation Members to Alice Paul, 12 February 1921, NAACP Papers, Part 04 Voting Rights and Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950 (Feb. 8, 1921-April 3, 1921), frames 61-64, Library of Congress.

Minnesota Black Newspaper Index, p. 111, online at https://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/resources/blacknewspaperindex.pdf.

Correspondence, W.E.B. Du Bois and Mattie McGhee, in W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, University of Massachusetts, accessible online at https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search?f%5Bname_facet_ssim%5D%5B%5D=McGhee%2C+Mattie.

See also her husband's earlier correspondence with Du Bois concerning the Niagara Movement in this collection.

Wikipedia sketch of Fredrick McGhee, accessed online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredrick_McGhee.

Dave Riehle, "The Great Cuba Pageant of 1898: St. Paul's Citizens Support the Struggle for Civil Rights," Ramsey County History, 33:4 (Winter 1999), 15-20.

Paul D. Nelson, Fredrick L. McGhee: A Life on the Color Line, 1861-1912 (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002)

 

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