by Elizabeth Robeson
Nathaniel Jerome (“N.J.”) Frederick was born in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, seven months after the contentious fall of Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy under the former Confederate general, Governor Wade Hampton. The son of Benjamin Glenn Frederick — a Methodist minister with the disconcerting reputation as a Red Shirt (the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party responsible for Hampton’s dubious victory) and a Democratic representative in the state legislature (1878–1880; 1882–1884), the younger Frederick earned two Bachelor’s degrees: one from Claflin College of Orangeburg in 1899, and a second from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1901, where he studied American history under Frederick Jackson Turner and prepared a senior thesis titled, “Genesis of the Freedman’s Bureau.” Frederick also held two Master’s degrees from Claflin and Benedict College of Columbia, S.C., both historically black colleges founded after the Civil War. In 1902, Frederick became principal of the Howard School in Columbia, the only public school to serve the African American youth of the capital city. During his tenure at Howard (1902–1918), the elementary school enrolled more than 1,300 students annually, while the secondary grades (8–10) accommodated approximately 150. According to a federal report titled "Negro Education" (1916), the school occupied “a large city lot and two frame buildings. The elementary classrooms,” it continued, “are crowded.” While principal, Frederick married Corinne Carroll of Columbia, with whom he had four children, and immersed himself in civic affairs and fraternal organizations, serving as president of the S.C. State Negro Teachers Association, secretary of the S.C. State Colored Fair Association, and holding memberships in the Knights of Pythias, the Good Samaritans, the Elks, and Masons. While it has not been established with whom, Frederick also studied law during this period with “some of the best legal minds of the state bar,” to which he was admitted in 1913. That same year Frederick assumed editorial duties at the Southern Indicator, “an independent [African American] newspaper published at Columbia.” During the ferment of World War I, Frederick held office with the Capital City Civic League of Columbia, an organization of “qualified” African American male voters “banded together for the sole purpose of contesting and contending for our every Constitutional right, privileges, and immunity.” In 1915, its officers wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois to inquire whether “there is any chance to attach our organization to the Natl Ass’n for [the] Advancement of Colored People — there are several things that could be done if you would not be afraid to operate in the South.” Two years later, the Capital City Civic League had effectively metamorphosed into the Columbia chapter of the NAACP, boasting 757 members, with Frederick serving on the Executive Committee. In addition to serving as a director for the Victory Savings and Loan (one of two African American banks in the state), Frederick began editing the Palmetto Leader in 1925, which he did weekly until May 1938. Frederick’s blunt editorials and reportage on civil rights issues from across the nation were doubtlessly critical to the coalescing of organized agitation in South Carolina during and after World War II. A life-long Republican, Frederick chaired the Richland County Republican Party and attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate in 1924, 1928, and 1932.
Frederick’s civic resume, however impressive, pales in comparison to his accomplishments as an attorney. Over his twenty-five year legal career, he argued thirty-three cases before the South Carolina Supreme Court, including those that challenged the barring of black jurors from the state’s courtrooms (State v. Sanders, 1916) and two explosive cases of alleged rape of white women by black men (Bess v. Pearman, (1929); State v. Floyd (1934)). In 1932, he began laying the groundwork to challenge the white primary in South Carolina, which led the South Carolina legislature to repeal its primary laws. Frederick’s most celebrated case was State v. Lowman (1926), in which he voluntarily appealed the death sentences of Bertha, Damon, and Clarence Lowman for the murder of Aiken County Sheriff Henry H. Howard. Winning the state supreme court’s unanimous consent to a retrial, Frederick secured a directed verdict of acquittal for Damon Lowman, the catalyst for the execution-style lynchings of all three defendants in the early hours before the trial resumed the next morning. The national publicity garnered from the case brought Frederick to the attention of the NAACP and its affiliates of civil rights attorneys and activists. William Pickens, National Field Secretary, dubbed him “the bravest man in South Carolina,” while Du Bois commented on his “unusual aggressiveness” in the Crisis. In 1932, he was appointed to the NAACP’s National Legal Committee, the forerunner to the Legal Defense Fund. Writing in 1935, Charles H. Houston included Frederick, along with R.D. Evans of Waco, Texas, and S.D. Redmond of Jackson, Mississippi, as three notable exceptions to the “older Negro lawyers in the South … [who] have tended to avoid highly inflammable issues and stay in the less controversial fields of strictly civil work and office practice.” For his part, Frederick once wrote to the NAACP’s Walter F. White, “Some how it seems that I am destined to be involved in cases where human rights (black) [sic] are at a low discount. Though financially they mean a loss to me … I get quite a ’kick’ out of trying to help the poor and unfortunate, especially since I belong to the group which comes under that classification, and is always the victim.” Undoubtedly South Carolina’s most accomplished African American lawyer of his generation, N.J. Frederick was heir to the pioneering examples of Robert Brown Elliott, Jacob Moorer, and William J. Whipper.
N.J. Frederick died on September 7, 1938, in Columbia, S.C., from the effects of a ruptured ulcer. He is buried in Palmetto Cemetery. A memorial published a year after his death stated, “His appeals for the under man were strong and he cried aloud for mercy and justice for the Negro race.” His private papers have not survived him.