by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
The registrars at Shaw University in Raleigh probably looked up when Edmund Fitzgerald Fredericks came to enroll in the black university’s School of Law. Fredericks spoke with a proper English accent and was once described by a friend as, “every inch a Britisher.” “Fitz” was already well-educated and could speak multiple languages. E.F. Fredericks was born in Buxton Village, in the Demerara Region, on the north coast of South America, in what is now Guyana, on March 9, 1875. E.F. was the second son of Louis and Charlotte Fredericks. He grew up attending church, going to school, and helping tend cattle at home. He excelled both in school and at church, showing exceptional oratory skills and acting in plays such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and King John. As an adult he became a teacher at the Friendship Wesleyan School and was later made Headmaster of Concordia Presbyterian School on Wakenaam Island off the coast of what was then British Guiana. Fredericks was headmaster-teacher until September 1903 when at the age of 28 he sailed for America to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer.
1903 was not a good year to be a black man in North Carolina. In 1898 a white supremacy campaign had taken control of NC politics and on August 2, 1900 the state passed Article VI: The Suffrage and Eligibility amendment to the state constitution. The purpose of the law was to disfranchise black citizens by taking away their right to vote. Undeterred by North Carolina’s political environment, Fredericks immersed himself in the study of law, completing the three-year program in two years. He passed the North Carolina State Board of Examination in March 1905 and was appointed Attorney and Counselor-at-Law even before he officially graduated from Shaw with his LL.B Degree in May of that year. In 1905 the N.C. General Assembly granted a charter that “hereby constituted a school district for white and colored children, to be known as “The Mooresville Graded School District.” On April 24, 1906 Mooresville voters passed a bond and local tax creating the Mooresville Graded School system. E.F. Fredericks, who had a love for both the law and teaching, was soon hired as the principal for Mooresville’s colored school.
Fredericks was better educated than 99 percent of the people in Iredell County, but still faced the same legal and social restrictions that all black men did in that time. Fredericks never gave in to self-pity. He was a self-made man who through his own intelligence and hard work had gone from being a boy tending cattle in British Guiana to being both an attorney and school principal in the United States. The new graded colored school opened on Monday, September 17, 1906 and the faculty consisted of principal-teacher Fredericks and Melissa Murray. 107 children enrolled in the school on the first day and by November the two teachers had 120 students. The black community showed strong support for the school from the start. The 120 students represented 69% of the 174 black children in the Mooresville area who were eligible. By comparison the white school only enrolled 44% of the eligible white children from the same area.
Fritz used his writing skills to create support for the new school. On Jan. 3, 1907 he sent “A Report of the Colored School” to Mooresville’s newspaper, The Enterprise, in which he wrote, “Since my appointment as principal of this school, I have attempted to arouse the people to a sense of self-help. How well I have succeeded in the venture you will decide on examining the following figures.” Fredericks gave a report on his efforts to raise funding for the school from the community through various programs put on by the students. Their efforts had raised $45.60 which had been used to purchase maps, a stove and piping, and other materials needed at the school. The editor of The Enterprise made note of Fredericks work writing, “We are glad to print the above report from E. Fitz Frederick, principal of the colored school of Mooresville. It is just and right that the public should know what he is doing for his race, and we are glad to say, doing well.”
In addition to his job as principal, Fredericks was also involved in efforts to improve race relations. In the summer of 1911 he sailed to Great Britain where he represented the State of North Carolina at the First International Race Congress at the University of London. On March 6, 1913, the Mooresville Enterprise reported that, “E. Fitz Frederick, who has been principal of the colored school here for several years past, will leave Saturday for London, where he will probably become engaged in editorial work on one of the London papers. The school board has granted him a leave of absence for 10 days or longer.” While in England Fredrick completed the Oxford Senior Examination at the Crystal Palace Centre as he worked to obtain a law degree in Britain.
1916 was Fredericks’ last year as principal of the black school in Mooresville and in September 1917 he was succeeded by Principal J. L. Hollowell of Statesville. World War I had begun and Fredericks the “Britisher” moved to England to serve as an accounting clerk in the War Office. While in London, Fredericks was a prominent member of the African Progress Union, and at the end of the war, was sent as a delegate to Paris, to the first Pan-African Congress. 15 years and 10 months after leaving British Guiana, Edmund Fitzgerald Fredericks returned to his native country in June 1919 and was called to the English Bar on July 6. Fredericks became an important figure in the Guiana court and political system. In 1926 he was elected in the General Election to the Combined Court winning the South-East Essequibo seat and in 1928 he was returned unopposed as a member of the Legislative Council. On the recommendation of Guiana Governor, Sir Edward Denham, King George V appointed Fredericks as the first African-Guyanese member of the Executive Council.
E. F. Fredericks died on April 6, 1935 at the age of sixty. His death was reported in the New York Times which described him as a prominent barrister and a member of the British Guiana Legislative Council. On September 29, 2010, Professor Barbara Josiah at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice presented a paper called, “From Shaw University to the Booker T. Washington of British Guiana, Hon. E.F. Fredericks and Contributions of HBCU’s to the African Diaspora” at the 95th Annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. Professor Josiah said, “Three days after Hon. Edmund Fitzgerald Fredericks, LL.B, M.L.C. died, an eminent legal practitioner in the Supreme Court of the British Guiana (Guyana) identified him as the then colony’s Booker T. Washington.” Mooresville’s first black graded school principal left his mark on three continents. —Joel Reese