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McGill Family Papers

Identifier: harsh-2004-08

Scope and Contents

Nathan K. McGill, III primarily compiled the McGill Family Papers. The arrangement follows, in large part, the order in which the materials were created and donated to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. A great deal of the work of locating, selecting, and providing identifying information for items in the Papers should also be credited to Mr. McGill. Photographs were numbered in the order in which they were donated.


  • 1870-2008


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

Nathan Kellogg McGill, Sr. (1888-1946) was a prominent and influential figure in journalism, law and politics in Chicago and in Florida. Born November 29, 1888 (date in dispute) in Quincy, Florida, the McGill family moved to Sanford, Florida while he was still a child. His parents were poor; his father worked as a laborer. He was the younger brother of Simuel Decatur McGill, later a nationally known civil rights lawyer. Nathan McGill graduated from Cookman Institute, where he was reported to be a brilliant student. His oratorical skills were showcased in a 1908 eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, later published as a pamphlet. Shortly after that success, he enrolled in Boston University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1912. He returned to Florida, practiced law, and was admitted to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court. McGill also became publisher of the Florida Sentinel in Jacksonville from 1916 to 1920.

In 1917, he married Idalee Thornton McGill, sister of Robert Abbott’s first wife, Helen Thornton Abbott. They had two sons, Nathan K. McGill, Jr., and Simuel Decatur McGill II. After a divorce from Idalee McGill, N.K. McGill married Beatrice Stiles in 1934. They had a third son, Winston B. McGill. Nathan McGill III, the primary donor of these papers, is the son of Nathan K. McGill, Jr.

By 1918 he lived at least part-time in Chicago, where he set up a law practice and may have done some work for the Chicago Defender,. By 1924 or 1925 he moved to Chicago permanently, and was soon appointed an Assistant State’s Attorney for Cook County, sworn in on April 28, 1925. He was one of the first African Americans to hold the office. The following year he was hired as general counsel and vice-president of the Chicago Defender,, beginning a period of nearly 10 years in which he was Defender, publisher Robert S. Abbott’s closest business associate. McGill and his family lived well, with an impressive home on South Parkway (now Martin Luther King, Jr.), luxury cars, and a vacation home in Paradise Lake, Michigan.

Throughout this period, McGill participated in major decisions on hiring writers, increasing circulation nationally, and expanding political relationships. He worked with Abbott on the early Bud Billiken parades, and on Abbott’s Monthly, magazine. When Abbott suffered several bouts of ill health in the early 1930s, McGill served as the untitled, de facto, chief executive of the Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company.

In the summer of 1934, after Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke, arrived in Chicago, a serious rift developed between Abbott and McGill. On September 12, 1934, Abbott terminated McGill from all his positions with the Defender and Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company. The newspaper published a statement that Abbott “has resumed complete management,” and that “Mr. N.K. McGill is no longer managing same.” The cause of the breakdown in relations between Abbott and McGill is in dispute.

Nathan K. McGill also served as an Assistant Attorney General of the state of Illinois from 1929 to 1933, and as a member of the Chicago Public Library Board of Directors from 1934 to 1940. For nearly two years, McGill published has own newspaper, Metropolitan News. The paper was severely affected by the economic conditions of the Depression and ceased publication in 1937. He filed bankruptcy papers in 1940, with court proceedings that dragged on for the last years of his life. Nathan K. McGill died May 7, 1946 at his home, 4806 South Parkway, Chicago.

Bibliography (for N.K. McGill)

Davis, Frank Marshall, Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

“Death Ends Colorful Career of N.K. McGill, Chicago Defender,, May 12, 1946.

“McGill, Nathan Kellogg—Lawyer,” entries in Who’s Who in Colored America, 1928-1940.” New York: Who’s Who in Colored America Pubs., 1928-1940.

Smith, J. Clay, Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944,. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993

Simuel Decatur McGill (1877- 1951), born April 23, 1877 in Quincy, Florida, became one of the leading civil rights attorneys in the pre-World War II south. He was the oldest brother of Nathan K. McGill, also an attorney and general counsel for the Chicago Defender. He graduated from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, and later attended Governor Dummer Academy in Massachusetts. In 1902, as the only African American student in his class, he won the award for Oratory. S.D. McGill earned an LL.B. from Boston University School of Law in 1907. He was the first African American licensed to practice law in Florida.

He married Rosa A. Brooks on December 27, 1912. They had two children: Theodore, who suffered an untimely death in 1926, and an adopted daughter, Ella Harriet.

After graduation, he returned to Florida, where he began practicing law in Jacksonville in 1908. He was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Knights of Pythias and in the Republican Party. In all three organizations, McGill rose to leadership positions on both the state and national levels. His national renown was mainly based, however, on his success as a civil rights lawyer. In a host of cases, mainly as an appellate lawyer, McGill succeeded in getting unjust convictions reversed. His 1924 victory in preventing the execution of Abe Washington was reported nationally. Often, he worked closely with NAACP leaders Harry T. Moore and Eartha White.

In his most famous case, Chambers et. al. v. Florida, he served as the appellate attorney for four African American men sentenced to death for the alleged 1933 murder of a white man in Pompano Beach, Florida. The men were tortured for a week until confessions were obtained from three of them; the fourth pleaded “not guilty,” but was convicted by an all-white jury. S.D. McGill was asked to enter the case as execution neared. In all, he worked on the case for more than six years. His first appeal to the Florida Supreme Court detailed the brutal manner in which the confessions were obtained. The Court directed that the trial court reconsider the evidence in the case. The case became known as the “Little Scottsboro Case.”

McGill came before the Florida Supreme Court four more times before the case was concluded with the release of the defendants in 1940. In the final hearing, S.D. McGill argued that the case should be thrown out because the original indictments were returned by an all-white Broward county grand jury. Testimony showed that no Black person had ever served on a grand jury in the county, despite a Black population of nearly 50 percent.

After a long illness, Simuel D. McGill died March 15, 1951, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Bibliography (for S.D. McGill)

Jones, Maxine D. and Kevin M. McCarthy, African Americans in Florida, Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, circa 1993

“McGill, Simuel Decatur—Lawyer,” entries in Who’s Who in Colored America, 1928-1940.” New York: Who’s Who in Colored America Pubs., 1928-1940.

Styles, Fitzhugh Lee, Negroes and the Law. Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1937.

Tushnet, Mark V., The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997


13 Linear Feet (in 17 boxes, includes 384 photographs)

Language of Materials



Nathan K. McGill, a native Floridian, had a profound impact on Chicago journalism and law. In 1925, he was appointed assistant state’s attorney in Chicago. A confidant of Robert Abbott, he later served as general manager, vice president and counsel of the Chicago Defender. He was also a member of the Chicago Public Library Board of Directors. From 1934 to 1937, he published his own newspaper, Metropolitan News,. The papers consist of newspaper clippings, serials, rare documents, photographs and memorabilia. The McGill Family Papers also include materials from Nathan McGill’s brother, Simuel D. McGill, a civil rights attorney.


Collection consists of 6 series

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donation of Nathan K. McGill III, 2004. Subsequent donations made by Nathan K. McGill III, Michele McGill, and Winston B. McGill, 2004-2011

Related Materials

  • Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers
  • David Kellum Papers
  • Barbara Allen Papers
  • Marjorie Stewart Joyner Papers

Guide to the McGill Family Papers
Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Harsh Archival Processing Project. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by C Fife Townsel, 2022
September 2022
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection Repository

Woodson Regional Library
Chicago Public Library
9525 S. Halsted Street
Chicago IL 60628 United States
(312) 745-2080