Duluth Remembers 1920 Lynching

By Ken Olsen | for Tolerance.org

Oct. 13, 2003 -- Duluth, Minnesota confronted its lynching past on Friday, dedicating 7-foot-tall bronze statues of three African-American lynching victims.

The statues were part of a sweeping memorial erected across the street from the site of the June 15, 1920 atrocities.

And the great grandson of a mob organizer ý who stumbled upon his great grandfather's role in recruiting the crowd that ripped Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie from their jail cells, beat them and strung them up on a lamp post ý took to the speaker's podium to apologize to the men.

Because his great grandfather, Louis Dondino, "is one representative of the thousands of people that night, it was upon his shoulders to take some responsibility for the events that took place," Warren Read of Kingston, Wash. said. "I don't know that he ever did that," beyond a short prison stint for inciting a riot.

"I'd like to think that in his own heart, he did," Read said, his voice strained with emotion. "Nonetheless, I stand here as a representative of his legacy and I willingly place that responsibility on my shoulders."

Clearly, Duluth likewise is taking responsibility for atrocities that began when a white Duluth youth falsely accused six African American circus workers of raping his date. The city of about 90,000, on the southwestern tip of Lake Superior, now has the largest lynching monument in the United States, according to Heidi Bakk-Hanson, cofounder of the group that brought its construction to fruition.

Celebration and atonement
Few could miss Friday's celebration and atonement ceremony. It started with a march, led by a six-piece New Orleans jazz band, and largely followed the route the lynch mob took through downtown Duluth in 1920.

The modern-day marchers included school children, uniformed police officers, a broad spectrum of local residents and even inmates on a day pass from the North East Regional Correctional Facility work farm in Hibbing, Minn.

"Minnesota deals with a lot of racism. This helps equalize it," said Steve Kuehn, 21, of St. Louis, who said he is serving time for "mistakes he made."

Leo Spooner watched the march from the open door of Allenfall's, the men's clothing store he just sold after 50 years of haberdashery.

"That's quite a crowd of people," said Spooner, 76, waving at the marchers. "I see a lot of my friends."

What does he make of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial?

"Listen, if it produces more goodwill and more camaraderie and more friendship in the world, I'm all for it," Spooner said.

Aaron Nelson, a student at nearby University of Wisconsin at Superior, briefly left the march to photograph the police station where the lynching mob ý estimated to number as many as 10,000 ý broke in with battering rams and bricks and hauled away three of the six men held in connection with the alleged rape.

"I was really surprised that I didn't hear anything about (the lynchings) before," said Nelson, who grew up about five miles from Duluth. "The community must be embarrassed.... (and) not sure why it happened," he added, speculating about the decades of silence.

Treme Brass Band, which might lead a New Orleans style funeral any other day, paused and played in front of the police station before turning up the hill and walking the final block to the memorial, part of a neighborhood that ranges from a pawn shop and run down bar to a youth center and plumbing and heating shop.

Song, prayer and speeches followed, extolling the crowd that packed the area to allow the unearthing of a wretched page from Duluth's past to guide a better future.

"When we don't remember our past we repeat it," said Catherine Ostos, a teacher and cofounder of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee. "Today we make history right. We have moved from complacency to compassion."

Acknowledging hidden history
Mayor Gary Doty told the audience he is surprised to hear people still ask if it wouldn't be easier to let the lynching remain buried. "My hope is the memorial will lead to forgiveness and healing," Doty said. "Let's not miss that opportunity."

Until recently, the tragedy primarily was memorialized on a gruesome picture postcard of the event that remained hidden, along with the details of the tragedy, in the attics of this reticent Scandinavian community and only spoken of when members of the African American community warned newcomers of color about Duluth's tragic past.

"The Lynchings in Duluth," a book about the atrocities, struggled through two publishers until the Minnesota Historical Society Press reissued it in 2000.

Now the lynching is captured in a memorial comprised of two tall stone walls, headlined by an inscription from Edmund Burke that reads, "An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent."

Other quotes, selected by Minneapolis writer and publisher Anthony Peyton Porter, as well as his synopsis of the lynchings, are chiseled into the walls.

Three men cast in bronze stare from one wall, the work of Duluth sculptor Carla Stetson. During Friday's events, Stetson explained the dilemma of recreating likenesses of the lynching victims because the only available images come from the postcard photo taken after they were hanged and, despite dedicated effort, researchers have not found any living relatives or other information about the victims.

Stetson wanted Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie to have complete features because "lynching requires the perpetrators to think of their victims as less than human." The sculptor recruited three young African-American men from Duluth of about the same age to serve as models.

An old brick hotel rises behind the sculpture from the lot next door. Faded words painted on its brickwork ironically read "Gospel Mission" and quotes Psalm 46:1 "God is our refuge, strength, a very present help in trouble" ý faraway words for these young men on that terrifying night.

The Clayton Jackson McGhie remembrance continued into the evening, capped by a performance by the Minnesota Ballet Theatre that included actors voicing the thoughts of the three men in the last minutes of their lives, moving some in the audience to tears.

And throughout the day, individuals and small groups paid their respects at three unremarkable graves located in a lonely, treeless tuck of the Park Hill Cemetery, three miles north of the memorial. The wind stirred autumn leaves around their final resting place. Someone laid a single, long-stem red rose across the headstones of Clayton, age 19; Jackson, age 22; and McGhie age 20.

Today the inscription on their graves finally carried weight: "Deterred but not defeated."

Ken Olsen, a 2003 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, is a freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest and a frequent contributor to Tolerance.org.

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee is continuing to raise money to make a documentary about the Duluth lynchings, develop school curriculum and press the search for more information about the three men killed. Contact them online or write to:
P.O. Box 7352
Duluth, MN 55807-7352

:: Read more about how Warren Read's genealogical search unearthed the role his great grandfather played in Duluth's 1920 lynching.

:: The Minnesota Historical Society has a special collection of documents about the lynching, including trial transcripts, background on Duluth's African American community in 1920, and information about other lynchings across the United States during that era.

:: Read It Happened Here, a story from Teaching Tolerance magazine about Duluth residents facing the painful lessons of the 1920 lynching.

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