As a society, we rarely take time to study the past and worse we frequently forget about important and tragic events.
Today we can reflect on an important and generally forgotten event: the lynching of three black men
, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie
, in Minnesota
, this week in 1920. In Minnesota, these men were the only blacks ever lynched.
The article below is based on and taken from an article I wrote which will appear in an upcoming book, the Encyclopedia of Disasters and Tragic Events and How They Changed American History
After the Civil War ended racialized enslavement, African-Americans still had it rough in the United States, very rough. Most historians even say it was “worse” because whites now actively had motivations to murder and hurt blacks in new and far worse ways and more often than ever before.
One of the new forms of discrimination directed toward blacks after the Civil War was lynching. From 1882 to 1930, there were 4,587 lynching victims, 3,306 of these African-American—the vast majority of these were in the South and only involved one victim.
I put this graph together to give you an idea of the number of lynchings per year. I know it is hard to see, sorry. The blue line represents white lynching victims, the red line black lynching victims. (BTW, I am well aware of the very problematic nature of the labels “white” and “black” – that’s for another diary.) The graph starts with 1882 and goes to 1968. The vasty majority were from 1882 to 1930.
Although somewhat a debate over words, perhaps, a “lynching” was very different than a “hanging.” A lynching would include extralegal mods and mutilation of the body before and after the death, for example.
On June 15, 1920, in Duluth, Minnesota, a mob of somewhere around six to ten thousand men, women, and even children, gathered together to murder three black men accused of rape. The total population was just under 100,000 (with 495 blacks and 29,675 immigrants).
It all started twenty-six hours earlier when Irene Tusken, 19, and her boyfriend, James Sullivan went to a traveling circus on June 14. When Sullivan went to work that evening, he told his dad that Tusken had been raped by a group of black men and that they had both been attacked. His dad called the Duluth chief of police, John Murphy.
As miscegenation was a deadly “sin” and a most feared “crime,” Murphy immediately responded. The traveling circus already sixty miles away was ordered to stop. The chief of police and fifteen officers subjectively selected forty of the 150 black circus workers as suspects. After pressuring Tusken and Sullivan to pick the “guilty” men, after they both said they didn’t know, six of these men were again subjectively arrested and taken to the jail.
Paranoia, by word of mouth and newspapers, spread quickly through Duluth. Details didn’t matter. Truth didn’t matter. An accusation of rape had been made; therefore, someone had to be punished in their minds. Even Dr. David Graham’s examination of Tusken and conclusion that she had NOT been raped did not squelch the paranoia. People began suggesting that the blacks who raped Tusken be lynched. Crowds formed off and on throughout the day. Tension increased further after rumors spread that Tusken had died from shock. The largest and most enduring mob began assembling when a group of young men used their truck to drag a long piece of rope with a noose on the ground while they drove around town.
In virtually every similar situation, local, state, and national officials, including religious leaders, overlooked lynch mobs and their crimes and even encouraged them. In Duluth, the police provided a surprising amount of protection for the accused blacks. Although understaffed, underequipped, disorganized, and ordered not to use firearms, police in Duluth actively tried to disband the mob by reassuring them that justice would be served. As tensions escalated, people broke into the police station and began tearing the building down with bricks, chisels, and anything else they could retrieve. Police used firehoses on the crowd. Undaunted, the crowd shouted and turned a firehose on the police. Even local ministers were unsuccessful in persuading the mob to disperse. Finally a few hours later, the crowd seized complete control of the jail.
Following mock trials of no more than seconds, the extralegal mobs beat, partially stripped, and hung Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie on the light pole outside the police station at 11:30 p.m. and left them overnight. Photographers took pictures of the dead bodies alongside cheering crowds and made enduring postcards. The following morning, people returned to collect any kind of souvenir possible from the lynchings.
While all lynchings were tragic and generated responses, reactions after the Duluth Lynchings were different and more extended. Previously having thought that such extreme racism only existed in the South, the nation reacted in horror upon seeing pictures and hearing about this incident through media outlets. On June 16, the Minnesota National Guard
came to restore order. On June 17, the grand jury brought various charges against some of the mob members: twenty-five for rioting and twelve for first-degree murder
. While only three were ultimately found guilty, significantly for the time, three white men were found guilty, though they were only convicted of rioting, with sentences of only about a year.
Black males from the circus faced scrutiny again. Evidence still said that Tusken had NOT actually been raped at all, but since such a charge had been made, citizens of Duluth continued to believe it and had to punish someone. The grand jury approved prosecution against seven blacks. The NAACP provided three lawyers. In the end, a jury convicted only Max Mason of rape and sentenced him to seven to thirty years in prison. After serving less just less than five years, the court released him and ordered him to never enter Minnesota again. For a time, rumors spread in Duluth insinuating that all blacks would be lynched. Local blacks responded by launching a chapter of the NAACP. Individuals throughout the state pushed for antilynching legislation, which passed on April 21, 1921. Although unsuccessful, attempts were also made to codify a national antilynching bill. Nonetheless, approximately 20 percent of Duluth’s blacks moved elsewhere.
Over the decades, people suppressed the Duluth Lynchings from memory and forbade discussion of them in schools. (I even know of one person who grew up near Duluth a few years later who never heard about them.)
In a turn of events, on October 10, 2003, with thousands in attendance, the city dedicated the seven-foot-tall stone and bronze Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial
, located across the street from where these men were murdered over eighty years prior.
Although not as significant, a native of Duluth himself, Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (1965) serves as a partial reminder of this horrible triple murder.
Apel, Dora. “Memorialization and its Discontents: American’s First Lynching Memorial.” Mississippi Quarterly 61 (1/2): 217-35.
Fedo, Michael. The Lynchings in Duluth. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.
Green, William D. “‘To Remove the Stain’: The Trial of the Duluth Lynchers.” Minnesota History 59 (1): 22-35.
Gustafson, Kristin L. “Constructions of Responsibility for Three 1920 Lynchings in Minnesota Newspapers.” Journalism History 34 (1): 42-53
Minnesota Historical Society. “Duluth Lynching Online Resources.”
And we must pay tribute to Billie Holiday