FEATURE

It Happened Here

Duluth residents face the painful lessons of a 1920 lynching.

Melissa Taylor first saw the postcard when she was in high school. She and her siblings stumbled across it in a chest of old pictures belonging to her parents.

"As a kid, I knew terrible things happened to Black people," recalls Taylor. "But this picture [on the postcard] frightened even my father. He and my mother both knew about it."

For African-American families in Duluth, the black-and-white photo taken in 1920 was a shocking reminder of an incident this small city had tried for decades to forget. Taylor believes the racial climate in the city her family has called home for three generations hasn't really changed.

"All the undercurrent of emotion and hate and fear that drove this community to do what it did in 1920 still exists," she says.

The final week of spring 1920 had been one to celebrate. The northeastern Minnesota town at the western tip of Lake Superior was about to mark the 50th anniversary of its city charter.

On Monday, June 14, John Robinson's Circus — "Now the Finest in the World!" its ads boasted — rolled into town. Citizens from the surrounding area converged on the West Duluth fairgrounds to enjoy the circus and accompanying parade before it headed off to Virginia, Minn., about 60 miles north of Duluth, the following morning.

Two young Duluthians — Irene Tusken, a 19-year-old stenographer, and James Sullivan, an 18-year-old dockworker — met up and went to the circus that evening.

No one knows exactly why, where or when, but something transpired during Tusken's and Sullivan's visit that would lead them, later that night, to level charges of robbery and rape against six African-American circus workers.

The following morning, despite the absence of any physical evidence or additional witnesses, the Duluth police stormed the circus train.

Sleeping Black workers were rousted out of their beds and rounded up outside the carriages. The officers arrested six men — Elias Clayton, Nate Green, Elmer Jackson, Loney Williams, John Thomas and Isaac McGhie —and carted them to the city jail.

By nightfall on June 15, with the evening edition of the Duluth Herald already calling the case closed ("West Duluth Girl Victim of Six Negroes"), an angry mob estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people overpowered the hapless police force and stormed the jail, dragging three of the accused — Clayton, Jackson and McGhie — out onto Second Avenue.

The three men pleaded for their lives as the mob pummeled them and dragged them through the street. At a lamppost at the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, the captors stripped the men to their waists, fastened nooses around their necks one by one and hoisted them up the makeshift gallows. Those within reach continued to strike the dangling bodies.

Ushering over a photographer standing nearby, the lead assailants formed a circle around the lamppost to pose with their handiwork. As the camera flashed, some stared impassively; others grinned and slapped each other on the shoulders, stretching their necks and cocking their heads to make sure they got in the picture.

Clustered around the shirtless corpses, the White men in the photograph are all wearing overcoats and hats against the chill of a late spring evening. By week's end, the picture would be printed and sold as souvenir postcards throughout the city.

 

Looking Back to Look Ahead

Decades later, at the intersection of Second Avenue East and First Street, White and African-American citizens gather.

Passersby wonder what the small group is doing, solemnly standing at the intersection on June 15. There is, after all, no plaque or marker that would indicate anything extraordinary occurred on this site — symbolic of the community's decades of silence about the lynchings.

For years, annual gatherings at the site were quiet and lightly attended. One year, maybe 25 would show up; other years, as few as 10.

White Duluthians explain this in various ways — lack of awareness, fear of opening old wounds, a general discomfort with racial issues. Still, many acknowledge that the murders of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie have haunted the community for decades.

Bob Dylan, who was born in Duluth and whose father lived there at the time of the lynching, referenced the incident in the opening line of his 1965 ballad "Desolation Row": "They're selling postcards of the hanging."

It was Michael Fedo's 1979 book, Trial by Mob, however, that refused to let the story of June 15, 1920, fade from memory. Until it was reprinted in 2000 by the Minnesota Historical Society, under a new title, The Lynchings in Duluth, this detailed account of the murders was hard to find, but those who had only heard of the event in passing and wanted to know more, hunted it down.

Heidi Bakk-Hansen, a local journalist, and Catherine Ostos, a teacher at Central High School, five blocks from the vigil site, were two of them.

Although the two women knew that Duluth, like most Northern cities, had had its share of covert racism over the years, they never imagined that hate violence had a public face in their town.

"We found out," says Ostos, "that it can happen in Duluth."

Ostos and Bakk-Hansen soon joined the vigil at Second Avenue East and First Street on June 15.

By 2000, local activists believed that the time was long overdue for the city to commemorate the lynching and help the community confront its past. Bakk-Hansen, Ostos and nine others formed the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee (named after the three victims) to campaign for a memorial on the lynching site and promote remembrance and reconciliation in their city.

"I guess our hope," says Ostos, "was to give the words 'It can happen in Duluth' new meaning."

The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee joined a growing national network of community organizations that are examining their legacies of racial violence.

In towns from Rosewood, Fla., to Provo, Utah, activists are asking similar questions: How can events so traumatic go unacknowledged for so long? How should we present the information? Are dialogue and healing possible? What do our local residents — particularly our young people — need to know?

"It was never forgotten. People knew," says Henry Banks, who has lived in Duluth for almost 20 years and is co-chair of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee. "They just didn't want to talk about it."

For many people, Banks and other activists say, the concept of "lynching," like slavery, is safely sealed in the past.

"What happened in Duluth 80 years ago," says Catherine Ostos, "is a part of our history. But the mentality, the climate of the times, the violence people are capable of, is part of our present. Matthew Shepard was lynched. James Byrd was lynched. That's not history."

When devising strategies about how to promote racial reconciliation built on a foundation of awareness about the 1920 lynching, members of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee were careful not to simply memorialize the three men.

That approach, they reasoned, would allow the town to wash its hands of such blatant brutality without addressing the institutionalized racism and economic inequities in 21st-century Duluth.

"Duluth has a long history of covert racism," says Banks. "When I walk down the street or meet people for the first time, I'm often made to feel like an African American. There's a lot of mistrust and suspicions between Whites and Blacks in Duluth. Not enough has been done to extend opportunities to the African-American community. The economic inequalities in the city are extreme."

Looking back to look ahead is the whole point, says Heidi Bakk-Hansen. "Our community's ability to celebrate diversity and be a welcoming place depends on our open discussion of this episode."

Some of the goals of the committee, including a permanent memorial at the lynching site, would take years of effort and relentless fundraising. Other ideas, like adding a unit on the lynching to the high school social studies curriculum, might have prompted a tangle of red tape or even a public outcry, but the committee already had a key ally in Duluth's classrooms.

 

"Why Couldn't It Happen Here Again?"

Catherine Nachbar was an 8th-grader when her father told her about what happened in 1920. When she asked her history teacher at Central High the next day at school, he confirmed the story.

"But that's where it ended," she recalls. "It was a pretty taboo subject."

Nine years later, Nachbar stood once again in a Central High history classroom - as a teacher herself. In her first year on the job, she told her students about the Duluth lynching.

"I brought it up in class for a couple of reasons," Nachbar says. "Any discussion of contemporary racism must include an examination - an unveiling, really - of a past that included the pursuit, torture and murder of African Americans. Our own community unfortunately has a link to that past. But, most importantly, I thought it was a good way for students to address racial issues that we have in Duluth today."

Nachbar decided to show the students the photograph of the lynching because the postcard had played such a pivotal role over the years in reminding the community of its shameful past.

"Yes, it is a grisly picture," Nachbar explains, "but I wanted students to see not so much the victims but the mob as well, their expressions especially. [White people in] our community did this to these men. I got that point across to the class. They were shocked by the photo but understood why I showed it to them."

Only four or five in a class evenly divided between White and Black students had ever heard of the lynching. Toni Roberts was not one of them.

"My mom grew up in Duluth and she never heard about it," recalls Toni. "My friends in other schools didn't either. But Ms. Nachbar's purpose was not just to show us a gory photo. She also told us about the memorial committee and about a project that we could get involved in. This lesson became something kids in the class could help create and bring to the whole community."

For Nachbar's students, highly publicized hate murders in their own lifetimes have brought a special urgency to their investigation of the past.

"Maybe the deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd could have been prevented," Toni says. "Something horrible happened here 80 years ago. If lynching has never really gone away, why couldn't it happen here again?"

Toni and five classmates volunteered to help write a curriculum that would use knowledge about the 1920 lynching as a springboard to promote community-wide discussions about racial reconciliation.

From February 2001 through April 2002, the students spent valuable free time researching primary documents at libraries, retrieving copies of court documents from the city archives and other government offices, tracking down photographs and meeting with members of the community who could help.

Sometimes they would come to school early, just so they could squeeze in a meeting before classes started.

Recent Central High graduate Delon Grant was part of the original team.

"The project allowed me to connect more with Duluth as a community," he says. "The city never really identified with things like racism and prejudice, when these are things that exist here. It made our community more realistic, and brought us out of our little bubble and helped us realize that we've made mistakes."

 

Reconciliation and Healing Take Time

In October 2001, Catherine Ostos and Portia Johnson, another member of the Clayton-Jackson- McGhie Memorial Committee, traveled to Atlanta to attend a special workshop on racial reconciliation sponsored by Emory University and the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee (honoring two African-American couples lynched in 1946 at the Moore's Ford Bridge near Monroe, Ga.)

Joining the representatives from Duluth and Monroe were grassroots organizers from Chattanooga, Tenn.; Ocoee and Rosewood, Fla.; Orangeburg, S.C.; Wilmington, N.C.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Price, Utah.

For three days, the participants shared their community stories, compared group histories and strategies, and discussed ways to begin or complete the healing process.

Although relishing the commonalities with the other groups, Ostos also realized that her colleagues in Duluth were fortunate not to have to face the danger some of their new friends had endured while organizing memorials at lynching sites.

She heard from members of the Moore's Ford Memorial Committee and Ocoee and Rosewood about intimidation and threats of violence.

"In Duluth, thankfully, we haven't experienced any of that," says Ostos. "I realized that my bickering about the slow wheels of the local bureaucracy seems trivial. I mean, we have a mayor who is sincerely trying to help us out, and the community overall seems ready to talk about it."

"What these communities share is a clear and expressed commitment to truth," explains Dr. Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina. "That commitment is buttressed by a commitment to justice and reconciliation. On the other hand, if you're interested in revenge, if you're interested in confrontation, if you're interested in retribution, then the community will lose its way."

Community activist Henry Banks concurs. "Duluth is only in the first phase of this campaign," he says. "I've been here for 18 years. Many of us have waited a long time. We can wait some more. Reconciliation, atonement and healing — to be truly lasting — have to take their time."

Some of the waiting, though, will soon be over. At press time, Banks and other Committee supporters were eagerly awaiting the unveiling of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial in Duluth — scheduled for Friday, Oct. 10, 2003.

The scenic plaza will feature three seven-foot-high bronze sculptures depicting the three men and 16 quotes from renowned philosophers.

Back in Duluth's classroom, the work of the Committee and Catherine Nachbar's students has already begun to leave its mark.

"We want to assemble a student board to make presentations to other teachers in the Duluth district," Toni Roberts says. "Our input can really make other students sit up and pay attention. I feel honored to be a part of this process—the process of educating while healing."

Without Sanctuary

According to the most conservative estimates, some 5,000 people — mostly African American men — were lynched in the United States between 1882 (the first year reliable statistics were gathered) and 1968 (the year in which many scholars believe the classic forms of lynching disappeared).

 

Today, in Duluth and other communities across the nation, the very photographs that earlier generations of White citizens took and distributed as postcards as a way to affirm the oppressive message of racial violence are now helping activists and educators address the lingering impact of such incidents.

 

In addition to the stories carefully preserved in some families and rejected by others, newspaper accounts and other evidence of lynchings have often been available in local library archives, for those willing to do the research.

 

The photographs, however — which in ensuing decades often disappeared from public collections and passed out of private circulation — exert a force that no written description can match.

 

Atlanta antique dealer James Allen had long recognized the documentary value of lynching photographs. In 2000, his decade-long journey of canvassing the South for copies of these rare and disturbing pictures culminated in a traveling exhibit and accompanying book, titled Without Sanctuary ($60).

 

Like the Duluth postcard, which is included in the book and exhibit, many of the photographs in Without Sanctuary depict brutality on two levels: the crimes themselves and the treatment of the murders as carnival spectacles.

 

The public display of these images — to no small controversy — has opened a new phase in the acknowledgement of and dialogue about this dark episode in American history.

 

Despite its recent and terrifying reign, the nation's legacy of lynching remains less known than either slavery or segregation.

 

"This is not an easy history to assimilate," historian Leon F. Litwack writes in the introduction to Without Sanctuary. "Obviously, it is easier to choose the path of collective amnesia, to erase such memories, to sanitize our past."

 

To purchase a copy of the book:
Twin Palms Publishing
TwelveTrees Press
54 1/2 East San Francisco St.
Santa Fe, NM , 87501
(800) 797-0680
www.twinpalms.com

For information on the traveling Without Sanctuary exhibit, visit www.withoutsanctuary.com.