Concert asks Duluth to confront a 100-year-old lynching

A man conducts in front of a room full of seated people.
Josh Aerie conducts at a rehearsal on March 3 of the concert titled "And They Lynched Him on a Tree” to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the lynching of three innocent black men in Duluth in 1920.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Updated: March 10, 11:58 a.m.

Sunday marks the 100th day before the 100th anniversary of a gruesome chapter in Duluth's history — when a white mob hanged three black men from a downtown lamppost after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman.

There are people in Duluth who don't want to remember.

"People ask, why do we still bring up this history?" said Julia Cheng, one of the people insisting that the city not forget.

Several events are being planned this year to acknowledge the tragedy, beginning with a concert this weekend that Cheng has organized.

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"The lynching cast a shadow over this entire community,” she said. “Until we bring that into the light, and keep that in the light, our community won't move forward."

On June 15, 1920, a mob numbering in the thousands kidnapped three young African-American men — Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton — from the Duluth City Jail. They were traveling circus workers, falsely accused and detained for raping a white woman.

The crowd marched the men to the intersection of First Street and Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth, and hung them from a lamppost.

In 2003, a memorial was built at the site to commemorate the victims. It's believed to be the first memorial in the country of such size and scale built to remember a lynching at the site where it occurred.

And Sunday’s concert is another step in Duluth's healing and atonement, Cheng said. She helped recruit 84 musicians and singers from two dozen organizations across Duluth to participate.

"I believe we will never forget what we've accomplished here,” she told a group of performers before a recent rehearsal. “There will be transformation [in your hearts]. And because of that transformation, you're going to carry this into our community and help make it a better place for everyone to live in.”

The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial stands in Duluth.
The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial stands in Duluth in April 2018
Evan Frost | MPR News file 2018

The centerpiece of the concert is a performance of the choral ballad "And They Lynched Him on a Tree," which tells the story of a white mob that kidnaps a black man from prison and lynches him.

The great African American composer William Grant Still wrote the music. The lyrics were written by a white woman named Katherine Garrison Chapin. They're sung by two choruses: One sings the part of the black man's friends and family. The other sings the part of the white mob.

"We swung him higher than the tallest pine; we cut his throat so he ain't going to whine,” the mob sings at the beginning of the oratorio.

In her research of the piece, Cheng said she learned that it has rarely been performed since it first premiered in 1940. Part of that is the intense subject matter.

It’s also intended to be sung by one all-white chorus, and one all-black chorus. That can be challenging in some communities, including Duluth, where less than 3 percent of the population is African American.

Cheng said no person of color will sing in the white chorus Sunday, although she said some white singers will round out the chorus singing the role of the victim’s friends and family.

She said they also decided to rewrite some of the lyrics representing the black community that were written in dialect.

“We have decided that dialect is blackface,” she said. “So we’re singing in standard English.”

Diona Johnson sings the role of the victim's mother in the piece. She moved to Duluth eight years ago. She's African American, and a social worker. She said she’s excited to sing the work of a black composer.

People sit in a row reading music and singing.
Susan Damme, Marya Farrell and Holly Church sing at a rehearsal of “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” a concert to be performed Sunday to mark the 100th day before the 100-year anniversary of the lynching of three African-American men in downtown Duluth in 1920.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"I think that this centennial memorial is just a really monumental event,” she said. "And I wanted to do my part to show up, and how I show up — my definition of activism — is by using my voice."

Johnson said she hopes the concert and other events planned around the 100-year anniversary will serve as a call to action.

"Current events tell us that we have so much work to do — not just as a community, but as a nation,” she said. “And so I'm really hoping that this brings awareness to issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement as well as social justice and equality."

The concert concludes with the world premiere of another piece, “We Three Kings.”

It was written for piano, cello and violin by Jean “Rudy” Perrault, a violinist, orchestra director and professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Perrault is a native of Haiti who moved to Duluth from New York City 20 years ago.

"The trio that I wrote,” he said, “it's not to be enjoyed. I want it to make you think. Where are we right now? I want you to hear sounds that may not be pleasing to your ears. I want you to hear how I feel."

To write the piece, Perrault said he needed to go to a dark place. He thought about what his children had to endure as black kids growing up in an almost all-white Duluth. About faculty of color who weren't promoted or granted tenure. About leaders in Duluth's black community who felt compelled to pull him aside and tell him about the city's past when he moved there.

Front page of the local paper the next day
Minnesota Historical Society

And he printed out for himself an image of an infamous postcard from the lynching: It’s a photo of two black men hanging from the post, a third lying on the ground, and white faces staring into the camera, grinning.

"So I can look at it, It's like, ‘What is that telling me? What do I see in that postcard? What do I hear in that postcard?’ Some of the smiling faces were really repugnant,” he said. “So I said, ‘I have to use that.’ That feeling of macabre joy, I needed to use that. The swinging of their bodies, I needed to hear that."

The piece ends, he said, with uncertainty. It asks the audience, he said: “Here we are. What do you think? Where are we a hundred years later? Where do we go from here?”

Five days before the performance, Perrault still hadn’t heard his music rehearsed. It was all in his head. He says it was an honor to be asked to write the trio — but also frightening.

“Because it is so important,” he explained. “You want to get it right. You want to expose more people, so that that conversation can continue in a positive fashion.”

Correction (March 10, 2020): An earlier version of this story had captions with an incorrect title of the concert. The captions have been updated.

A poster for a concert.
A poster for the "And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” concert.
Courtesy of the production.