100th anniversary commemoration of Duluth lynchings postponed by COVID-19

The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial stands in Duluth.
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial stands in Duluth in April 2018. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial event that was scheduled for June 15 this year has been postponed to 2021 due to coronavirus concerns.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it means for public gatherings scheduled for later this year, has forced the cancellation of another major event in Duluth this summer.

On the same day that organizers of the annual Grandma’s Marathon announced they would cancel this year’s race, which had been scheduled for June 20, the organizers of a day of remembrance to honor the victims of a brutal lynching that took place in Duluth a century ago said they would postpone the event until 2021.

“Postponing the June 15 gathering and commemoration is the safest and most responsible thing for us to do,” organizers of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial event said in a statement.

Organizers had planned to gather 10,000 people to the streets of downtown Duluth around the intersection of First Street and Second Avenue East, where on June 15, 1920, three black men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — were lynched from a street light by a mob of the same size after being falsely accused of raping a white woman.

“The purpose of a crowd that size is to really understand the weight of this history and what that means going forward,” said Jordon Moses, the lead organizer of the event for the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial.

Moses said as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic continues to widen and state and federal leaders continue to urge social distancing to blunt the effects of the virus’ rapid spread, it has become clear to organizers that amassing a crowd of that size over a few city blocks was not going to be safe or responsible. Nor would there be a digital or smaller-scale alternative.

“The reality is, we need to get those 10,000 people in the streets because we need to show that 100 years later, that the same amount of people that were there in 1920 are present in current times to commit to racial justice, to commit to healing,” Moses said.

Generations in Duluth were unaware of the brutal history of the lynchings until the early 2000s, when community members worked with city officials to erect a public memorial at the site of the lynchings in 2003. It’s considered one of the earliest and most prominent memorials to the victims of a lynching in the U.S.

Organizers have been working for a year and a half to plan an event to recognize the 100-year anniversary of the lynchings, Moses said. They had raised $150,000 so far toward the effort, and secured Bryan Stevenson, civil rights attorney and author of the memoir and film “Just Mercy,” as keynote speaker.

Moses said they’ve already reached out to Stevenson to see if he can take part next year.

Amid the disappointment, there are some silver linings in the postponement, Moses said. Road construction downtown that would have limited the space over which the crowd could spread is scheduled to be completed by 2021. There will now also be additional time to raise funds, knock on doors and build energy around the event.

And some events as part of the months-long celebration have already been held, including a concert that featured 84 local musicians and the premiere of a piece called “We Three Kings,” written by Jean “Rudy” Perrault, a violinist, orchestra director and professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The decision to postpone was “heartbreaking,” Moses concedes. Still, he said, the event was never meant to be an end to the conversation.

“The commemoration is really just a way to heal. It's a way to build energy. It's a way to acknowledge our past and begin to build the future,” he said. “And even after we host the commemoration in June of 2021, our work will still not be done. We will continue to build energy and move forward as a community.”

COVID-19: Tracking cases in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

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