Centennial remembrance of Duluth lynchings subdued — but hopeful
Updated: 11:55 p.m.
It was a solemn day in Duluth Monday, as people paid tribute to Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — three black men who were lynched there exactly 100 years ago.
Gov. Tim Walz and state Attorney General Keith Ellison traveled to the city to visit the memorial to the three men in downtown Duluth Monday. They were joined by hundreds of community members who came together to reflect on the past — and its parallels to the recent killing of George Floyd.
Monday’s remembrance was far smaller and more subdued than organizers had originally planned. The coronavirus pandemic forced most of the day’s in-person events to June 2021, a move that organizers announced at the end of March.
There were to be speakers, music, performances and remembrances. They 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, Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were lynched from a street light by a mob of the same size, after being falsely accused of raping a white woman.
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Instead, a few hundred people gathered at the memorial to mark the lives — and deaths — of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.
Walz began the morning at the old Duluth City Hall on Superior Street downtown. Just next door is the city’s old police station and jail, where a mob of white men stormed through the front door and kidnapped the three men from the jail a century ago.
The three were among several black workers at a traveling circus who had been arrested the night before after a 19-year-old white woman claimed she had been raped by six men.
There wasn't any evidence to support the allegation.
Nonetheless, the mob dragged Clayton, Jackson and McGhie up the hill to First Street. They lynched them there, surrounded by the 10,000.
The memorial, built in 2003, was the first prominent memorial to be built at the site of a lynching in the United States.
After his visit to the old jail, Walz, joined by first lady Gwen Walz and their daughter, Hope, visited the memorial site. The governor then met privately with Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and several community leaders of color.
At a press conference later in the day, Walz spoke about the importance of Duluth telling this part of its history, as painful as it is, so the city might reconcile it.
He talked about the direct line that connects the Duluth lynchings to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police three weeks ago.
Walz said he was disappointed the state Legislature on Friday failed to pass any criminal justice reform legislation. If this moment passes without Minnesota taking some steps toward real reform, he said, he worries that dealing with systemic racism is going to be a lot harder.
“The systemic issues of racism will be so much harder to change after this if we don't seize the moment now,” he said.
Attorney General Ellison spoke at the memorial itself, a wall with sculptures of the three young men emerging from it, quotations etched into the concrete.
Police reform, Ellison said, is not enough — and he argued that Minnesota must address the deep issues of systemic racism that exist in our society.
“You may think that this is a matter of mean police doing mean things to people,” he said. “This is a social disease buried deep in the core of our society.”
Ellison called on the state to solemnly dedicate itself to the simple idea that a human being is a human being, and must be afforded that dignity and respect, regardless of race.
‘We are better than this’
Mixed in to the somber mood of the crowd was hope — hope in the fact that, on Friday, the state of Minnesota granted its first-ever posthumous pardon to Max Mason, the young black circus worker who was falsely accused and convicted of the alleged rape that led to the lynchings.
Jerry Blackwell was the attorney who fought for the pardon. He told the crowd Monday that he is hopeful that this moment can lead to some real change — and he saw it in the faces of the protesters.
"Nobody can deny that, if you looked at these protests 20 years ago, you would not have seen all our multi-hued brothers and sisters in the march, that are joining in to say, ‘This is an atrocity, this is an abomination,’ irrespective of race, although it’s about race,” he said. “We of all races stand up to say, again: ‘We are better than this.’"
After the speeches and the politicians, there was a community barbecue, with conversation and reflection —on what's changed, and what hasn't, over the past century.
Abdul Hussein was there. He's 20, African American, a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He's lived in the city about three years.
"Having this CJM [Clayton-Jackson-McGhie] memorial here, reading about someone who looked exactly like me, and were falsely accused of something they didn't do, and got murdered because they looked different,” he said. “I see that in myself. You know, when I look in a mirror, I see CJMs all over me."
As a young black man in America, Hussein said, he can sometimes feel like an endangered species.
"Being hunted, by the police, because we look different, we look black,” he said. “My biggest fear, I'm not going to lie, is leaving home and going to work — driving. … We come out here to protest because of those reasons."
Still, despite feeling as though he has zero rights in the eyes of the police, Hussein said he has hope. He feels as though the world has finally seen with fresh eyes what black and brown people have long endured.
"You see more people my age, but [of] different colors — white people — they’re coming to support, and that gives me so much hope,” he said, “that they care about me, they care about the same rights, they think I deserve the same rights. Which I should.”
Desmond Scott attended the event holding his grandmother's old tattered copy of the book that first told the story of the Duluth lynchings.
While Duluth's black residents — including Scott's grandmother — had quietly shared the story with each other for decades, many white people in town didn't know about it until the book was published.
Scott, also 20, said he, too, sees himself in Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.
"These guys were my age when this happened, and 100 years later it’s just crazy thinking about how scary it can be sometimes," he said.
Scott, who is now a personal trainer, has lived in Duluth his whole life. He said one of his earliest memories is of his mom taking him away from a play date with a classmate, crying, because one of the adults there had said they don't like black people.
But despite all that, Scott, too, said he's hopeful in this moment.
"I’ve definitely seen more people getting involved, that’s definitely a big thing,” he said, “bringing awareness to these problems that have been here for however many hundreds of years. I’m definitely hopeful. People are seeing there needs to be change and they’re putting in work to make the change happen."
Other people in the crowd were more cautious in their optimism, saying they've seen these cycles of protest before.
Rekhet Si-Asar and her family drove up to Duluth from the Twin Cities for the event. She said George Floyd's death, and the remembrance in Duluth, have been emotionally exhausting for people of color.
"This is the norm for a lot of people in our community,” she said, “always under the microscope, always being on the defensive, always feeling terrorized. There's always a sense of injustice. It’s a lot to stomach. "
Where Si-Asar stood, 100 years ago, 10,000 people had gathered, too — watching three young men being killed.
Blackwell said there's a new awareness of injustice in the broader society that he hasn't seen before — and he urged people to guard against “silent complicity.”
A hundred years ago, he said, that mob was complicit in the lynchings, even if most people didn’t perpetrate them directly.
He challenged the crowd to “get in the way when you see an injustice,” when someone espouses a racist viewpoint. Don’t be silent, he said. We will only get at the root of racism when we change ourselves.
"Do the right thing. Treat people fairly. Treat people justly,” he said. “Let's all collectively declare that we are better than this. We are better than this. We deserve better."
Correction (June 16, 2020): Matthew Buran’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.