One man's atonement

  • Article by: ROBERT FRANKLIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2008 - 5:51 PM

Warren Read, a schoolteacher from Kingston, Wash., tells of the terrible discoveries he made when he started to shake his Duluth family tree.

Genealogical geeks often rejoice in discovering a ruler or a rogue in their families. But Warren Read's emotions turned to horror and shame when he tapped into his family history on the Internet and found that his great-grandfather -- his mother's beloved grandpa -- had been a leader of a lynch mob in Duluth.

"The Lyncher in Me" is a book of family stories -- of poverty, dysfunction, incest, alcoholism, child abuse -- and the sin of Read's great-grandfather. What makes it most interesting and worthwhile, however, is what Read, an elementary school teacher in Washington state, did about his discovery.

He took responsibility, apologized publicly and traveled thousands of miles to expiate a wrong that happened decades before he was born.

The lynching has been examined anew in recent decades, first through a book by Duluth native Michael Fedo (published in 1979 and reissued in 2000), then again in 2003 during a dedication of a monument to the victims in downtown Duluth.

It is a ghastly chapter of Minnesota history.

On the night of June 15, 1920, Elias Clayton, 19, Elmer Jackson, 19, and Isaac McGhie, 20, all black circus workers, were hanged from a lamppost after a 19-year-old white woman reported that she had been raped.

Irene Tusken had met up with her boyfriend, Jimmie Sullivan, at the circus. The two disappeared for a while. She went calmly home to bed after the alleged rape; Sullivan waited hours to disclose the "details" to his father. Six black men were arrested after the allegations were reported to police. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that Tusken was dying from her wounds (a doctor who examined her later found no physical evidence of assault), and a mob of incensed vigilantes began to form.

Egging them on in his green pickup truck was Louis Dondino, Read's great-grandfather. In fact, a prosecutor said later, without Dondino, there would have been no riot.

With instructions not to use firearms or clubs against the mob (of more than 5,000), a pale line of defense outside the Duluth jail was quickly penetrated. After beatings and a mock trial, the hangings began.

Dondino, then 38, eventually was charged with first-degree murder. He was convicted on a lesser charge, and spent a year in Stillwater State Prison before moving to Washington. Before he died at 77, he became a gentle hero to Read's mother, "a figure of unconditional love, of warmth."

Read's deeply emotional book plays back and forth between his abusive upbringing, the lynchings and his journey of discovery. For some readers, there might be a little too much "personal work" on family matters.

But Read's journey of regret and redemption is powerful.

It was time, he decided, to "drop the denials and excuses and take responsibility -- as a man, family member, as a member of humanity."

Read first traveled to Duluth, where he made a tearful, heartfelt apology before 2,000 people at a memorial to mark the 83rd anniversary of the lynchings. He addressed Clayton, Jackson and McGhie by name, apologizing for the "unreason and bigotry," the "ignorance and self-righteousness," the "hysteria and ... injustice" that cost them their lives and deprived them of "the opportunity to create a legacy of your choosing."

Then he sought to find someone -- anyone -- related to the victims, a journey that took him to Topeka, Kan., and Pennytown, Mo., where Jackson's family had lived.

Read, who is gay, knows a little something about being the object of blind hatred. But it's much to his credit that he also knows, and seeks to understand, his own potential for evil, which we all share.

Robert Franklin, a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor, is a senior adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas.

  • THE LYNCHER IN ME

    By: Warren Read. Publisher: Borealis, 197 pages, $24.95. Review: A powerful and earnestly told story of one man's efforts to atone for his great-grandfather's role in the 1920 Duluth lynchings.

    Events: 2 p.m. March 30, Common Good Books/Swedenborgian Church, 170 Virginia St., St. Paul; 7 p.m. April 1, St. Paul Public Library Merriam Park Branch, 1831 Marshall Av., St. Paul; 7:30 p.m. April 3, Barnes & Noble Galleria, 3225 W. 69th St., Edina; 3 p.m. April 5, Barnes & Noble, 1600 Miller Trunk Highway, Duluth.

    Of related interest: "The Lynchings in Duluth," by Michael Fedo (Borealis); "To Remove the Stain: The Trial of the Duluth Lynchers," an article by Augsburg professor and Minneapolis Schools Supt. William D. Green (Minnesota History Quarterly, Spring 2004); the Minnesota History website, collections.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/.

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