Forty-five years ago, on the road leading to a popular beach on Lake Champlain in upstate New York, the posted speed limit was 40 miles per hour, but a line of steady traffic was maintaining 50. Flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror, so I pulled over. The officer, however, passed me and three other vehicles, stopping a car with a black male driver whose passenger was a white woman. This was the first time I witnessed a racial episode.
More recently, following my presentation at Stillwater High School regarding the June 15, 1920, lynchings of three black men in Duluth, the counselor for minority students shared an experience from one of her pupils. This 15-year-old black boy was stopped 37 times by police, during September and October — while walking to or from school. He was viewed as suspicious by local citizens not accustomed to seeing blacks in the neighborhood. Would a white boy, unfamiliar to those residents, have prompted even one phone call to police?
James Baldwin said it well: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” White citizens in America mostly ignore the ongoing pressures of “living while black.”
And they do so because a great flaw in the modern American character is the absence of empathy — the capacity to feel another’s joy, or frustration and pain. The inability to empathize sometimes produces headlines — as with the recent killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
In fact, some Caucasians still insist that the most-discriminated-against minority are white males. But the probability of them having been arrested for driving while white, or loitering — relatively common among persons of color — is negligible. Nor is it likely they’ve been surveilled in stores as a suspected shoplifter.
My book, “The Lynchings in Duluth,” documents the June 15, 1920, murders of three black circus workers, hanged from a downtown street lamp. These racially motivated killings were perpetrated and witnessed by up to 10,000 people in my hometown.
This crime reverberates 100 years later and continues to inform my life.
In 1920, Duluth’s population was 100,000, with only 484 blacks. Local blacks reported that racial incidents were rare. But on the evening of June 14, 100 years ago, 19-year-old Irene Tusken attended the John Robinson circus with her date, James Sullivan. Later that night James told his father that six black circus roustabouts had robbed the couple and assaulted Irene in a nearby field.
Mr. Sullivan notified police, and 13 African-American circus workers were arrested for rape and placed in the city jail. The following day a mob, encouraged to “join the necktie party,” broke into the jail, ripped Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie from their cells, beat them and dragged them one block to the lamppost and hanged them, before posing for a postcard photo.
Irene had not been raped, compounding the nightmare of the lynchings. A doctor’s examination revealed that no assault occurred, although that report never appeared in local newspapers.
While this mob was possibly the largest to ever gather for a lynching in America, most Minnesotans have never heard of this event. The state became amnesiac. Talk about the tragedy ceased; files and clippings were excised in some libraries. The St. Louis County Clerk of Court stonewalled seekers of trial transcripts, and teachers discouraged student reports on this “unseemly” topic. In his otherwise definitive tome, “A History of Minnesota,” past president of the state Historical Society and prominent historian William Folwell doesn’t mention this crime.
My mother, however, told me about it when I was 10 years old. Her words resurfaced in the early 1970s when I attempted to write a novel in which the setting was to be post-World War I northern Minnesota. In one chapter, my protagonist would witness the lynchings.
After searching for the book on the lynching I surmised had appeared 50 years earlier, I discovered there wasn’t one. Nor was there any documentation accessible in Duluth. Eventually, I discovered newspaper microfilm and other records in the archives of the Historical Society in St. Paul. I filled a spiral notebook with information and abandoned the novel in favor of chronicling our state’s darkest hour.
After 18 months, the manuscript was completed and submitted to more than 30 publishers. It received mostly form rejections, but some came with surprising comments. One editor wrote that sales would be minuscule because “Black people don’t read books.” Another noted, “Publishing this book could cause riots.” A New York publisher said, “Civil rights books are passe now,” just months before “Roots” became a runaway bestseller.
In 1979, a small Southern California firm released the book, appallingly titled “They Was Just Niggers,” extracted from a quote by a Duluthian after martial law was declared. He wondered aloud “Why this fuss? After all, they was just niggers.”
Following publication, a Minneapolis Tribune book reviewer chided me: “Now, nearly 60 years later, Michael Fedo, a Duluth native and New York Times correspondent, has chosen to rub our noses once again in the awful events. …” Six months later, the publisher filed for bankruptcy.
In 1993, renowned international publisher, Harlin Quist reissued an edition titled “Trial by Mob,” but he also went broke and disappeared, without paying the printer.
In 2000, the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which had originally discouraged my inquiries into the tragedy, released the book as “The Lynchings in Duluth.” This edition has become an important resource in many colleges and public schools.
Until I’d published the Duluth story, and participated in forums and discussions throughout Minnesota, I was only peripherally aware of persistent racial disparities. But wherever I speak, audience members share injustices and experiences of their living while black that I would otherwise never have been aware of.
Back in 1920, the immediate aftermath of the lynchings brought radical changes in the treatment of blacks in Duluth. They were no longer hired by the Post Office, and black students at Duluth State Teachers College (now UMD) weren’t permitted to practice teach in the city until the 1950s. Sounds of “nigger” and “coon,” seldom previously heard, led to fights on playgrounds.
Decades later, my book’s republication brought predictable responses — mostly favorable, but some Duluthians were peeved that the episode was again raised. Many were still unaware of the killings, as I learned through a surprising happening at my stepmother’s home.
A copy of the book was on a coffee table when a lifelong friend stopped by. She noticed the book, picked it up and gasped. “My goodness, that’s Tom,” she said, pointing to a figure in the shocking image on the book’s cover. Tom was her deceased husband of 52 years, and he had never mentioned his presence at the lynchings to his wife or children.
Still, I’m hopeful. In 2001, the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial Committee was organized to commemorate the victims and educate the public. The committee commissioned an elegant memorial positioned across the street from the lynching street lamp. The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., also honors Clayton, Jackson and McGhie along with 4,000 other lynched Americans.
The 100-year anniversary of the Duluth tragedy has been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. In his book “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson, keynote speaker for the centennial, quotes Walter McMillian, an innocent black who had been sentenced to death in Alabama. “People are supposed to die on God’s schedule,” he said, before being released.
The Duluth victims were denied that — and so, recently, were George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. And there have been many others. No ceremonies can rectify the abominations perpetrated upon victims of racial atrocities.
Yet there remain among us those who contend there need be no contemporary guilt about slavery, nor about the 100-year-old atrocity in Minnesota. And forget about reparations for slave ancestors. Let’s move on.
In his 2002 essay, “Is There A Right to Forget?” George W. Streich, argues that remembrance of historical injustices is a component of achieving justice in the present. Acknowledging past lynchings may aid healing in surviving families of victims, and instill desire for a future with fewer racial inequities. It is with this in mind that event organizers in Duluth hope up to 10,000 people — the number believed to have been witnesses and participants in 1920 — will attend next year’s commemoration, recognizing this ugly occurrence and facing a future in which, paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., people are judged by their character, not their color.
Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth” and 10 other books. His next book, a collection of humorous/satirical short fiction titled, “Art’s Place: Stories and Diversions,” will be published in September.