Charles Scrutchin walked into a barber shop in the rough-and-tumble northern Minnesota lumber town of Blackduck on a cold January day in 1901, asking for a shave. The barber, Eugene Smith, said that would cost $5 — more than 30 times what he usually charged for a 15-cent shave.
Smith told Scrutchin he’d never shaved a black man before and “wasn’t going to commence” with it now. So Scrutchin, a Bemidji lawyer and one of Minnesota’s first black attorneys, had the barber arrested for violating a new state law.
In 1899, Scrutchin helped draft landmark Minnesota legislation that banned racial discrimination in public places, including hotels, saloons, restaurants and barber shops.
When a local judge dismissed the misdemeanor Blackduck case, Scrutchin filed a $100 civil suit “for the affront put upon him.” The two-day trial in a packed Bemidji courtroom started with “rather acrimonious” accounts of Smith’s use of racial slurs. The barber’s lawyer countered by saying Smith’s father had fought against slavery in the Civil War.
Judge John Martin said despite Smith’s “illustrious parentage,” he was responsible for his actions. One of the 12 jurors refused to join the others, who were siding with the barber. So the judge stepped in and ruled in Scrutchin’s favor, awarding him $5 for the inflated shave and ordering the barber to pay all legal fees.
It was a minor victory, but Scrutchin was on his way as a legal advocate for racial justice in northern Minnesota. He would go on to help a black boxer avoid a hanging in a murder case and win an acquittal for a circus worker accused of rape in a 1920 Duluth case that saw a white mob lynch three other black suspects.
Scrutchin was born in Richmond, Va., in 1865 just as that Confederate capital fell at the end of the Civil War. He crisscrossed the country as a young person, from Atlanta to Spokane, Wash. — graduating from the University of Washington in 1890.
Working as a railroad porter and a waiter, he became one of four black members of the 319 students graduating from the University of Michigan with law degrees in 1893. He launched his legal career in Chicago and moved in 1898 to St. Paul, a city he knew well from his porter days on the Great Northern Railway.
With a small Twin Cities black community numbering about 1,500, St. Paul’s first black lawyer, Frederick McGhee, suggested that Scrutchin open a practice outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. There was only so much business for the handful of black lawyers.
While Scrutchin was getting a shave in St. Paul, barber S. Edward Hall told him about the lumber boom Up North. So he headed to Bemidji in 1898, at 33. He was single, his first marriage unraveling in 1890 when his wife refused to move to Michigan while he enrolled in law school.
His personal life suffered more ups and downs in Bemidji, where he purchased a home, joined social clubs, bought a downtown office building and was often quoted in the newspaper. He remarried in 1900, but both children he fathered with his wife, Laura, died as infants.
Scrutchin was one of only six black lawyers practicing in Minnesota in 1900 — and the only one in northern Minnesota. That number stayed around 10 through the 1930s.
Representing lumberjacks and other laborers, he toiled for low legal fees. He earned $20, for example, advocating for a lumberjack against a Blackduck logging firm.
In 1907, he mounted a self-defense case for a boxer named James Godetts from Big Falls. Godetts feuded with a neighbor, who threw an ax at him. As tensions escalated, the neighbor brought out a shotgun and Godetts shot him dead with a pistol. The trial in International Falls drew intense media attention. “There was much craning of necks to get a look at Bemidji’s colored attorney, who was defending one of his own race,” one newspaper reported.
In his closing argument, Scrutchin asked jurors to imagine themselves on trial in the South with an all-black jury. His client was convicted and sent to Stillwater for a life sentence of hard labor. But Scrutchin saved him from the hanging gallows.
In 1920, when he was 55, Scrutchin was among a team of black lawyers picked to represent circus workers after the alleged rape of an 18-year-old Duluth woman. An angry mob had busted into the jail after three suspects were arrested, hanging Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Nate Green from a lamp post.
Scrutchin represented William Miller, accused in the rape despite a doctor’s report saying the woman was never assaulted. Prosecutor Warren Greene told jurors they would be labeling the woman “a falsifier and a prostitute” if they acquitted Miller.
Scrutchin countered: “If this girl was ravished as she claims to have been, she would have been taken to the morgue instead of her home.”
Jurors acquitted Miller after six hours of deliberations, and the judge promptly dismissed five other cases. One of the seven suspects was earlier sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Scrutchin died in 1930 — two years after his wife — from a diabetes-related stroke. He had no living relatives, so the Bemidji Bar Association paid for the funeral and local lawyers served as pallbearers. He’s buried at Bemidji’s Greenwood Cemetery.
The Bemidji Pioneer newspaper called him “one of the outstanding attorneys of the northwest, being especially well known for his ability in criminal cases.”
Steven Hoffbeck, a history professor who has researched and written about Scrutchin — see tinyurl.com/scrutchin — says the attorney’s obituary failed to properly celebrate his accomplishments, partly because he had no relatives to provide details.
“Scrutchin was forgotten because of racism, as well,” Hoffbeck said. “Most newspapers kept up-to-date files on elderly or ill community leaders.”
Hoffbeck also points out that Scrutchin died before “he could see the significant advances in civil rights that were still two generations in the future.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com