DULUTH — Facing persistent disparities in health, employment and education, Duluth’s black community will soon have a louder voice to influence city policy.
The Duluth City Council on Tuesday voted to create an African Heritage Commission, which will provide a forum for the community and act as an advisory board for the council and city administration.
The Duluth branch of the NAACP said the timing is right.
“The collision of historical and structural racism with the current health and economic crisis shines a bright light on deep disparities in our community. Duluth’s communities of color are impacted disproportionately at this time,” the group wrote in a letter to the council. “This commission will be a significant force for mending injury, as it brings to light and celebrates the gifts that strengthen our community.”
About 3% of Duluth’s 86,000 residents are black, according to census data. With a population that is 90% white, Duluth is less diverse than Minnesota as a whole, which is 82% white.
Unemployment is consistently higher among Duluth’s black residents, and African-American high school students face graduation rates that have remained well below their white peers, according to the most recent data from the school district.
“We continue to see African Heritage community members disproportionately facing poverty and decreased life expectancies across our neighborhoods,” reads the council resolution that created the commission. “The legacy of systemic racism still lingers in our community, inequitable policies continue to impact the health, welfare, safety, education, economic wealth and wellness of African Heritage community members.”
Duluth created the American Indian Commission, now known as the Indigenous Commission, in 2002. That board ensures the indigenous community, about 4% of the city’s population, is “incorporated in the decisionmaking, future planning, and stewardship of the city of Duluth.”
The African Heritage Commission will have a similar role. The mayor will appoint seven members reflecting African heritage with City Council approval.
Duluth’s first African-American City Council member, Janet Kennedy, proposed the commission earlier this month along with members Gary Anderson and Renee Van Nett.
The creation of the commission grew more timely as the state addresses racial divisions anew after a black man died in police custody this week in Minneapolis.
“I really was grieved in hearing that,” Kennedy said. “That’s why we need this commission. We needed it a long time ago, we need it today.”
Tuesday’s vote also comes a few weeks ahead of the centennial of the lynchings of three black men in downtown Duluth. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were killed by a white mob on June 15, 1920 after being falsely accused of rape.
“I see this ordinance today as a small step but hopefully a significant step in reparations our community can and should be making,” said council president Anderson.
The vote was unanimous.