DULUTH – For years, Jordon Moses has been telling their story, evoking their names: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.
Most recently he did so with a megaphone to address a crowd of hundreds who knelt outside Duluth’s City Hall to protest the death of George Floyd.
“It’s never been more clear,” the 29-year-old African-American man said afterward, “to see how the lynchings 100 years ago relate to our contemporary realities.”
Monday will mark three weeks since Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody and a century since Duluth’s long-hidden shame. On a June evening in 1920, three black circus workers — Clayton, Jackson and McGhie — were lynched by a mob after a white woman said she was raped.
Moses has spent almost two years working full-time to plan a slate of events to honor the lives of those men, who are memorialized in bronze at the downtown street corner where they were killed.
“Those lynchings were based in fear and control and racism and white supremacy,” Moses said. They represent the cultures and systems he’s been fighting against for 11 years, since he started college at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
But so little has changed. Moses is tired.
Tired of his skin color drawing second looks from shop owners or security officers. Tired of fielding near-constant requests to provide a person of color’s perspective on boards and committees. Tired of talking about these things and feeling like no one is listening.
Just 3% of Duluth’s 86,000 residents identify as black. The northeastern Minnesota city, known for its hilly trails and sparkling Great Lake, for years tried to bury its past like the ships that succumbed to stormy Superior’s wrath.
Some say the decadeslong unwillingness to discuss the lynchings fostered a culture that allows people to avoid tough conversations about race and privilege and justice today.
“To truly, truly honor those three men,” Moses said, “we need to put in place policy, practices, a culture shift that would ultimately create a community in which we all value black lives.”
A mob ruled
Word traveled fast around Duluth that the postman’s daughter, 18-year-old Irene Tusken, had been raped by a group of black men who worked for a traveling circus after her boyfriend said as much to police.
Officers caught up to the circus train and had the couple identify six suspects. As daylight faded over Superior Street in downtown Duluth on June 15, 1920, a mob of thousands overcame a handful of police to rip the black men from their jail cells.
They held a sham trial and quickly convicted three of them, dragging Clayton, Jackson and McGhie to the corner of First Street and Second Avenue E., where they were lynched.
“Troops rush to aid of helpless police,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported the next day. “5,000 in crowd which overpowers guards, breaks down cell doors and seizes doomed men.”
Yet there was no evidence the attack on Tusken took place. Her physician said he could not find any signs of a rape or assault.
A photo of white men grinning next to the corpses was later turned into a postcard.
That image was on the cover of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” in which author Michael Fedo describes a population hostile to a growing black community, with many residents outraged at the black workers recently brought in by U.S. Steel to end a strike threat and other residents recently back from war and itching for glory.
The event captured national attention and led the Legislature to pass an anti-lynching law the next year.
But Duluthians hid the shameful act in the community’s subconscious, and for decades state history books failed to mention the lynchings. When researching his book in the 1970s, Fedo ran into resistance from local officials.
“You had this wall of silence,” he said. “It was something folks thought should not be discussed or talked about.”
An entire generation mostly tried to suppress memories of the incidents. Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, the great-nephew of Irene Tusken, didn’t know about his familial connection to the lynchings until his mom divulged the secret after his great-aunt had died in 1996.
It took until the 21st century for the story to again rise to prominence locally, helped largely by the memorial erected near the site of the lynching in 2003 after a group of activists raised money and awareness about the killings.
Etched in stone above the metal reliefs of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie are the words: “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
‘It could have been you’
On a break home from college in the early 2000s, De’Lon Grant stopped to read that powerful phrase for the first time. Looking beneath it was like looking in a mirror.
Grant modeled for the memorial during his junior year at Duluth’s Central High School. He was Isaac McGhie.
“It’s jarring because it also reminds you that it could have been you or it could be you,” he said. “That’s the reality that we face, that we’ve always faced in this country.”
Grant moved away for college and never looked back. Now starring in a Broadway musical, he remembers Duluth with a mix of nostalgia and reflection on a past when he hadn’t yet fully embraced his identity as a gay black man.
“There is a beautiful community there,” Grant said. “But not having somebody that looks like you in the community, it can get hard.”
Jeanine Weekes Schroer, a professor at UMD, said that after living here for nine years she still wears a shield she crafted growing up under the glare of the dominant culture: “I act like a person who is visiting and who might be asked to leave at any moment.”
Carl Crawford, the city’s human rights officer, said he’s seen numerous talented black people move away over the years after experiencing at-times flagrant racism.
“I don’t hold that against them at all. I get it,” he said. “When I hear or have conversations with friends and colleagues, they talk about creating safe spaces. Who wants to live in a space to just be in one box?”
Disparities between black Duluth residents and their white counterparts are drastic, in some cases significantly more severe than other cities.
Duluth has the second-highest gap between black and white poverty rates among all metro areas its size in the country — behind Rochester, Minn. — with more than half of black residents living below the poverty line. In a given year barely half of black high school seniors graduate from Duluth schools, fewer than the state average. Homeownership is largely a privilege of white residents, with 4 out of 5 black Duluthians renting.
As in other cities, the jail population is disproportionately black, and residents of color have been subject to racial profiling by police.
Augsburg University Prof. William Green, a specialist on race in Minnesota, said those disparities can’t be picked off one at a time.
“There’s a tendency in society to see problems singularly and come up with a solution that only deals with that problem and not systematically — namely racial tension,” he said. “All these things are connected and we need leadership that will coordinate all of that.”
‘Deterred but not defeated’
Their graves were quiet on Thursday afternoon, though there had been visitors recently. Flowers were starting to fade and Black Lives Matter signs starting to curl.
The unmarked burial sites of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were found at Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery in 1991, and gravestones were placed in a ceremony that year. Today a stone bench sits beneath a young oak tree and draws visitors to the stark words on the markers that sit just below the grass surrounding them: “Deterred but not defeated.”
For the first time, Duluth will have a place to coordinate its response to the inequities facing the city’s black population. The City Council created the African Heritage Commission last month at the behest of Janet Kennedy, who became the first African-American council member in the city’s 150-year history when she was elected last year.
With stronger representation, coupled with the ongoing discussions on police violence and racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there is some optimism that healing can finally start to begin.
“The hard ask is that white folks have to really just listen to what black people are saying about their experience and assume whatever counterposition occurs to them while they listen is just wrong,” Schroer said. “The burden isn’t to be morally clean. The goal is to be morally productive.”
The Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial has become a gathering place in the weeks since Floyd’s death. Young people have organized daytime cookouts, nightly marches and a community mural project as the site of a horrific crime becomes a place to process trauma.
A crowd of 10,000 was originally supposed to gather at the site of the lynchings on Monday to commemorate the centennial, but COVID-19 concerns pushed that back to 2021.
Moses, a key organizer, will have to make a much longer drive when that happens. He and his wife, Terresa, are moving to Minneapolis, a city where they know a much larger black community exists.
“Many of the people that we’re interacting with today, those 10,000 folks in the mob were their grandparents, their parents, their aunts, their uncles. They shaped the values of those families,” Moses said. “That’s an important thing for us to understand.”
Duluth’s population has remained flat for decades, but its share of nonwhite residents has steadily grown, a trend expected to continue. The 1% projected population increase in St. Louis County between now and 2035 will be solely due to new nonwhite residents, say state estimates.
Crawford, the human rights officer, said “there’s certain things that need to happen” to make Duluth a more comfortable place for citizens of color.
“I push back always against the Minnesota Nice way of doing things,” he said. “Let’s be open and honest and have dialogue to recognize there’s a problem. Because if we never recognize it as a problem, we’ll never really have meaningful work toward changing it.”