DULUTH – Gov. Tim Walz gazed up at three bronze faces memorializing the men murdered a century ago Monday on the very downtown corner where he stood.
The governor got a tour of Duluth's painful history exactly 100 years after a white mob lynched three black circus workers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.
Carl Crawford, Duluth's human rights officer, met Walz and his family at the former police station where the men were ripped from their cells on June 15, 1920. The trio was among a group of six black men accused of raping a white woman, Irene Tusken, though her doctor found no evidence of an assault.
From the jail, Crawford brought Walz to the memorial at the intersection of First Street and E. Second Avenue, the spot where Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were killed.
"There is an unbroken line between what happened on that street corner 100 years ago right to George Floyd's murder on the streets of Minneapolis," Walz said later, speaking from the steps of Duluth's City Hall.
The governor's visit marked his first trip outside the Twin Cities since Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police three weeks ago. The killing sparked protests across the country, spurring a surge of calls for criminal justice reform and the defunding of police departments.
"I think the frustrations, the anger, the things that spiraled out of control in some of the rioting — all of those are part of a story, but we can't let it detract from what the narrative is here," Walz said. "Systemic racism is prevalent and has been here. It has caused great pain and it is holding all of us back from being the type of state that we want to be."
"Whether you like it or not," he added, "we're going to be defined either by the murder of George Floyd or by how we respond to the murder of George Floyd."
Walz praised Duluth for acknowledging the lynchings, which for decades were barely discussed. In the early 2000s, a group of local activists raised money to build the memorial and remind the city of the shameful episode in its history. Long-planned events slated to bring 10,000 visitors to Duluth for the centennial were postponed because of COVID-19.
Once again linking the past and present, Walz urged Minnesotans not to shy away from tough conversations about race and equity happening since Floyd's death.
"I think if this moment passes, the systemic issues of racism will be so much harder to change," he said.
The governor met privately with 10 Duluth residents, all people of color, to discuss police brutality and other concerns for their community.
"I think it struck a chord with him because he probably didn't expect to hear me say that the same stuff has now happened to three generations — my parents, myself and my son," said Christina Trok, who sat in the meeting beside her 15-year-old son, Sterling.
"As a mother, I have to fear every single day when my son walks out the door if he's going to come back," she said.
Trok said the governor's words gave her hope. Walz said his goal as governor on issues of race is "to get things through that people in these communities have said will make a difference in their lives for, in many cases, generations."
He spoke broadly of intent to implement policies to lessen gaps between the state's white and black populations, mentioning health, housing and education disparities.
The former high school teacher noted he was talking with his daughter, Hope, about how painful parts of Minnesota's history often aren't in today's textbooks — like the Duluth lynchings and the Native history of "the land that we stand on."
"We need to think deeply about how we teach these in school," he said. "We need to think deeply about having that reconciliation so the story is told."
On Friday, the state corrected a chapter in its legal history by granting of its first posthumous pardon ever to Max Mason, who was convicted, without evidence, of Tusken's rape in 1920. Backers of the pardon called Mason — who worked alongside Clayton, Jackson and McGhie — a "scapegoat" to excuse the actions of the lynch mob.
"We can't control what our grandma and grandpa did, but we can control what we do," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Monday at the memorial, where about 150 people gathered for a cookout.
Walz, Ellison and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea make up the three-member board that voted to grant Mason's pardon.
The governor placed Ellison in charge of prosecutions related to Floyd's death. Derek Chauvin, the white officer who kept his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes while he pleaded for breath, faces second-degree murder charges. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting.
"This is a social disease buried deep in the core of our identity. It was there from the beginning," Ellison said.
Some laid flowers beneath the reliefs of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie as Bob Marley's music blasted from speakers. Sterling Trok posed for a photo with Ellison and received an offer from a federal judge to come shadow him in court someday.
Christina Trok, who was born and raised in Duluth, said it felt "therapeutic" to share her perspective with those in positions of power.
"I felt solidarity in the room. I felt strength in the room," she said. "And I felt that people were listening."
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this story.