Duluth’s Lingering Shame: Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Lynching

Below is the complete text of a story from the June 7, 2000 issue of Duluth’s Ripsaw newspaper.

Duluth’s Lingering Shame
Eighty years ago Duluthians carried out one of the most horrific acts this region has ever seen. How did it happen? Have we changed?
By Heidi Bakk-Hansen

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight

— From Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”

On June 15, 1920, a mob of 10,000 lynched Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth.

There is no other event in our local history that carries such profound emotional turmoil. For most, it inspires a collective shame that is easiest met with the balm of forgetfulness. For those whose roots are deep in Duluth’s neighborhoods, there is a deep split along cultural lines. On one side are those who hold the fervent — if futile — hope that their not-so-distant ancestors stayed home that night. On the other is the conviction that a symbol of continued outsider status lurks within the images of the tragedy. Newcomers find it a bewildering event, mismatched in its ugliness with a place they have sought for its beauty. For all but a few, it has been a distant past blurred by a wall of silence.

The Times

Post-war Duluth was rife with labor tension. The veterans of the Great War were bored, often unemployed, and seeking the diversion of noble causes. Severe class and nationality segregation divided the city. The people of Duluth felt secure in their belief that the violence of lynch law, especially against black men and women, was something Southern in nature — something that could not happen here.

Out of approximately 100,000 Duluthians, only about 500 or so were African-American, most of whom were forced by housing discrimination to live in the far west area known as Gary. In all likelihood, there were still residents of the city who had never even laid eyes on a black person. But this was Minnesota — a Northern state proud of its citizens’ role in the Civil War. The North was supposed to be different in the way it accepted black people. Lynchings, however, were a topic of conversation. A treatise against the horror of lynching was one of the more popular oratories memorized and recited at Denfeld High School. Nevertheless, in October of 1918, a Finnish antiwar “agitator” had been tarred, feathered and lynched in Lester Park.

The early 1900s was a time deeply steeped in the fear of the Other. In April of 1920, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, by Lothrop Stoddard, hit mainstream bookshelves. According to Richard Hudelson, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Stoddard’s beliefs were considered anything but “out there.” Prominent scholars and scientists alike advocated something now called “scientific racism,” which used pseudo-scientific “facts” to prove the inherent biological and anthropological inferiority of races not European in origin. Many believed that white men were the most powerful cultural group because of their inherent superiority to all others — women and people of color included. But not only were white men considered superior, the “lower orders” were commonly believed to be dragging down the “white world” — only by fighting for what was “theirs” could this be prevented. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan was only one symptom of a culture bent on separation of the races.

Women were getting more involved in the political arena, but the idea of “hysteria” as a specifically female disability was widely believed as fact. First-wave feminism flailed away at restrictive feminine roles and definitions, but the struggle met with open hostility by large numbers of both men and women. Feminine purity remained an expectation rather than a simple fantasy. Being raped was a horror that would ruin a woman forever, but being raped by a black man carried cultural taboos so serious, it was, viewed through the internal codes of the time, worse than being murdered. The idea that a white woman would lie about such a crime was virtually inconceivable.

Racial tensions ran high all over the country. Race riots erupted in cities across the nation, many people were murdered and black neighborhoods, already plagued by enforced poverty, were burned to the ground by marauding groups of vengeful white men.

And Then, In Duluth

Some time on the evening of June 14, 1920, Irene Tusken and James Sullivan, both young West Duluthians, went to the circus that was visiting town. Something happened — no one can be sure what — that led them to claim they had been threatened with a pistol, robbed and Tusken raped by six black circus workers. This accusation, first levied by Sullivan and backed by no physical evidence or witnesses beyond Sullivan and Tusken, quickly snowballed. In the wee hours of June 15, police removed at least 50 black men from the circus train before it began its journey north to Virginia, Minn. Extraordinarily vague descriptions of the alleged assailants led to several arrests, while word of the supposed crime spread.

By evening, a crowd of many thousands, bent on what it considered justice, had gathered in front of the city jail, then located on Second Avenue East and Superior Street. Spurred on by cries of “What if it was your daughter? What if it was your sister?” the crowd battered at the jail for hours. They were opposed only by a pitifully small force of police that became even more crippled by an order from the commissioner of public safety to refrain from using guns to defend the jailed suspects. Subsequently, the crowd managed to extricate three of the imprisoned men from the jail, subjected them to a “kangaroo court,” dragged them up the hill, beat them severely and lynched them on the light pole at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East.

Few members of the lynch mob received any punishment. Two who did stand trial, Henry Stephenson and Louis Dondino, served less than half of their five-year sentences for rioting. Another circus worker, Max Mason, was convicted of raping Tusken based on evidence later believed to be false and politically motivated. Mason was released quietly after serving four years of his 30-year sentence.

The Questions

There are a thousand whys, only some of which can be answered through the filter of years and the clarity of distance. Why were Sullivan and Tusken so readily believed on such flimsy evidence? Why was such an incredibly large crowd (one in ten of Duluth residents) eager to join in such a horrifying melee? Why did the commissioner not call on the National Guard, which was gathering just a few blocks away for weekend duty? Why did he order the 11 police officers in the jail to put their guns away? Why were the perpetrators left almost wholly unpunished? Why did it happen here?

But there is one question that burns hotter than most — a question that can never be answered. Was Tusken truly the victim of a crime? Marshall Johnson, a sociology professor at UWS reports one of his students contacted a relative of Tusken’s some time after Tusken’s death. Reportedly, the relative confirmed that Tusken was not raped. Still, no one was able to settle the question before Tusken’s death. If her accusation was false, it is likely that Tusken felt strong pressure to keep quiet.

The questions overwhelm. It is not hard to see why the almost immediate response of many Duluthians was to try to forget. The Duluth News-Tribune on June 17, 1920, printed an editorial entitled “Duluth’s Disgrace.” The editorial stated, “Duluth has suffered a disgrace, a horrible blot upon its name that it can never outlive.”

On June 21, a man identified only as “Jack” wrote in a letter to the editor, “Last week’s happening is indeed unfortunate — it cannot be undone, therefore it is better the quicker it is forgotten.”

The Aftermath

Indeed, during the years since the lynching, the effort to forget has been strong. A St. Louis County Historical Society employee in the 1940s reportedly threw out the file on the incident, deeming it too unseemly for study by Normal School students. All but a silent few forgot the location of the victims’ unmarked graves. Minnesota History courses required for teachers in training did not mention the incident. Postcards made to celebrate the incident quickly sold out immediately afterward but were eventually hidden away in attics. Many of the men and women present that night did not speak of it again. One of the police officers who defended the jail, when questioned about it in the 1970s, claimed to have no memory of a night that must have been the most significant experience of his career.

At the Duluth Public Library there is only one well-worn box in the Duluth News-Tribune microfilm archives — the rest look nearly untouched. The box, repaired with yellowing tape, contains the newspapers from June 15, 1920, and the weeks afterward. For years, people who wanted to know anything about the horror of that night found this box the only commonly available source of information.

However, in the minds and histories of some Duluthians, the story did not disappear. The day after the lynching, “idle Negroes” were banished from Superior, forced to walk across the bridge to Duluth, prompting panicked calls to police by fearful whites. For months, some black residents received terrorizing phone threats. People banded together for safety, putting the children to sleep upstairs while the adults stayed awake in darkened front parlors watching for trouble. Housing became even more difficult to attain, and many jobs were suddenly unavailable to people of color. In the few years after the lynching, half of Duluth’s African-American population moved away. Those who stayed kept the memory of the victims alive by honoring the Crawford Mortuary with the business of mourning their dead. Crawford was the funeral home that accepted the bodies of the lynching victims after another funeral home refused.

Outside Duluth, at least two black men who later became involved in national politics were deeply affected by the lynching. Roy Wilkins, long-time president of the NAACP, devotes three pages of his autobiography to his reaction to the incident. Reportedly, the event spurred him to become a civil rights activist. Elisha Scott, the first lawyer to sign on to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, was the lawyer hired by Elmer Jackson’s father when he came north seeking reparations for his son’s murder.

The Awakening

Finally, someone stepped forward to break the silence. In the 1970s, Michael Fedo, a Duluth native, prepared to write a novel set in post-WWI America. He planned to include a lynching and remembered hearing, when he was about 10 years old, about a lynching that had occurred in Duluth. He assumed a book had already been written about it.

“When I learned it wasn’t out there, I decided to write it myself,” he said.

And write it he did, putting together an analysis of the times, the mob and the details in such a way to make them readable and easily understood. His efforts, however, were not terribly well received. The publishing arm of the Minnesota Historical Society showed no interest. Twice, small presses published his book under the titles They Was Just Niggers — a declaration made by one of the perpetrators — and Trial by Mob. But then, in 1999, the Minnesota Historical Society changed its position. Now the book is, for the first time, widely available under the title, The Lynchings in Duluth. Within its pages Duluthians can learn the truth about the most horrifying event in their grandparents’ and great-grand-parents’ lives, perpetrated on the soil of their own hometown.

In the early 1990s others became publicly interested in addressing some of the story’s missing pieces. First Henry Banks, then in charge of planning the Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Duluth and now the owner of the Diversity Store, sought some recognition of the site of the lynching itself. He feels that part of the reason the lynching has not been lived down is because it is being hidden away.

“Young people needed to know so that [history] didn’t repeat itself,” he said.

The NAACP-Duluth subsequently joined in an effort to raise awareness and place a wreath at the site. This effort spurred further action and research by Bob Baldwin, former president of the local NAACP, in order to permanently mark the site with a memorial. Unfortunately, this effort faded.

Soon after, a dispute over the placement of the new county jail led to the discovery of the gravesites. In an effort led by Craig Grau, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, it was discovered that unmarked graves in Park Hill Cemetery provided a final resting place for McGhie, Jackson and Clayton. Grau and others established a fund, held a ceremony to place gravestones and used the money left over to set up a small scholarship fund at UMD in the victims’ names. Because of his part in this effort, Grau was later invited to witness the ceremonial naming of an overpass in Topeka, Kan., in memory of Elmer Jackson, the only victim whose life history has been discovered with any completeness.

Since then, small memorial ceremonies have periodically popped up, led by various individuals — some known and some not. In 1999 people placed flowers and candles, as well as a scrawled list of names calling for a permanent memorial, on the corner where the lynching occurred.

Still, gaps remain, mostly in the area of education. The lynching is a difficult subject to address, no doubt, especially given the short shrift allowed local history in the classroom. However, the fact that almost all junior high and high school students make their way through Duluth schools without even hearing of the lynchings is an oversight not unnoticed by the young adults who are forced to seek information on their own.

Mike Piasecki, a 22-year-old graduate of Central High School (where Catherine Nachbar, the only Duluth teacher known to address the subject formally, now devotes nearly two weeks to the subject) complains, “We didn’t get much diversity stuff or local history. To this day, I don’t really know why or how it happened. I had to go to the library to find out anything at all.”

Eric Edwardson, a 25-year-old Denfeld graduate, says his teacher mentioned it. “We had a maybe 15-minute discussion. Kids reacted with shock and denial, saying that it ‘couldn’t happen here.'”

Vance Hopkins, academy director at Kenwood-Edison Charter School, says he learned of the lynchings in seventh grade. “It’s one of Duluth’s well-kept secrets.” He feels it should be required learning in junior high and high school history classes.

How Have We Changed?

On June 15, eighty years will have passed since Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson were lynched on the corner by the Shrine Auditorium. During the ensuing decades we have seen the rise of Black Power, the legal entrenchment of civil rights and the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In 1970s Duluth, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis’s examples inspired black children to form their own version of the Black Panthers. Black history found its place in classrooms. The first black policeman was hired, brother to the first black fireman.

And yet, for many African-American Duluthians, the sense of being “other” has not diminished much. Michael Fedo, who still holds a small place in the hearts of many black residents, says they are still “living in the aftermath … black people are still lumped as a ‘they'” — outside the individuality white people take for granted.

Racism in Duluth is widely acknowledged to be “covert.” Kevin Ross, who has lived here on and off for eight years said, “I don’t see this town as real prejudiced, but I’m from the South. Southerners are straightforward. There’s no two-faced stuff. Here, they smile in your face and then call you ‘nigger’ behind your back.”

According to Jeff Anderson, a West Duluth native, “We’re all supposedly good open-minded Democrat Minnesotans, but if you ask questions in more subtle ways … [ask] what they think, how they interpret things, then things comes out, like, ‘Why did they come here, anyway?'”

Harassment of people of color (especially Native Americans and African-Americans) by police is a subject widely accepted as a reality by almost all Duluthians who live in the Hillside neighborhoods, if not by the police themselves. Many residents get quite irate about what they perceive as an obvious heavy-handedness on the part of Duluth police officers while dealing with black or Indian drivers. It has been such a problem that the terms DWB (Driving While Black) and DWI (Driving While Indian) require nearly no explanation. It seems that almost all black Duluthians have stories about either themselves or someone they know being pulled over on practically no provocation, often by an inordinate number of police. Ross reports being pulled over 14 times in one month (including three times in one hour) and ticketed for an invalid license, something he disputes based on his calls to the DMV (which reports his license as perfectly sound). Marquez Jones, 19, says everyone he knows has experienced harassment. “If we walk down the street in a group … cops pull over.”

Hopkins reports the only African-American teacher in Duluth is not even in a classroom. He says if 10 percent of Duluthians are people of color there should be reflection of that demographic in its schools. “Duluth is notorious for having One — one black police officer, one black fireman, one black teacher. We get all that money for desegregation [in the public schools], and it’s basically been lip service.”

According to Marshall Johnson, the most subtle examples of Duluth racism are apparent in the treatment given people of color in the press. Johnson says, “Hatred now is fragmented and individualized somewhat, but the same codes are still at work for a lot of people. It’s not a ‘plot’ perpetuated by big men with cigars, but a background set of codes and attitudes which lead to a division of black and white people with the same interests.”

He cites as examples two articles from the Duluth News-Tribune. One is dated March 29, 1994, and the other is dated May 11, 2000.

The first article documented the slayings of three young men — one black, one biracial and the other white. Their names were Sam Witherspoon, Peter Moore and Keith Hermanson. They were murdered by a white man named Todd Warren, who believed they had raped his girlfriend at a birthday party. It is a subject still sensitive in the Duluth communities where the victims and the perpetrator were well known. However, many residents still take issue with the Duluth News-Tribune in its coverage of the incident. Why, they ask, was the hard focus on the minor scrapes with the law experienced by the victims? Why was the article below “Party Ends with 3 Men Slain” titled “House was known for disturbances”?

According to Melissa Taylor, a lifelong resident, “[people] had to justify, had to have a reason. It couldn’t be racism … is there a memorial for those boys?” alluding to the still-active memorial for Paul Antonich, a white murder victim. Like Elsie Robinson, many black residents angrily point out the light sentence given Warren, who was originally sentenced to 30 years for each victim, to be served concurrently. “He got 30 years. That’s 10 for each, or 30 years for [the white victim], and two for free.”

The other article is titled “Authorities tout major Twin Ports drug bust.” Within, Johnson highlights some of the phrasing. “The 16 arrested … are all suspected of being associated with street gangs in Milwaukee and Chicago,” and “Bauer said most of those arrested were originally from Milwaukee and Chicago and have been in this area only since last summer,” statements easily translated by local readers into “black male outsiders,” according to Johnson.

Additional statements which Johnson classifies as inflammatory rhetoric include “… they individually came to Duluth from the larger metropolitan areas, [moving] in with local women,” and “The suspected dealers used female companions to hide drugs in body cavities to avoid detection while driving north.” Johnson finds such allegations absurd, asking, “What are they doing, driving through border checkpoints?” This is an example, Johnson asserts, of a perpetuated “defense of white womanhood” fired up by the “obsessive fear of black men.”

Will the City Step Forward?

Many feel that a city government-directed acknowledgment of this historic crime is long overdue. Regardless of why there is no memorial on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East, many Duluthians questioned on the subject agree that a simple plaque in the victims’ memory belongs there. The first step, according to Grau, is to name them. He says “it’s by ‘thinging’ them that their lives were taken.”

“The city should be responsible for [marking the corner],” says Hopkins.

“Why isn’t it there?” asks Banks. “This city needs to live its truth. And show us this community is ours as well.”

Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie and Elmer Jackson deserve that much, at least. A vigil will be held on June 15, starting at 9 a.m., on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East to support the placement of a permanent memorial.

Twin Cities Public Television put together the short video documentary above, Duluth Lynchings: Presence of the Past, in 2004.



about 14 years ago

Racism lingers as a serious ongoing problem in Duluth.  The UMD Facebook incident is just one of many recent indications of this.

Facebook transcript

My non-white friends being made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in Duluth by their white neighbors is another indication of ongoing problems in Duluth.  

My sense is that racism is fairly widespread in Duluth, although many may not agree with me.  Of course, some racists don't believe they and their friends are racists, and thus do not see racism as a problem.  The perpetrators of the Facebook incident initially said that their comments were not racist.  

Racism tends to be less visible to whites in the U.S., since one of the features of white privilege is to ignore racial issues.  Non-whites often do not have that luxury.


about 14 years ago

Warren Read's book, The Lyncher in Me, is quite an expose on this history.  For those who haven't read it, Warren finds out, through doing some regular research, that he has a family member in the lynch mob.  The book chronicles how he dealt with that.  I believe Warren was here for the dedication of the memorial.  

Anyway, a quick search brought up his book on Google Reader and it looks like a lot of it is there, maybe all, I didn't scroll to the end.  

The lyncher in me: a search for redemption in the face of history

The comments on the You Tube video were hard to read because of the racist remarks. And not to create an ant's nest of commentary, but I didn't like what I saw in those Fred Tyson videos on PDD either.  They looked exploitative to me. 

I have had college students from the white and native culture who went  to the same high school, where the native students were horribly discriminated against. But the white students insisted on the fact that there was no racism in their school. When it is not targeted at you it is easy to say it doesn't exist. I have felt hatred directed at me because I am an American, but never on an every day basis. I can't imagine that.


about 14 years ago

"And not to create an ant's nest of commentary, but I didn't like what I saw in those Fred Tyson videos on PDD either. They looked exploitative to me."

I don't see the correlation between the color of Fred's skin and whether or not he gets drunk, puts on funny costumes, or gets on stage and dances. He's a character, and characters are apt to get filmed and put on YouTube. 

By the way, Fred Tyson is actually a very nice and normal human being.

The Big E

about 14 years ago

I don't mean to suggest that Duluth is a racial utopia, but were either of the two individuals in the UMD incident from Duluth?


about 14 years ago

I believe the Facebook individuals were originally from suburbs of the Twin Cities, but please correct me if I am wrong.  They were here for the four (or more) years of college.

But half of Duluth isn't from Duluth.  A huge number of people living in Duluth were not originally from Duluth itself, but we count them as denizens of Duluth anyway.  My neighbors have been in Duluth for a few years and are from Cloquet and Hibbing.  Are they "from Duluth"?

Also, the racism against Native Americans that Jude refers to does seem to be local and from white kids "from here."  So there is a lot of racism in Duluth and the surrounding areas, both from people born here and from people who just live here.


about 14 years ago

It's been ten years since I wrote the article that was my own tiny relay leg on the journey to get the CJM Memorial in its rightful place. Paul Lundgren was the editor, and that article was squarely in the original Ripsaw tradition. Honestly, I'm still stunned at our success, and how Duluth -- a place which struggles with racism every day -- leads the nation by example in dealing with the legacy of that crime. 

The Memorial, I often remind people, was Step 1. But in that Step, we've helped many other communities with similar histories be able to turn back and say, "We cannot even begin to talk about racism in our community without talking about This Crime the City/Town Celebrated." I still have a news-feed using the search-term "lynching." And over the years, I've read articles from places all over the country who have used our example as a stepping stone. 

At any rate, I like looking forward. But each year, I'm reminded of the lasting impact this lynching and its aftermath has had on our community and the people. I'm glad to see the Tuskens willing to speak about their family history openly in the DNT, for example. I always felt uncomfortable on some level, knowing the Tusken family was still extant, that I connected their name to the story in that Ripsaw article. It had to be done, but it felt tender to me. Lets just say I was very conscious of its impact.

The ripple effect, into the present, of the steps we take, has since then really influenced how I see the world. Seeing how that Ripsaw article and the subsequent Memorial impacted Warren Read and his family, and Elmer Jackson's family in Missouri, and the Tuskens, and many of the people who have come in contact with it, especially young people.... It truly brings home to me how interconnected history is. How we can't escape it, but also mustn't. How turning and facing it makes all the difference in how we live in the future.

The Friendly Old Knifey

about 14 years ago

I think Duluth has a weird sense of pride over "never forgetting" the lynchings. It's almost as if it is not so much a source of shame and humility as it is prideful. That's just how I see it, though.


about 14 years ago

We're all looking for a piece of redemption

Paul Lundgren

about 14 years ago

Knifey, it has only been in the past decade or two that this subject has been widely discussed. Before Michael Fedo's books came out, this was our ancestors' big, ugly secret.

Since the creation of the memorial, it may seem like no one is trying to hide from this subject, but I assure you that has not always been the case.

It's a horrible subject. I don't mind saying I'd rather post on PDD about the nicest place to buy cookies. But those newspaper quotes from 90 years ago are painfully accurate today. There is a "horrible blot" on our name that we "can never outlive," even though it happened way before we were born.


about 14 years ago

Knifey, I thought the same thing when I first saw the memorial.  It looked like a threat. Geez ... I thought I was just a jaded, bitter bastard, good to see I got company.

Tony D.

about 14 years ago

Perhaps one reason the story was kept on the down-low for so long was that -- reportedly, as they say -- an employee at the St. Louis County Historical Society destroyed all records related to the lynchings during the 1940s because she deemed it inappropriate information for students at the Duluth Normal School to have access to. 

I never found anything that validated this (or denied it) or clarified the connection between the county historical society and the Normal School (later UMD).


about 14 years ago

MPR did a documentary about it awhile back called 
Postcard from a Lynching


about 14 years ago

If we can be forever proud of our long dead heroes, we can be forever shamed by our forbearers as well.  We are willing to take the privileges from what our ancestors did, but not the responsibilities.

Also, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.  We repeat this history every day in small ways (the facebook incident is just one such small way, and the high school racism Jude speaks of is another).  People think "Not here, not me," but so did people back then.


about 14 years ago

Thanks HBH for writing that article. Sometimes we really need an "outsider" like her to tell us what they see and rip away the veil of secrecy.  Paul is right that white people did not talk about this except in hushed tones in the 70s and 80s.  When I read Fedo's book, which I found while researching a term paper on racism in the library at my high school, I was transfixed by it, horrified and drawn in all at once.  

Anyway, as for being "from" Duluth, the racism incident happened in a freshman dorm so as far as I know the perpetrators of that incident were freshman and not "from" here.  But there is plenty of homegrown racism here.  Where I live with people from all different races all around me I see individual and institutional racism.  Individual racism is telling a kid that they are dumb because they are Native American of African American, institutional racism is when "only 40-percent of black students and 21-percent of American Indians graduate in 4 yrs."

And you really have to dig around for a source on that one because if you ask school officials or red plan proponents (and critics) you're likely to get "shhh ... we don't like to talk about that."  Sound familiar?  

Here's a video from Katie Nordeen at WDIO (another "outsider" telling tale of our shameful racism):    

Graduation Rates Lower Among Minorities 

Hopefully more hard truth like this will plant seed of change, as it did in the CJM Ripsaw articles


about 14 years ago

Sadly we live in a racist society. I don't think Duluth is any more racist than any other city I've lived in. In my hometown, the racism was directed at Mexicans. For all I know, there's something horrible that happened in my hometown having to do with Mexicans that I don't know about. I do remember some local elite marrying a Mexican-American when I was a kid and what a scandal that was. I've always been impressed at how Duluthians have come to terms with this ugly episode in its past.

Heidi, if I wrote such an important article with such an impact as you did, I'd be rocking in my seat. Good job.


about 14 years ago

Maybe some of the rest of you have information on this too, but there is evidence that the beginnings of the KKK were in Hibbing, MN, stemming out of the polarization of so many different immigrants who came here to work in the mines.  At one time I had all this historical data because of teaching courses in intercultural communication, but when I moved I purged boxes of stuff.  Hibbing is a very interesting place where cultural roots run very deep, even today.


about 14 years ago

That's interesting Jude, I'd have to see something more definitive before taking it too serious though. There have been about three iterations of the Klan, the first, pretty definitively, started in TN in the mid 1860s. It formally lasted about a decade. The intense social and economic pressures in the 1910s saw a reformation and major resurgence, they painted themselves as defenders of justice... at one point in the 1920s it's estimated about 15% of American adults (white) belonged. A series of criminal (including murder) convictions against clan leaders resulted in it's collapse bu the 1940s. The latest iteration is really just a bunch of loosely connected different jackass groups using the name name. there are roughly 5 different significant klan groups, the largest based out of Zinc, Arkansas. 

Altogether, as much noise as they make, the Southern Poverty Law Center (a friggen excellent organizations) estimates only about 5-8K members in the US. A far cry from the ~6 million in the 1920s

The Big E

about 14 years ago

For what it's worth, Michael Fedo said during a talk at UWS in April that a clerk at the courthouse claimed that a judge had ordered the files destroyed, but that this had not in fact occurred--he or she succeeded in limiting inquiries on the subject for some time though.  Prior to this, in the 1930s the St. Louis County Historical Society removed files on the lynchings, as the director reportedly felt that too many students were exploring the unpleasant subject.


about 14 years ago

My brother has an old piece of sheet music with a picture of a klansman on the cover. The title is something along the lines of "The Night Ride" or some such thing. If my memory serves me right, it had a local music store stamp on it. He found it in a stack he bought at a rummage sale in Rice Lake Township. I'll see if I can get him to locate it for additional info. It only takes a few "true-believers" along with an apathetic majority that can be whipped into a mob for tragedy to strike. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."- attributed to Edmund Burke

Tony D.

about 14 years ago

Great info, everyone.

Dick Hudelson's "Down  by the Ore Docks" is a great way to examine race in Duluth as seen through the labor movement. For the most part Duluth's attitude toward race (immigrants, for the most part) has paralleled with the rest of the U.S. If memory serves, generally: Protestant English and Scots and then Germans at the top, Scandinavians (Norwegians and Swedes) next, then the ("godless, socialist") Finns, then Southern Serbs and Southern Italians and Irish--the last three Catholic (the last two my people!). Then African Americans. 

It's obviously more complicated than that, as each community across the country included folks from many other countries and cultures. In Duluth and on the Range we would include the Native community, Russian Jews, Cornish miners, and many others.

So in many ways Ole Kinkkomen's lynching is as much about America's attitude toward pacifist Finns as the Robinson Show lynchings were about its attitude toward blacks.


about 14 years ago

Here is the DNT website front page from Sept 2009.  It seems to portray only African Americans as purveyors of "violent crime" even though the only premeditated murder in Duluth that year was done by a white person (Duluth man charged with intentional second-degree murder).

The DTN website here is at the very least racially insensitive, and probably much worse.


about 14 years ago

Anybody read Robin Washington's article in Sunday's paper about the lynching and the ties to 2 local fellows related to the accuser? If so, did anyone think the entire article was just plain odd? Kind of like Washington was trying to 'out' these guys for something they had no involvement in. And what about the final paragraph about his wife being on the committee? Like these guys need a favor from her to make the whole thing right? Hello...they weren't involved, they hadn't even been born yet.


about 14 years ago

I am a Swedish/Norwegian hometown girl born and raised in Duluth.  I am engaged to a wonderful man who is black. I think a working relationship is hard at times no matter what nationality you are. We have run into some really great people, and we have run into the most ignorant people I believe on the the face of the earth.  I have been ashamed to have the color of my skin sometimes with the way people have treated my other half because of his.  I think to bring the truth of our past out is the only way our future will learn from our mistakes. I believe the memorial is a beautiful tribute to three men that lost their lives over injustice. Love shouldn't see a color. I am glad I am color blind.


about 14 years ago

I don't think anyone should be ashamed of their skin color, whatever it may be. That (in my opinion) acts as a nullification of any progress towards equality. Equality means the ability to accept the good and face the bad no matter what your skin phenotype is. There have been tremendous atrocities committed by all ethnic groups, as well as tremendous acts of grace. Your melanin level has little to nothing to do with the quality of person you are. Sarah Palin should not make you ashamed to be a woman, David Duke should not make you ashamed to be Caucasian.


about 14 years ago

We will not outlive it if we are continuously forced to relive it. I've been educated, I've learned my history, now be done with it. I'm not forced to hear about every other tragedy that's occured, why won't anyone let this particular one die?

Tony D.

about 14 years ago

Piglet; I didn't get that impression from Robin's piece. It read to me like the family had kept their involvement secret for a long time, and now this gent--who has become a Duluth police officer--has learned of his ancestor's involvement and is coming to grips with it. Overall, interesting piece. (I take one exception: that Duluth Police were NOT the only heroes that day, as the Rev. JW Powers climbed a light pole and addressed the crowd, trying to stop the mob.) Robin mentioned his wife's involvement as full disclosure, the same way NBC news points out that it is owned by GE whenever they run a piece concerning GE. Very common practice. You might be looking way too far into this.

Ryan, just because you know your history and want to be done with it doesn't mean others feel the same way. That tragedy includes a timeless lesson, and it sure doesn't hurt to be reminded from time to time. And each time the story is told, folks who didn't already know have a chance to become informed -- and learn something. Besides, one doesn't merely learn history to then be "done" with it. One reason to study history is to learn its lessons and, hopefully, avoid the mistakes of those who came before us, even seemingly obvious ones like you shouldn't lynch innocent people without a trial because of lies and their skin color. And you do indeed hear about other tragedies: the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Kennedy's assassination, just to mention two you hear about each November. You may not be looking far enough into this.


about 14 years ago

Re: Sam / DNT front page from Sept. 2009

First off, weak argument. Weak. Not to mention awfully random. A nine-month-old screenshot of a page that was probably changed 20 times that day? Did I say weak?

Second, that "racially insensitive" image is a cropped version of a larger illustration that included all those accused of homicide in Duluth up to that point in 2009, including the case you mention.

Third, everyone knows that white people have committed many times more violent crimes in Duluth than all minorities put together. And not that it really matters in any way except for pointing out the faults of your argument, but I'm pretty sure the "white" suspect in the case you mention - the shooting on Grand Avenue last August - was actually Native American. So would having his mug out there with the others really have made you feel better?


about 14 years ago


First, that was on the front page all day.

Second, yes, the DNT cropped a larger image to show only African Americans (and then left it up all day).  Not cool.  I recall if one clicked through to the article, and then clicked on the picture to blow it up, then one clearly saw the other perpetrators who had been cropped.  At the very least, it was pretty bad cropping.

Third, many people wrongly think that white people commit fewer crimes, and it is sensational news coverage like this that contributes to this false impression.  Of course the majority of violent crimes in the Northland were perpetrated by white people, but the DNT frontpage and article probably contributed to the false impression that many people have.  

For many Americans, it is impossible to look at something like the cropped DNT image and not think about the image in racial terms.  The article, as I recall, did not address this.


about 14 years ago

P.S. for dlhmn, 

I also recall that you yourself criticized the Northland Newscenter on PDD at http://bit.ly/4DyMXo for a similarly racially insensitive frontpage on their website.

The apology, also on that PDD post, from the Northland Newscenter seems very apt for the DNT. 

The apology rightly said that highlighting race as a feature of local violent crime was not only "unnecessary to the meaning of the story, but it was insensitive..." and "was careless... in the rush of gathering details and laying down a headline."  

The apology notes how words (and one might add, *images*) on a frontpage "can so greatly change the context of a story for the better... or in this case the worse. Highlighting the victim's [and I might add, the perpetrator's] race only perpetuated stereotypes that we certainly are trying to shed. After all, his race didn't have anything to do with" one's being the victim or perpetrator of violence.


about 14 years ago

The Northland's NewsCenter put "black male" in BOLD letters in a headline.

The DNT showed mugs of people involved in murders in the community. The complete story and image noted ALL murders that took place in Duluth. And as you point out, the headline, the story and the image mention nothing about race. Because it isn't relevant.

You think those equate to each other? You're trying to stir up a controversy where none exists, and you're sidetracking the thread from its far-more-valid initial focus.


about 14 years ago

dlhmn, there are a number of comments above from others that are related to racial issues but are not directly about the lynchings...

1. The KKK in Minnesota.
2. Interracial marriage.
3. Fred Tyson videos.
4. Racism in local high schools.
5. Graduation Rates Among Minorities

My adding a discussion of local news and their role in racial stereotypes seems to go with this overall thread about race and racism.

Methinks you doth protest too much!


about 14 years ago

TimK, is it "The Moonriders"?  "Under the Ore Docks" (I second Tony D's recommendation) says that "The Moonriders" was written and published in Duluth.  UTOD also says that Catholics were a much bigger concern to the local KKK than blacks, both because there were more of them and because their national and ethnic heritage often got involved in organized labor, another target of the KKK.


about 14 years ago

I am reading with interest these posts.  As in all things that are shameful or difficult, words without images soften the blow of the reality. 

The following link talks about a postcard that was sold ($240) of the lynchings (and for those who haven't seen it before it is graphic) 

As a researcher I am always looking to find all the differing viewpoints on a subject, and that brought me to the website I link here where the lynchings were included as a college writing assignment.  I am completely intrigued by the questions that are asked of the students.  This kind of critical thinking, should we choose to participate in it, will no doubt alter our perceptions in some way--the purpose of college, after all.  The professor is not asking for an answer, just for students'  thought processes, and as a professor myself I find the assignment at once disturbing and brilliant. Another way to bring the shame out in the light. 

Lynching postcard sold in Duluth for $240


about 14 years ago

Everyone on the earth is descended from those who have lynched, murdered and raped. Everyone  on the earth is descended from those who have been lynched, murdered or raped. Peace.


about 14 years ago

Sorry to take so long to get back... I've been mountain climbing in Norway. 

Thanks for posting the article. I'm three computers distant from when I wrote it, and can't find the Word doc to save my life. 

Anyway, a few things. 

About the local KKK ... several years ago, someone handed me a KKK promotional pamphlet that they claimed to have found in/stolen from the book shelf at either the Kitch or the Masonic Temple. I'd have to go back into my journals to verify where. (It was one of those weird situations where I was barely paying attention when someone handed me this thing at a social gathering. It was weird enough to then spend the evening with a KKK artifact in my hand... It was dated in the 1920s.) 

The story about the Normal school employee hiding the story of the lynching is one that Fedo has since revised with new knowledge. At the time of my article, it wasn't clear what happened. 

As far as the negative aspects of "bringing it up" over and over again, I can only say that over the years I've listened to all sides of the conversation. I've received emails demanding that the lynching victims' bodies be removed from this horrible place (Duluth) and returned to their families. I've watched visiting professors decry the design of the Memorial, and regular folks complain about how it "slaps them in the face" to have to drive by it all the time. And through it all, I am reminded of the little stories I have encountered along the way. There are many. The one I think of most is the story about the old man who was working in the jail that night whose final days were ripped with thoughts turning that night over and over in his head, regretting and obsessing over his inability to stop what happened (and whose family sent a huge check to help with fundraising). This man, one of the witnesses still living into the present, knew that it was no small thing to exorcise. I'm also reminded of the teacher who told one of the committee members that when he taught school in the 90s, in the South Side of Chicago, the children there said when he told them where he was from, they said, "they lynch people there." You see, white people tried to forget that this happened, but black people around the nation had learned something about Duluth in 1920, passed on the knowledge, and it lasted into the present. Our present. In building the memorial, I think we changed that story, from "they lynch people there" to "they are willing to be honest about history there, and face it." 

Duluth is the only place in the United States to have a memorial to lynching victims in a downtown place, where people actually can see it. Other places, there's a stone in a graveyard somewhere in Illinois, and a few roadside plaques, and that's it. 

If you don't think that this was a nation-wide ethnic cleansing that still demands honest confrontation, then I welcome you to view http://withoutsanctuary.org and think about what it means to have this sort of history in our country and meet it with silence or forgetfulness. I especially welcome you to read the impact statements people make to having seen these pictures in person. Having witnessed the abject horror and fresh-seeming mourning of modern-day gallery goers... I can only say that if you ever have the opportunity to see the exhibit someday, and to have an honest talk with an African-American person who has also seen it, you might change your mind. 

I know we would like to believe that we are all individuals and independent actors in our lives. However, as a student of history, I can confidently state that we exist in a sea of influences, inter-generational and community driven. And attitudes about "outsider" young black men date to the very beginnings of Duluth's history, when "negro" boat hands from Chicago were mentioned as somehow exceptionally dangerous and quick with a blade. This at a time when our earliest murders were committed by distinctly white young men from Pennsylvania.


about 13 years ago

I did not kill those innocent men. It is not a source of shame for me. None! This is illogical thinking and serves no purpose! It would be like me casting blame on men of German descent cause an SS guy shot my grandfather in cold blood (and yes this happened!) Should my German-descent friends, which ironically make up my two best friends, feel some sort of shame? The only shame is on those actually involved -- stop this ridiculous rekindling of it all. Move on folks!

Paul Lundgren

about 13 years ago

Mike, we did move on. You are the first person to comment on this post in 15 months. How did you happen to come across this old post? Searching the Internet for it?

Anyway, thanks for rekindling it. You've brought up a whole new line of discussion: Why do some people feel threatened by a group of others honoring three men who were lynched for no reason?

Because really, Mike, no one was saying you should personally be ashamed for something you didn't do. And to follow your comparison, do you think the embarrassing chapters in Germany's history should be swept under the rug and forgotten about because you have some nice German friends now? That kind of thinking could put the History Channel out of business.


about 13 years ago

"You've brought up a whole new line of discussion: Why do some people feel threatened by a group of others honoring three men who were lynched for no reason?"

Surely something horrible has happened in Duluth in the past 80 years that people could find something else to talk about.

How about, can we talk about all the crack, heroin and shitty weed that BLACK MEN FROM CHICAGO are selling to Duluthians (who if you haven't noticed are mainly white and Native American) constantly?

How much cocaine do they have to dump downtown before we're even for three guys 90 years ago? I'm actually a liberal, through and through, and would never use these terms, but this bleeding heart, always-sorry guilt bullshit has to end.


about 13 years ago

Here we go again. Matilda, you gotta calm down girl. Really.


about 13 years ago

Reading through this thread for the first time, I have to say that I agreed with Knifey and B-man's comments last year. That is to say, I thought the memorial smacked of self-congratulatory vibes, and lacked a humble feeling of shame. Reading through this thread today, I see I might be wrong about that.  I'll have to think about it.

On another note: Matilda, yee-ikes.

Paul Lundgren

about 13 years ago

Oh goodness gracious. I'm throwing up my hands.

Is it really a good argument against blaming the white race for a lynching that happened 90 years ago (which involved thousands of white people) to blame the black race for recent drug dealing in Duluth (which probably includes a few dozen people, many of whom aren't black)?

And again, no one is blaming any living people for the lynching, just the racism that continues to run rampant, as illustrated in the previous comment.


about 13 years ago

The Duluth News Tribune looked closely at crime data a couple of years ago and found that nearly all the crime committed in Duluth, including drug crime, is committed by local people, not people from Chicago. The article found:

"Of 110 people charged in Duluth last year (2007) with drug-related felonies, four, or 3.6 percent, had out-of-state metro addresses."


about 13 years ago

Someone should revive this thread at least every 6 months or so.  So much to consider.  Here's mine, Matilda seems way far-flung, but she brings up one question for me.  Does it bother anyone else to see so much drug dealing and sex trade going on at the CJM memorial? Have you even noticed it going on?   It seems like people have kind of missed the point when you see that.  But thanks again for reviving the post Mike, sorry to hear about your Grandpa.

David Beard

about 13 years ago

I work with the CJMM committee on education once in a while, and even though I admire the work, the Memorial is, in fact, a mixed message, communicatively.  (The quotations can be read as sending mixed or contradictory messages, for example.)

That said, emmadogs, the idea that the Memorial is flawed is worth considering -- not as a means of dismissing the work that the Memorial does, but instead in terms of advancing the work more effectively.

Maybe the next time we resurrect this thread, it will go in that direction.

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