Warren Read apologizes for the sins of his Duluth great-grandfather in “The Lyncher in Me.”
It started out as a casual Internet genealogy search, the kind millions of people undertake every day. With a little free time and a little Google, Warren Read thought he might uncover some interesting family connections, or even a little history. What he found shocked him. An article in the now-defunct Duluth alternative weekly Ripsaw recounted the infamous Duluth lynchings of 1920. Three black circus workers were accused by a white couple of rape. A mob pulled the frightened — and innocent — young men from their jail cell, beat them, and hung them in a public display of violence that was then made into a postcard. One of the three men who led the mob was Louis Dondino, Read’s great-grandfather.
Read had never heard this bit of family history, despite the fact that Dondino had actually spent time in jail for his role in the murders of the young men. He investigated it further, and ultimately decided his family needed to apologize to the families of those killed, and to the black community at large. Since those who actually committed the crime were dead or lost to history, he took on the task himself.
In 2003, Duluth dedicated a haunting monument to the three men, and Read spoke at the ceremony, offering a tearful apology on behalf of his family for the crime. But Read wasn’t done saying sorry yet. In March he published “The Lyncher in Me,” a memoir that recounts the incident and his family’s involvement, as well as the aftershocks that traveled down the generations in the form of alcoholism and dysfunction, impacting Dondino’s descendents.
Read, a teacher who lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, is in town this week to talk about his book and the value of atonement.
MinnPost: You aren’t responsible for the events of 1920. What is the value of an apology “once removed”?
Warren Read: Ideally, an apology should come from the person responsible, but I believe that if that perpetrator is unable or unwilling to apologize, to the receiver of an apology it can still mean something, especially if it comes from someone who’s connected to the perpetrator. I can boil it down to playground psychology: Ideally, a bully should apologize for his behavior, but if he doesn’t, to his victim it still means something if one of the bully’s friends comes up later and says, “You know, I am really sorry that happened, and I don’t agree with it.”
When I went to Duluth, I felt compelled to apologize on behalf of my great-grandfather. This huge wrong had been committed, and I felt this huge remorse on behalf of my family. This was a way of taking responsibility for my family’s actions.
MP: How do you think the concept of reparations fits into this idea?
WR: It’s hard to deny the effects that the slave trade still has on our society, in terms of racism, disenfranchisement and education, but I think that it’s a tricky thing to work through. Even though we’re 150 years past the emancipation proclamation, there’s proof that time alone doesn’t heal the wounds.
MP: Are you nervous about returning to Duluth, now that you’ve written your book?
WR: A little bit. If there’s someone bothered by what I’ve done, that’s where it’s going to show up. I can deal with it. It was my choice to put myself out there and I don’t expect anyone else to do it. [After the 2003 dedication ceremony in Duluth, a woman came up to Read and admitted that her ancestors, too, were involved.]
There have been a few comments about dragging up the past. I knew going into this that I would run into people who didn’t agree with what I was doing. Some people want to leave the past in the past. But I think it’s very important to look back, in order to go forward. I liken it to driving: You don’t look in the rearview mirror the whole time you’re driving, but you do need to look at it now and then, and it helps guide you to where you’re going.
MP: You’ve met the descendants of Elmer L. Jackson, one of the men killed. Does your apology help them?
WR: I think it has, and I know it’s helped me. This was a secret in my family for so many years, but for those folks, the idea of violence and lynching was never a secret — it was something they lived with for many years. They never had the option of denying an unjust past, while my family denied that for a long time. The idea of embracing something really painful, which is something that community does every day, can be really healing.
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