Before George Floyd there were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. On June 15, 1920 – exactly 100 years ago today – a white mob in Minnesota hung the three African-American men from a lamppost in downtown Duluth.
Employees of the visiting John Robinson Circus, they had been in the city only hours. It proved too long. A local man, the father of a young white teenager, accused a group of five or six African-American workers of raping his son’s 19-year-old girlfriend, Irene Tusken. A physician’s examination of the young woman revealed no evidence of rape or assault. Nevertheless, the police arrested six black circus workers and detained them in the city’s jail.
As word circulated through Duluth of the alleged rape, a white mob of at least 1,000 people – some estimates run as high as 10,000 – quickly formed. They stormed the jail and removed Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie. The police, who had been ordered not to use their guns, offered only the feeblest of resistance. The three men were savagely beaten and murdered.
Photo became a postcard
Some of the perpetrators gleefully gathered around the lifeless victims, posing for a photograph that later became a postcard. Look what fun can be had in Minnesota, it seemed to say. Bob Dylan, Duluth’s most famous native son, referred to this gruesome history in his 1965 song “Desolation Row.” “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” it begins.
Remarkably, these were not Duluth’s first lynchings. Two years earlier, during World War I, an antiwar Finnish laborer named Olli Kinkkonen was abducted from his boarding house and tarred and feathered by a group calling itself the “Knights of Liberty.” There was widespread anti-Finnish sentiment in Duluth at the time, and many Americans came to detest military resisters during the heightened nationalist fervor of 1918. It took two weeks before Kinkkonen was found, his body hanging from a tree on the outskirts of the city.
Today the United States largely remembers the lynchings of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie because of their unusual location. For much of the 20th century, white northerners took comfort in their unfounded belief that racism, and especially racist violence, was a southern phenomenon. The ghastly horror of 1920, like the more recent case of George Floyd, demonstrated otherwise. Indeed, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew a thing or two about eliciting white rage, said in 1966 during the integration of Marquette Park in the Midwest’s largest city that he had “never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
Duluth continues to suffer the legacies of its racist past. African-Americans and other people of color in the area earn less, reside in shabbier housing, and enjoy fewer educational opportunities than their white neighbors. There are problems with outright bigotry, too. A number of Duluthians have embraced the racist xenophobia of Donald Trump and railed against the potential resettlement of refugees in St. Louis County. One county commissioner, who in 2007 said he “would have voted for slavery” if the people in his district supported it, just last week walked out of a meeting as the board was set to observe 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd. He claimed later that he had to attend to a “personal matter.”
But these more shameful legacies are only part of the story.
‘It’s our opportunity … to stand up’
Duluth’s current chief of police is, strangely enough, the great-nephew of the young woman whose claim of rape a century ago set the triple lynching in motion. Mike Tusken only learned about his great-aunt’s role in 2000. Since then he has worked to overcome the racist scar attached to his name. “When you see people who are being oppressed, when you see inequities, when you see prejudice, it’s our opportunity – not just for the audience but for everyone in the city – to stand up and to challenge that,” he told a crowd commemorating the lynchings in 2016. Two years later, in 2018, Tusken accompanied dozens of other Minnesotans to the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. More recently, he called for the posthumous pardon of Max Mason, the only man ever convicted of the alleged rape, as a “family representative” of the “victim”; that pardon was granted on Friday.
And there are other positive legacies, too. Fifteen years before the Equal Justice Initiative opened the National Lynching Memorial in Alabama, Duluthians dedicated a memorial to the city’s most ignominious moment at the site of the killings downtown. Today the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial serves as ground zero for Duluth’s protests against the murder of George Floyd. Two weeks ago, over a thousand people marched from the memorial to Duluth’s city hall to denounce police violence and Minnesota’s long and ugly history of racism, and dozens then gathered there nightly to call for racial justice.
Hope grows now at this once wretched place.
Scott Laderman teaches history at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. His most recent book is “The ‘Silent Majority’ Speech: Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Origins of the New Right.”
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)