Lynching is widely believed to be something that only happened in the South. But on June 15, 1920, three African Americans, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota.
Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were working at the John Robinson Circus, which was in town for a performance. On June 14, 1920, Irene Tusken, nineteen, and James Sullivan, eighteen, who were both white, attended the circus. Later that night, the couple claimed that six black circus workers robbed them at gunpoint and raped Tusken.
The next day, June 15, Duluth Police Chief John Murphy rounded up several African Americans for Tusken and Sullivan to identify as the alleged attackers. The couple accused six black men who were then arrested and held in the Duluth city jail. On that same morning, Tusken was examined by a doctor who concluded there was no evidence that she was raped.
News of the alleged rape and subsequent arrests spread throughout the city as Louis Dondino organized an angry mob by driving around and telling people to join the “necktie party.” The crowd, estimated at 10,000 people, used bricks, clubs and sticks to break into the police station. Duluth Commissioner of Public Safety William F. Murnian failed to instruct his officers to stop the rioters forcefully, allowing them to enter the jail.
The people in the mob broke into the jail cells of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie, beat the three men, and declared them “guilty” in a mock trial. They then dragged them a block from the jail to the corner of First Street and Second Avenue. The rioters threw a rope over a light pole, stripped the men down to their waists, and lynched them. When McGhie’s rope broke, they hung him a second time. A man sitting on a lamppost repeatedly kicked Clayton in the face as he suffocated.
After Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were killed, Clayton’s body was cut down or fell to the ground. The crowd gathered around their lifeless bodies, then illuminated them with car headlights and posed Clayton’s limbs. Dozens of white men stood smiling for a photograph, which was made into postcards sold as a souvenirs.
The Minnesota National Guard was deployed to secure the city and protect the remaining three African American men who had been arrested. They were moved from the Duluth jail to the St. Louis County jail. Meanwhile, news of the lynching spread across the country. Some people were shocked and outraged about the lynching while others believed the false rape claim — despite the fact that there was no evidence the men committed a crime.
A grand jury indicted thirty-seven white men for rioting and/or murder. Only eight, however, were tried, and only Louis Dondino, Carl Hammerberg and Gilbert Stephenson were convicted for rioting. No one was convicted for the murders of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie. Seven African Americans were indicted for rape. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent attorneys to Duluth to defend them. Charges were dismissed against some, but William Miller and Max Mason were tried for rape. Miller was acquitted, but Mason was convicted and sentenced to up to thirty years in prison. After serving four years in prison, Mason was released on the condition that he leave Minnesota.
After the lynchings, a local NAACP branch was founded. Nellie Francis, an activist from St. Paul, lobbied the state legislature for an anti-lynching law that was passed on April 21, 1921. The lynchings were mostly forgotten or ignored until 1991, when the graves of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were given headstones reading, “Deterred but not defeated.” In 2000, citizens formed the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee, and in 2003 a monument honoring the men was dedicated in Duluth across the street from where the men were lynched.
Soil from the lynching site and the names of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie are included in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The national memorial was founded by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 2018 to acknowledge the more than 4,400 African Americans lynched by mobs of white people between 1877 and 1950. In Duluth, a “Day of Remembrance” is held annually to commemorate the lives of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.