On June 15, 1920, a mob of 10,000 people oversaw the lynching of three African American circus workers falsely accused of rape in downtown Duluth. In the face of community silence after the event, the lynchings faded from public memory. Efforts to acknowledge the lynchings, remember the victims, and begin community healing led to the identification of the three workers’ graves in 1991 and the creation of a memorial plaza in Duluth in 2003.
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, located at East First Street and North Second Avenue East in Duluth, recalls the victims of the lynchings of June 15, 1920. Angered at the reported rape of a local white woman, a mob of white people seized traveling circus workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie from the city jail. After a mock trial, the mob hung the three men from a lamppost in downtown Duluth. Officials buried their bodies in unmarked graves at a local cemetery. Three of the approximately 10,000 participants received rioting convictions; no one ever stood trial for the murders.
The Duluth lynchings took place during an era of white supremacy, legal discrimination, and extreme violence against people of color. According to the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), there were 4,084 documented lynchings of African Americans in the South between 1877 and 1950, with an additional 341 occurring in Northern states. Although ten-year averages for lynchings dropped steadily between 1890 and 1930, advocates of white supremacy rigorously enforced Jim Crow and miscegenation laws and turned the Ku Klux Klan into a national movement.
The Duluth lynchings made national headlines but, in time, the event gradually disappeared from public memory. Those few who still remembered, wrote historian William D. Green, “treat it, like all dirty little secrets, as something best left unspoken.”
In 1979, local author Michael Fedo shed light on Duluth’s “dirty little secret” with a detailed history of the lynchings. Reprinted in 1993 as The Lynchings in Duluth, Fedo’s history restored the all-but-forgotten murders to the public conscience.
Starting in 1990, local residents determined to keep the memories alive began holding “Day of Remembrance” vigils at the lynching site. The following year, University of Minnesota Duluth professor Craig Grau located the gravesites of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie. The Duluth chapter of the NAACP sponsored the installation of new headstones in October 1991. In addition to the victims’ names, dates of birth, and dates of death, each stone displayed the phrase, “Deterred But Not Defeated.”
Annual vigils continued through the 1990s, as residents considered other ways to remember the victims. In 2000, local reporter Heidi Bakk-Hansen and Henry Banks, the leader of a Duluth family resource center, co-founded a grassroots group to install a memorial plaque. The group evolved into the CJM (Clayton Jackson McGhie) Memorial Board, a nonprofit dedicated to awarding scholarships to high school seniors in the Duluth/Superior region and teaching the public about the lynchings.
Together with the City of Duluth Public Arts Commission, the board requested proposals for a memorial near the lynching site. The memorial, the board hoped, would inspire public discussions and foster community healing. In February 2003, the commission awarded the project to local artist Carla Stetson and writer Anthony Peyton Porter. Officials broke ground the following May.
Using local high school students as models, Stetson created a life-size sculpture that celebrated Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie as individuals. “[W]hen the young men were lynched, they were depersonalized,” she said. “The idea of them being individual people with real feelings and their life in front of them—all of that was taken away.” Stetson’s design placed the sculptures along an open plaza, surrounded by quotes from poets, philosophers, and civil rights activists. The plaza was finished in October 2003 at a cost of $267,000.
The plaza became the focal point for both centennial remembrances and public protests in 2020. On May 31, unknown vandals spray painted anti-police messages in the plaza in the wake of the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd while in police custody. Just two weeks later, more than 1,000 people, including Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, attended a memorial at the site on June 15.
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