A pivotal moment in Minnesota race relations
On the evening of June 15, 1920, Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton–three young African American men who had been accused of raping a white woman–were pulled from their jail cells in Duluth, Minnesota, and lynched by a mob of thousands of people. The United States was going through a time of violent racial conflicts in 1920, and discrimination was rampant against southern African Americans who migrated north seeking employment. The violence in Duluth was shocking, but it was hardly isolated. From 1889 to 1918, at least 219 people were lynched in northern states; during the “Red Summer” of 1919, 15 whites and 23 blacks were killed in Chicago riots alone.
The three men were “roustabouts,” passing through Duluth with a traveling circus. A total of six circus workers were jailed for the alleged rape; after McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton were killed, Governor J. A. A. Burnquist ordered the Minnesota National Guard into Duluth to protect the three surviving prisoners. The streets of Duluth may have appeared calm, but not everyone felt safe. The city’s small number of black residents locked themselves indoors, fearful of further violence.
The press covered the lynchings in great and often lurid detail. Some condemned the act–the Minneapolis Journal accused the lynch mob of putting “a stain on the name of Minnesota”–but others saw it as necessary. The Ely Miner, for example, wrote that “while the thing was wrong in principle, it was most effective.”
Duluth district judge William Cant convened a grand jury two days after the lynchings. On August 8, nineteen men were indicted, eight of whom were tried. Three were convicted of rioting, and each served less than fifteen months of their five-year sentences in prison. No one was convicted of murder. Seven black circus workers were indicted for rape. Five were acquitted and two went to trial; one was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Horrified by the lynchings, many African Americans left Duluth. From 1920 to 1930, the city’s already-small black population dropped by 16 percent. Those who stayed formed a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Throughout Minnesota, African Americans supported a state antilynching bill. Nellie Francis, a St. Paul activist, led the campaign. Signed into law on April 21, 1921, the bill provided for the removal of police officers who were found negligent in protecting against lynchings and stipulated that damages be paid to the dependents of victims of lynchings. Despite further efforts, a national antilynching bill was never passed.
For years, the burial locations of McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson were unknown. In 1991, it was learned that their bodies lay in unmarked graves at Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery. In a ceremony later that year, the graves were marked with granite headstones bearing their names and the inscription “Deterred but not defeated.”
“This event is the most visible moment in Minnesota’s unfortunate racist history. Maybe no better or worse than any other state, Minnesota nonetheless has a self-image as a progressive, open-minded place. While that is true, it is also true that Minnesota had one of the most active and virulent Ku Klux Klan chapters in the country and has a long and sad history of racism and anti-Semitism. Facing all of our history is a good thing for all of us and our future.”
~Robert Garfinkle, St. Paul