Yesterday, June 15, 1920, was exactly one hundred years since three young African Americans were lynched and killed in the city of Duluth on the North Shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.
The decades around the turn of the 20th century in Minnesota were years of political upheaval and discontent, agrarian protest movements rising up against the power of the corporations and income inequalities, increased radicalism, and new political constellations. It was a time of Populism and Progressivism, of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Non-partisan League, of the most contentious, and scandalous, gubernatorial election in Minnesota history, of massive strikes by the miners on the Iron Range, of the election of a socialist mayor in Minneapolis, and, on top of that, abroad, the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism while America entered the Great War in Europe. It was also a time of violations of civil liberties, of political repression, which the U.S. Department of Justice called “the most serious interference with civil liberties” in the whole country, and a time when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) flourished in the Midwest, particularly in Minnesota.
The dark years during World War I in Minnesota seemed to have no end when tragedy struck in Duluth. What happened then shook not only the state but the whole country. On that day, a mob of between 5,000 and 10,000 stormed the local jail and dragged three of six young African Americans from a touring circus, arrested for suspicion of having raped a young white woman, out on the street, beat them, and lynched them by hanging them from a Duluth lamp post, one by one.
Lynchings were not uncommon in America at the time. Between 1889 and 1918, over 3,200 people had been lynched across the nation, 218 of them in northern states and at least 20 of them in Minnesota, where, by 1920, the author Michael Fedo writes, “The intolerance, openly and tacitly approved by the Commission (of Public Safety) took forms of hatred toward Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.” The doctor who examined the young woman stated that “I don’t think she was raped.” Still, seven black circus workers were indicted and one was convicted, serving more than four of a 30-year jail sentence, while 25 white men were indicted for rioting and twelve for murder. Three of the rioters were convicted and served less than two years in prison. No murder conviction was ever obtained.
Duluth had at the time a population of around 100,000, of whom 30 percent were foreign-born, many Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns, but only about 500 blacks. As soon as he heard about the lynchings, Governor Jospeh A.A. Burnquist, a Swedish American, dispatched two companies from the Minnesota National Guard to Duluth, and he launched an investigation about the inefficient response of the Duluth police. But Burnquist, who happened to be the chairman of the local St Paul chapter of the civil rights organization NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, never put his weight behind it and never launched an independent investigation about the tragedy. All indications were that the Governor wanted little to do with what had occurred. Despite pleas from the NAACP after an investigation found the three lynched not guilty of the alleged rape, Burnquist never officially declared that the three young black men were innocent.
There were many with Scandinavian names involved in the lynching, on both sides, reflecting the large Scandinavian population in Duluth. Among the police, police sergeant Oscar Olson led the fight in trying to stop the mob from getting to his prisoners. Olson, who joined the Ku Klux Klan after the lynching, later became Duluth’s chief of police and was shot to death during World War II while trying to make an arrest. Others were patrolmen Jacob Nystrom and Victor Isaacson. In the mob were found 19-year-old Swedish-born, Carl Hammerberg, one of the three rioters convicted and sent to prison, and Leonard Hedman, a 23-year-old high school graduate and World War II veteran, who was said to have a bright future before the lynchings. Hedman was acquitted.
The lynchings in Duluth were hushed up. School text books did not mention them. For years, it was as if they had never happened, But photos were taken and postcards were made, and Bob Dylan, born in Duluth, shone light on the tragedy in his classic “Desolation Row” from 1965 with the opening lines:
“They’re selling postcards of the hanging,
They’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors,
The circus is in town.”
Still, most Minnesotans had never heard of the Duluth lynchings until 1979, when Michael Fedo’s book, They Was Just Niggers – quoting one in the mob — came out, and, particularly, when a new version of the book, The Lynchings in Duluth, was published in 2000. A wider discussion ensued. The unmarked graves of the three lynched African Americans in Duluth’s Park Hill Cemetery were finally inscribed with the victims’ names, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. In 2003, at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue in downtown Duluth where the lynching had taken place over 80 years earlier, a memorial was raised to the three young men.
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, Paul H. Anderson, gave a speech at the dedication of the memorial. You know, he told me in an interview, they didn’t know what the three young men looked like, so they had three students from the local high school stand as models. It’s a nice memorial, quiet and serene. The inscription says, “An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
The year after the Duluth lynchings, the Minnesota State Legislature passed an anti-lynching law, 41-0 in the Senate and 81-1 in the House. Today, in Duluth, the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, Inc. organizes days of remembrance every month of June, with the purpose of “fostering racial justice in our community through education, reconciliation and healing.”
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), long dormant, had by 1915 a new life and was by the 1920s flourishing in the Midwest, not the least in Minnesota, according to Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle’s 2013 book The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota, and particularly after the 1920 Duluth lynchings. By 1922, the KKK claimed that its Duluth chapter had 1,500 members and by the mid-20s, the Klan was reaching the height of its power. Not one county in Minnesota was untouched by Klan, which held its first state-wide konklave, or convention, in the town of Faribault in 1924 with around 2,500 participants, according to a Klan report cited by Hale. Organized by the Steele County KKK, Klan Park in the town of Owatonna was the scene of the next three konklaves. After the third one, the power of the Klan in the Midwest started to decline, partially because if internal scandals. In July 1930, only 500 people participated in a day-long KKK picnic in St Paul. Still, in 1947, a Klan member, Stafford King, challenged Luther W. Youngdahl for the Republican nomination as governor. He lost, but tried again, in 1952, running against C. Elmer Anderson in the Republican primary. Again, he lost.
Minnesota allowed Klan chapters to be incorporated in the state. The KKK drew from fraternal orders such as the Masons and Shriners, and part of its strategy was alliances with Protestant ministers, especially evangelicals, who believed that the Christian faith should guide political and social life and tried to inject religion into Minnesota’s public schools. In 1922, after reports that some members of the Minneapolis police force belonged to the Klan, the mayor forbade the city’s police officers from being members in the Klan, and in 1924, a hard-charging Scandinavian prosecutor in Minneapolis, who had taken on the Klan, ran for governor. He was to become a legend in Minnesota politics. But it was not until 1997 that Minnesota Secretary of State, Joan Anderson Growe, dissolved all KKK charters and licenses together with all other unregistered non-profits, as authorized by Minnesota statute. Writes Dorsey Hatle, Minnesota was one of the last states in the Midwest to give up on the Ku Klux Klan.