The Victims of the 1920 Duluth Lynchings

An advertisement for the John Robinson Circus; the three victims of Duluth’s 1920 lynching were in town working for the circus when they were falsely accused. (Image: Public Domain)

If We Must Die

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

— Claude McKay

On June 15, 1920, 19-year-old Irene Tusken and her boyfriend, 18-year-old Jimmie Sullivan, told authorities that a group of African-American men who worked for the John Robinson Circus had held Sullivan at gunpoint while they raped Tusken. Police rousted every one of the circus’s 150 African-American men, lined them up in a dark West Duluth railroad yard, and pressured Tusken and Sullivan to pick their attackers from the impossibly long line-up. Sullivan demurred, saying he couldn’t tell them apart. Tusken also said she could not recognize anyone, but police pressed her, and she eventually picked out a few men who seemed to have the correct “general size and shape.” Others, whose responses to police questions seemed “suspicious,” were taken to jail as well. When the night was over Nate Graves, John Thomas, Lonnie Williams, Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie all sat in cells inside the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters and Jail at 126 East Superior Street. McGhie was one of those who “seemed to know something” and was arrested as a material witness.

More arrests followed when Duluth Police Chief John Murphy followed the circus to Virginia, Minnesota, and arrested Early Thomas, Frank Spicer, William Miller, Norman Ousley, Eugene Jefferson Knight, Clarence Green, Louis Benjamin Hayes, and Max Mason. While Murphy was rounding up more suspects, a mob of 10,000 angry Duluthians—thinking a black circus worker had soiled a white girl from West Duluth,—stormed the Superior Street jail; grabbed Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie; and lynched them from a light pole on the northeast corner of Second Avenue East and First Street. When the trials were over, only Mason was found guilty of rape; he served just five years, during which time most officials involved in his incarceration publicly doubted his guilt.

Why Tusken and Sullivan made up such a story is open to speculation, as neither strayed from their tale throughout the subsequent trials. Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth, points out that many circus workers spent their off-time shooting dice—a traveling circus was a good place to find a dice game during the period. Jimmie Sullivan was a known gambler. He had a good job at the ore docks and often flashed his bankroll to impress others, especially the ladies; Tusken was not his only female companion. In fact, Tusken’s second medical examination weeks after the lynching exposed an advanced case of gonorrhea, likely passed on from Sullivan. Sullivan’s court testimony contains some holes: his whereabouts in the hours before he met with Tusken were never accounted for, and the young man who liked to show off his cash was oddly broke by the time he ran into her—indications he may have been gambling with circus workers. A logical explanation for the accusation might be that he was humiliated in a verbal confrontation with some of the circus workers over gambling.

But why, despite the lack of evidence, were authorities so quick to believe their story, and Duluthians so willing to engage in riot and murder?

Far Outnumbered

The lynchings in Duluth were only one part of a nationwide paroxysm of racial violence that peaked in 1919. In June 1920 the entire country continued to be convulsed in violent racial hatred and plagued by mass violence. While lynchings and other white-on-black violence occurred more commonly in the South, it was certainly not isolated below the Mason-Dixon line. In 1917 in East St. Louis, thousands of union-led white people burned and ransacked black homes and businesses, leading to the deaths of 40 blacks and eight whites. Six thousand black citizens crossed the Mississippi River to St. Louis seeking safety. On June 26, 1919, 10,000 whites gathered for the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi, which had been nationally publicized in advance. The lynching was a grotesque carnival scene: vendors sold flags and souvenirs while Hartfield was hung, mutilated, shot over 2,000 times, and then set on fire until nothing remained of him but ashes. Postcard souvenirs were often made to commemorate lynchings (at least two were made of the Duluth crimes). There were 25 major race riots during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919, along with at least 52 lynchings and numerous close calls and aborted skirmishes. Thousands of black people were displaced and made to search for newer, safer places to live.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.