Included in those 25 race riots that took place during the summer before Duluth’s lynchings were riots in San Francisco; Bisbee, Arizona; Omaha, Nebraska; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, DC; New London, Connecticut; and Wilmington, Delaware. In every single case, black criminality was blamed, though the vast majority of death and destruction was meted out upon black people, their homes, and businesses by white rioters.
If the victim was accused of raping a white woman, the lynchings were considered “justified.” But if you were black, you didn’t have to be accused of sexual assault outside of your race to be strung up. The 1919 Charleston riot began because some white sailors were cheated out of $8 worth of illegal liquor. A black man and World War I veteran named William Little was lynched that same year in Georgia because, despite threats, he had the audacity to wear his army uniform. (He had no other clothes.) In Louisiana, George Holden was dragged from a train and shot after being accused of writing a note to a white woman. (He could neither read nor write.) The Chicago riot began after a white man at the beach threw rocks at some black boys bathing in the “wrong part” of the water. Black teenager Eugene Williams’ drowned, but instead of arresting the man who had thrown the rocks, the police arrested a black man. Any sort of “uppity” behavior was grounds for a violent backlash, and was often targeted at an entire community rather than any particular offender.
The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that by June 1920, too many white Americans thought of lynching as a “necessary social purgative” brought on by the victim’s own behavior. Duluth’s working-class West End and West Duluth neighborhoods, packed with first- and second-generation immigrants, were fertile ground for such thought. Like similar immigrant neighborhoods across the country, their populations were attempting to rise in status—and that meant distancing themselves from African-Americans, with whom they often competed for jobs. Furthermore, Duluthians had lynched a man just two years earlier , a Finnish immigrant considered a “slacker” for not enlisting in the military for service in World War I.
To further illustrate the mindset of the majority of Duluthians (and other Americans) of European descent, consider this: A Duluth News Tribune article published just months before the riots praised the Duluth District of the American Protective League for working “as silently and as effectively as the Ku Klux Klan.” In the spring of 1921, with the lynchings still fresh in the minds of local citizens, the Duluth chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was formed with 700 members. A woman’s auxiliary was established several years later. Two Duluth women even published a song celebrating the Klan. The organization remained active in Duluth through the 1920s. Even after the chapter lost its funding in 1925 (its main organizer and lawyer skipped towns with the Klan’s funds), the Klan used their influence to make fellow Klansman Sievart Hanson the chief of Duluth’s fire department.
An Inglorious Spot
Besides the general racial unrest throughout the nation in 1920, the fact that the accused men worked for the circus likely didn’t help their cause. There was a long-standing tradition of conflict between circus folk and the local toughs in any given town. Circus workers were presumed to be criminals and con-men, and fights were common. Circus labor was difficult and dangerous, and African-Americans were given the most labor-intensive jobs the show had to offer. The circus cared little for these men, whom they found easily replaceable and practically anonymous. They were young black men, traveling with people who likely didn’t know their real names, at a time when young black men were widely considered to be naturally criminally inclined, disposable, and interchangeable. When 14 of its workers were arrested in Duluth and Virginia, the John Robinson Circus left them behind, hired new hands, and never looked back.
This sort of callousness was part of circus culture of the era, regardless of race. Anyone working as a roustabout, razorback, or other circus laborer could expect to be left behind if they were injured or otherwise incapacitated, and accidents were common. A little over a month before the John Robinson Show reached Duluth in 1920, 15-year-old Elmer Rittos ran off with them when it left Parkersburg, West Virginia. By May 5, Rittos was dead, run over by a circus truck. His stepfather later sued for damages; the circus didn’t have to pay a cent.
Despite these difficulties, for underprivileged black men seeking to escape the racist terrorism bursting all around them, traveling with the circus was an obviously exciting and even relatively safe way of seeing the country. They could travel on the rails legally and in the company of others like them—and get paid along the way. Nate Graves, Lonnie Williams, and some of the other arrestees worked with the big-top crew loading wagons, which was relatively dangerous work. Louis Hayes worked as a props man with the Nelson Family, who were bareback-horse-riding performers. Max Mason worked in the cookhouse gang with Early Thomas and was the designated waiter for the Nelson family.
These young men were part of the first major wave of the Great Migration northward. They came from towns and cities along the railroad. Many of those arrested for the alleged rape in Duluth came from black neighborhoods located next to major railroad hubs. A straight line of railroad track can be drawn from Lonnie Williams’ hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the circus’ home base in Peru, Indiana, a line that passes through Nate Graves’ home of Glasgow, Kentucky, and Louisville, Kentucky, where Max Mason and Louis Hayes joined up. Elmer Jackson came from the other direction, but also lived next to a railroad hub: the yards of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in Topeka, Kansas, where he and his father both worked alongside Claude McKay, whose 1919 poem “If We Must Die” begins this story.