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The Victims of the 1920 Duluth Lynchings

Pressed to the Wall

There are three appropriate places to visit if you want to deeply consider the 1920 Duluth lynchings. The first is on the sidewalk across the street from the 1890 Duluth Police Headquarters and Jail, where you can try to imagine the street filled with a crushing, howling crowd of 10,000 angry Duluthians. If you cross the street and take a close look at the building you will find a small brass plaque on the jailhouse wall bearing a simple sentence: “Here, they were taken.”

The second is, naturally, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on Second Avenue East and First Street, directly south of the street corner where the innocent men were lynched on a light pole in front of what was then Duluth’s Shrine Auditorium. The Shriners still owned the building in 2000, when the idea for a memorial plaque to be placed on the very corner the young men died was first being discussed. The Shriners balked, a new vision emerged, and a simple plaque became an entire corner lot dedicated to never forgetting what happened that June night in 1920. To this day, Duluth’s Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is the only memorial of its kind in the entire United States. The three victims now stand as representatives for all-too-many thousands. The sculptured reliefs depicting the three young men appear to be literally, as the poet McKay wrote, “pressed to the wall.”

The third location for contemplation of this horrid crime is in Park Hill Cemetery, where Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie are buried. Here you can consider that the graves of these men sat unmarked for 71 years before stones bearing their names, birth and death years, and the phrase “Deterred But Not Defeated” were set in the ground. The gravestones have since been joined by a stone bench donated by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica and a thriving, young black oak tree.

Virginia Huston, a relative of Elmer Jackson’s, helps plant a black oak at his gravesite in 2008. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)

The tree represents a thin physical thread of personhood stretching from the very real place where Elmer Jackson was born to the city he died in. It was grown from an acorn collected in Jackson’s hometown of Pennytown, Missouri. It was planted in Duluth in 2008 by Virginia Huston, a relative of Jackson’s, and Warren Read, the great-grandson of Louis Dondino. Dondino was the man who drove his truck back and forth through town, gathering the willing to “come join the necktie party,” and one of the few Duluthians incarcerated for taking part in the lynching. Read and his horticulturist husband nurtured the acorn until it became a seedling strong enough to be planted.

Every year on or about June 15, people gather at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial for poetry and speeches and music. People also visit the gravesites in smaller numbers on that date and throughout the year, leaving flowers, handwritten notes, and sometimes pairs of dice. They tie colorful prayer ribbons to the wire fence that protects the young oak tree from deer, and as the tree grows stronger, they will tie those prayer ribbons to its spreading branches. This black oak—planted far from where it came from, just like the bones its roots will eventually cradle—will grow to shade that entire corner of the cemetery. Its leaves bud later in the spring than any of the other trees in the cemetery, leading people to wonder every year whether it has survived another Duluth winter. But it’s a strong tree, just like all the young black men who came to Duluth on a circus train, looking for adventure in a world that couldn’t even remember their names.

Author Heidi Bakk-Hansen was instrumental in the creation of Duluth’s Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial commemorating the victims. She spent nearly fifteen years trying to learn more about the lynching victims as well as the local and national circumstances that help explain how something so awful could have occurred right here in Duluth.

The final resting place of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie, forgotten no longer. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)

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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.