If We Must Die

The Victims of Duluth’s 1920 Lynchings

[Editor’s Note: Duluth’s infamous lynchings took place 95 years ago this month on June 15, 1920. Zenith City’s Heidi Bakk-Hansen was instrumental in the creation of Duluth’s Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial commemorating the victims. She has spent much of the past 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. Her story will give you an entirely fresh perspective on the incident.]


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


EDITOR’s NOTE: June 15, 2015, will mark the 95th anniversary of the lynching of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie on a downtown Duluth street corner. Zenith City Online’s Heidi Bakk-Hansen first wrote about the lynchings in Duluth’s now-defunct Ripsaw News in June, 2000; this article is now part of the Zenith City Archive. The story helped spur a movement that created the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial. After fifteen years of research into the victims’ lives and stories, Bakk-Hansen realized that her original goal—bringing descendants the good news of the memorial—lacked useful purpose. As she says, “Being told your ancestor was lynched and lost or almost lynched isn’t always welcome news or even news at all. Black lives matter, but to families plagued with generations of poverty, marginalization ,and lost connections, what happened a hundred years ago only serves as reminder of how little has changed. It’s just another star in a constellation of pain. People didn’t pass on stories of lynching in the family, because it hurt too much. Then and now, there are all too many missing branches on the family tree.” Moreover, due to circumstances outlined below, sparse information can be found about the 14 men initially jailed for a crime that was never committed. But Bakk-Hansen’s efforts did result in a story that helps to explain how these men came to be in Duluth in June, 1920, and allows us better to understand how something so horrific could happen right here in the Zenith City.


A postcard showing the lynch mob inset with an image from another photograph displaying the victims. (Image: Zenith City Press)
A postcard showing the lynch mob inset with an image from another photograph displaying the victims. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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.

A lone Duluth police officer stands outside the headquarters and jail on June 15, 1920—the most notorious day in the history of the Zenith City. (Image: Duluth Public Library)
A lone Duluth police officer stands outside the headquarters and jail on June 16, 1920—the day after the most notorious day in the history of the Zenith City. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

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?

The Victims of Duluth’s 1920 Lynchings

8 Responses to If We Must Die

  1. Just a note from my husband, He remembers his mother seeing the guys hanging. She would have been only 8 years old. Maybe on her way to school, we don’t know but she would tell us “I saw the men hanging there!”

    Good article and thanks

  2. Thank you, Heidi, for reminding us of that terrible event, and for the work you and others have done to make certain we never forget.

  3. Michael, allow me to add my two cents to Heidi’s comment: we could not do what we do here on Zenith City without the internet, Archive.org. Ancestry.com, genealogybank.com, etc. The work you did those 40 years ago was top notch for what was available to you. We still spend plenty of time in the good old public library’s reference section, but not nearly as much as back in the day. We can search newspapers through 1922! I can’t wait until they digitize newspapers from 1923-1940! (Anything older than 75 years is considered Public Domain…)

  4. Thank you!

    Believe me, Michael, I have no idea how you did anything without the Internet. I only recently found more information on Lonnie Williams and the fact that he changed his name. In the old days, I would have had to drive to Chattanooga to look through city directories to find it out (one little line of text) and then be able to find his death certificate and other information. Also, I don’t think you would have had access to the 1920-1940 census then, regardless. Even in the last fifteen years, it’s been so important to have 1930-1940 census data so one can verify that X-person is not the correct Isaac or Elias because they show up after 1920. It’s made it a lot easier to narrow it down. When I started, the list was way too overwhelming.

  5. Well done, Heidi. You were able to flesh out the story that I as a fledgling writer couldn’t locate more than 40 years ago. Internet access makes obscure information available in ways inconceivable when I started my own research back in 1973.

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