[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.
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?