Duluth’s 1920 Lynchings


How Have We Changed?

On June 15, eighty years will have passed since Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson were lynched on the corner by the Shrine Auditorium. During the ensuing decades, we have seen the rise of Black Power, the legal entrenchment of civil rights and the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In 1970s Duluth, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis’s examples inspired black children to form their own version of the Black Panthers. Black History found its place in classrooms. The first black policeman was hired, brother to the first black fireman.

And yet, for many African-American Duluthians, the sense of being “other” has not diminished much. Michael Fedo, who still holds a small place in the hearts of many black residents, says they are still “living in the aftermath … Black people are still lumped as a ‘they’”—outside the individuality white people take for granted.

Racism in Duluth is widely acknowledged to be “covert.” Kevin Ross, who has lived here on and off for eight years said, “I don’t see this town as real prejudiced, but I’m from the South. Southerners are straightforward. There’s no two-faced stuff. Here, they smile in your face and then call you ‘nigger’ behind your back.” According to Jeff Anderson, a West Duluth native, “We’re all supposedly good open-minded Democrat Minnesotans, but if you ask questions in more subtle ways … [ask] what they think, how they interpret things, then things comes out, like, ‘Why did they come here, anyway?’”

Harassment of people of color (especially Native Americans and African-Americans) by police is a subject widely accepted as a reality by almost all Duluthians who live in the Hillside neighborhoods, if not by the police themselves. Many residents get quite irate about what they perceive as an obvious heavy-handedness on the part of Duluth police officers while dealing with black or Indian drivers. It has been such a problem that the terms DWB (Driving While Black) and DWI (Driving While Indian) require nearly no explanation. It seems that almost all black Duluthians have stories about either themselves or someone they know being pulled over on practically no provocation, often by an inordinate number of policemen. Ross reports being pulled over fourteen times in one month (including three times in one hour) and ticketed for an invalid license, something he disputes based on his calls to the DMV (which reports his license as perfectly sound). Marquez Jones, 19, says that everyone he knows has experienced harassment. “If we walk down the street in a group … cops pull over.”

Hopkins reports that the only African-American teacher in Duluth is not even in a classroom. He says that if 10 percent of Duluthians are people of color, then there should be reflection of that demographic in its schools. “Duluth is notorious for having One: one black police officer, one black fireman, one black teacher. We get all that money for desegregation [in the public schools], and it’s basically been lip service.”

According to Marshall Johnson, the most subtle examples of Duluth racism are apparent in the treatment given people of color in the press. Johnson says, “Hatred now is fragmented and individualized somewhat, but the same codes are still at work for a lot of people. It’s not a ‘plot’ perpetuated by big men with cigars, but a background set of codes and attitudes which lead to a division of black and white people with the same interests.” He cites as examples two articles from the Duluth News Tribune. One is dated March 29, 1994, and the other is dated May 11, 2000.

The first article documented the slayings of three young men—one black, one biracial and the other white. Their names were Sam Witherspoon, Peter Moore and Keith Hermanson. They were murdered by a white man named Todd Warren, who believed they had raped his girlfriend at a birthday party. It is a subject still sensitive in the Duluth communities where the victims and the perpetrator were well known. However, many residents still take issue with the Duluth News Tribune in its coverage of the incident. Why, they ask, was the hard focus on the minor scrapes with the law experienced by the victims? Why was the article below “Party Ends with 3 Men Slain” titled “House was known for disturbances”? According to Melissa Taylor, a lifelong resident, “[people] had to justify, had to have a reason. It couldn’t be racism…is there a memorial for those boys?” alluding to the still-active memorial for Paul Antonich, a white murder victim. Like Elsie Robinson, many black residents angrily point out the light sentence given Warren, who was originally sentenced to thirty years for each victim, to be served concurrently. “He got thirty years. That’s ten for each, or thirty years for [the white victim], and two for free.”

The other article is titled “Authorities tout major Twin Ports drug bust.” Within, Johnson highlights some of the phrasing. “The 16 arrested…are all suspected of being associated with street gangs in Milwaukee and Chicago,” and “Bauer said most of those arrested were originally from Milwaukee and Chicago and have been in this area only since last summer,” statements easily translated by local readers into “black male outsiders,” according to Johnson. Additional statements which Johnson classifies as inflammatory rhetoric include “…they individually came to Duluth from the larger metropolitan areas, [moving] in with local women,” and “The suspected dealers used female companions to hide drugs in body cavities to avoid detection while driving north.” Johnson finds such allegations absurd, asking, “What are they doing, driving through border checkpoints?” This is an example, Johnson asserts, of a perpetuated “defense of white womanhood” fired up by the “obsessive fear of black men.”

Will the City Step Forward?

Many feel that a city government-directed acknowledgment of this historic crime is long overdue. Regardless of why there is no memorial on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East, many Duluthians questioned on the subject agree that a simple plaque in the victims’ memory belongs there. The first step, according to Grau, is to name them. He says, “It’s by ‘thinging’ them that their lives were taken.” “The city should be responsible for [marking the corner],” says Hopkins. “Why isn’t it there?” asks Banks. “This city needs to live its truth. And show us this community is ours as well.” Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie and Elmer Jackson deserve that much, at least.

Editor’s Note: Shortly after this story was originally published by the Ripsaw News in 2000, a public meeting led to a grassroots movement culminating on October 10, 2003, with the dedication of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial at on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue East. You can read about that effort at the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial website, here.

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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.