The Drowning of Richard White
Editor’s Note: This article includes historically accurate but racist language and discusses violence against children.
It was a hot July in the summer of 1934. The Midwest sweltered under a heat wave, and the ongoing nationwide manhunt for John Dillinger dominated daily headlines. On July 3, a man reported an abandoned car with Indiana plates on the Lester River Road, prompting police to swarm the area hoping—and perhaps fearing—they’d flush the gun-toting bank robber out of the underbrush like a wayward grouse. Meanwhile, army worms were on the march, Hitler was on the rise, and Duluth’s union men watched newspaper reports intently as the teamsters’ strike in Minneapolis sparked with violence.
Children, as always, played and swam in swimming holes around town. They went to the movie house to watch films starring five-year-old Shirley Temple and animated shorts featuring Mickey Mouse. They attended carnivals and church fairs and played with commercially popular dolls like Raggedy Ann. The Duluth Herald printed a nightly serial titled “Little Stories for Bedtime” by Thornton W. Burgess, depicting the heart-warming adventures of Peter Cottontail and the other bunnies in the Old Briar-Patch, no doubt a boon for parents who couldn’t afford to buy books.
But in a time when ill-behaved packs of children could run free until dark, stories of a more sinister nature sometimes came to light.
On July 19, West Duluth police scoured the alleys looking for a group of young boys who’d been seen using slingshots to kill young robins and shatter holes in the stained glass windows of Odd Fellows Hall at 411 57th Avenue West. On July 20, an unmarried 19-year-old woman named Mae Matalamaki was arrested for killing her infant child, purportedly because it wouldn’t stop crying. She drowned the baby in Chester Creek at 14th Avenue East and Fourth Street, and then buried its body on her parents’ Floodwood farm.
Amongst the jittery street talk of John Dillinger, the Minneapolis strike, and the murdering mother, few may have had much to say about a missing boy, seven-year-old Richard White.
White was last seen at 11:30 a.m. on July 19, playing with some other children near the canal’s north pier. After a seven-hour hunt by police and neighbors, the Coast Guard dragged the lake, presuming he must have drowned. Their search was unsuccessful.
On July 21, the Duluth News Tribune published a photo of the boy and speculated that he might have run away from home. However, on July 22, the search for a drowned boy or runaway took a much darker turn when a detective took four children down to the pier to question them. The next day, amidst blaring headlines crowing about Dillinger’s death in a hail of gunfire in Chicago, the Duluth Herald reported:
While rough water has hampered efforts to recover the body of Richard White, 7-year-old Negro boy, drowned near the north pier of the ship canal Thursday, authorities are pondering the status of four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in ages from 4 to 6 years old, who yesterday confessed to pushing the child off the pier into the water…. The mystery of the boy’s disappearance was solved yesterday noon when detectives learned that one of the children had told her mother Thursday that a little boy had fallen into the lake. The mother discounted the story at the time. Taken to the scene in company with an adult member of the family of one of the children, the four sobbingly re-enacted the tragedy before Detective Sergeant Joseph Payer, and said that one of the children tripped Richard as he was playing on the parapet. He lost his balance and plunged into the water. One of the girls ran home, but the other three continued playing. Before Sergeant Payer one of the children pointed to another saying “he did it,” and the other sobbed, “but you told me to!”
The four children, who were white, were not charged with any crime because of their ages. As the Duluth Herald article explained, “A child under seven years of age is presumed incapable of committing crime because they have not reached the age of reason.”
The Coast Guard, assuming the boy’s body to be caught amongst old wooden cribwork and rocks near the pier, decided to delay its search until the rough waves subsided and they could send down a diver. They didn’t have to. On July 30 Richard White’s body was found washed up on a beach in Lakeside and returned to his parents, Samuel and Alberta “Birdie” White.
The Whites were originally from Iowa and had been in Duluth for four years at the time of their only son’s murder. They lived at 216½ South First Avenue East, approximately the southeast corner of the modern intersection of Railroad Street and Canal Park Drive. At the time, today’s Canal Park Business District was a mix of industrial facilities, low-income housing, and brothels. Most of the White family’s nearest neighbors were, like themselves, underemployed African-Americans. Sam, a veteran of the Great War, worked shining shoes at a “shine parlor” while Birdie kept house.
Within two years of their loss, the bereaved couple left Duluth for good, joining a persistent exodus of Duluth’s African-Americans that followed the 1920 lynchings. Though the black population of Duluth had always been small (under 2% of the general population), a local academic study asserts that black urbanization should have meant a steady migration of African-Americans to Duluth during the decades after 1920; instead, it decreased significantly.
But You Told Me To!
A natural reaction to this story is to see the killing of Richard White as an echo of the Duluth lynchings of 1920—children acting out in imitation of their parents. However, none of these particular children were alive when the infamous lynchings happened. All we have are the haunting words of two of the unnamed children as reported in the newspaper, and what we know about the world they—as children—lived in.
Stories of the Duluth lynchings often refer to the motivated and deliberate “amnesia” about the event Duluth’s white community seemed to suffer for decades thereafter, as the community did its best to forget the tragedy and its implications. However, in Richard White’s case, there is a much larger amnesia at play: As was the case throughout much of the nation, Duluth’s white children were indoctrinated in the “othering” of black people. There also persists a widespread myth that small children are always innocent of “seeing color” or acting out in racially motivated—and sometimes violent—ways.
While most adults know about the unfair rules and other cultural idiosyncrasies of the Jim Crow-era South, it is less obvious to us today how similar ideas existed in the North—even in Duluth.
Richard White was drowned in July, a time of fireworks and visiting carnivals and fairs. Alongside Roman candles and sparklers, advertisements for fireworks in Duluth newspapers commonly listed “nigger chasers” (essentially bottle rockets without the launching stick, they flew every which way when lit). And no Duluth newspaper article describing the coming attractions of any carnival, school fair, or church picnic ever seemed to miss mentioning a popular American game locally called “Hit the Nigger Baby”—also sometimes “The African Dodger” or “Hit the Coon.” In its most common and appalling variant, an African-American or a white man in blackface would stick his head through a hole in a large piece of canvas and attempt to dodge baseballs or rotten eggs thrown at his face. (Less commonly, objects were thrown at wooden targets painted to look like black men or racks of black baby dolls.) At one fair in West Duluth, such a game was shut down by the city’s Humane Agent—but only because people had complained that small boys were receiving cigars as prizes. The Duluth Herald mentioned this game the very same day Richard White was reported missing.
Another popular pastime for children in 1934 was to go to the movies, a relatively cheap form of entertainment during the Depression. At the movie house, children would likely have noticed that Duluth’s African-Americans—like those throughout the U.S.—were by custom expected to sit in the balcony, a place widely known as “Nigger Heaven” (the upper balcony of Duluth’s Lyceum Theatre was referred to as “Nigger Alley”). Though the children would have seen “Our Gang” or “Little Rascals” shorts—which depicted an unusually integrated cast—the frequent appearance of blackface and “pickaninnies” (a derogatory term for black children) also persisted in movies, advertising, children’s books, dolls, toys, newspaper comics, and countless other items of daily cultural life. Until the 1960s, stores throughout the nation sold candy marketed as “nigger babies,” and Brazil nuts were also known as “nigger toes.”
Many of these grotesque depictions of black children were contrasted with angelic-looking white children, suggestive of the idea that perhaps pickaninnies weren’t children at all, but rather something less than human.
In fact, the most troubling of the many problematic traits attributed to the pickaninny in comics, animation, theater, and film, was that they were comically impervious to pain. One example that Richard White’s killers would likely have seen is a 1933 animated short titled “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” in which Mickey Mouse dresses as a vaudeville-style pickaninny by putting on a ragged sack dress, a wild black pigtailed wig, and blackens his face by lighting a firecracker in his own mouth.
Whether all these cultural influences actually inspired Richard White’s companions to push him into the canal and blithely keep playing while he drowned—or they were acting out some other drama of childhood horror—can never be known. What is known is that they were all immersed in a persistent logic that told them that the color of Richard White’s skin made him a natural target.