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Minnesota Opinion: Anniversary a reminder to learn from both history's triumphs and mistakes

From the editorial: "If you know the story, share it, how on June 15, 1920, three Black circus workers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie — just passing through Duluth, were falsely accused of raping a white girl and were arrested. And how they later were ripped from their jail cells by a white mob, dragged up the Duluth hillside, and hung to death from a streetlight."

Flowers rest at the base of the Clayton Jackson McGhie monument on First Street in Duluth. (Submitted photo)
Flowers rest at the base of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on First Street in Duluth. (Submitted photo)
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The awfulness that happened at Second Avenue East and First Street in downtown Duluth — now one century and two years ago (on June 15) — is our heartbreaking history. Ours to own.

Perhaps Duluth’s most painful, most shameful moment, it is recalled, confronted, and commemorated annually on this date, the idea to acknowledge, to validate, so healing as a community can continue and so this tragedy is never repeated.

If you know the story, share it, how on June 15, 1920, three Black circus workers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie — just passing through Duluth, were falsely accused of raping a white girl and were arrested. And how they later were ripped from their jail cells by a white mob, dragged up the Duluth hillside, and hung to death from a streetlight.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
Minnesota Opinion editorial
Forum News Service graphic
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Afterward, postcards were made and sold featuring the dead bodies of the innocent and the smug grins of the murderers.

(Wednesday's) ceremonies and events opened Tuesday with a graveside memorial at Park Hill Cemetery in Duluth, where Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie are buried. It featured speakers, spoken-word artists, and music. At noon (Wednesday), at the lynching site that’s now the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, a program (was held) with more speakers, spoken word, and music. And at 7 p.m. (Wednesday), a service of remembrance is scheduled at First Lutheran Church, 1100 E. Superior St. It’s to include remembrances, too, of those who more recently have been unjustly killed, and it’s to feature a performance of Joel Thompson's recent composition, “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” including a chorus, strings, and piano. Readings, prayers, hymns, and an offering to support racial justice education in our community is also to be part of the service.

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After generations and too many decades of pretending this horrible moment didn't happen, of ignoring the truth, and of not talking about it, Duluth took a step in 1991 toward community healing and toward acknowledging the racism that remains in our community, so that it can be addressed and eradicated. That was the year the burial sites of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were identified and marked.

In 2003, another step in a journey toward reconciliation occurred: The memorial itself was completed and dedicated. Thousands marched the same route as the 1920 mob, only this time with love in their hearts and compassion — not violence, not death.

Then, in 2020, an exoneration was handed down that was 100 years overdue. Max Mason, wrongfully convicted for the rape that didn’t happen, was posthumously pardoned with a unanimous vote of the Minnesota Board of Pardons. Mason was the "scapegoat to exculpate the actions of the mob," as the application for his pardon successfully argued.

As the Duluth News Tribune has recalled in editorials on past Days of Remembrance, many watched and few objected to what was happening to Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie. “We’re the law now!” the angry throng bellowed.

Today, there are those who still question why we take this moment, why we keep recalling this horrific event. If the query is raised today, say that it's because we learn from both our triumphs and our mistakes, because we make decisions now based on the good and the bad of our yesterdays, and because we understand how important it is to know who we are and from where we came. Only then can we work — together and effectively — to become the community that we all desire.

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