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US Group Wants Memorial to Mark Vigilante Lynching 80 Years Ago - 2001-08-23


In June of 1920, in the small Midwest U.S. city of Duluth, Minnesota, three black men were wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and put in the local jail. Within hours, a mob of people broke into the jail, took the three men from their cell and killed them. Now, 81 years later, a local group wants to build a permanent reminder of the incident.

The killings are known today as the 1920 Duluth lynching. What happened on the night of June 15, 1920, is considered among the darkest chapters in that city's history. Local resident Catherine Dakota says the three black men worked for a traveling circus. They were arrested after a woman told police she had been raped. It did not take long for word of the accusations to spread. "On that night, a mob of 10,000 people broke into the jail where they were placed after being arrested and dragged out three men and lynched them on this site," she said.

Singer Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, and referred to the lynching in his 1965 song "Desolation Row":They're selling postcards of the hanging. They're painting the passports brown.

Photographs of the lynching were turned into postcards, images of a crowd surrounding three black men: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. They appear stripped to their waists, hanging by their necks from a streetlight pole. Ms. Dakota is a co-chair of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Committee. It is a group of local people who want to turn the site of the lynching into a memorial park.

"It is about healing in the community and honoring those mens' lives. We will never know who those men may have been. They may very well have been leaders in any of the communities that they were from," she said.

Dick Dolezal serves on the group's monument committee. He says artists are being invited to submit designs for the memorial park, which is planned for a small, vacant lot in downtown Duluth. "One, a place where we have some recognition of the lynching. Secondly, that it would be a place where as people see that they also can be. So, I am hoping it will be a peaceful place," he said.

The lynching shocked people in Duluth. An editorial in the local newspaper just two days later was titled, "Duluth's Disgrace." It referred to the killings as a horrible blot upon the city's name, which it will never outlive. Ms. Dakota says no one knows for sure why the three men were accused. She says the woman who claimed to have been raped might have been motivated by a fight with her boyfriend, or had been accosted by strangers earlier that evening.

"Another story is that she might have been pregnant by her boyfriend and made this accusation that six men had raped her. A doctor who examined her that night even said there was no possible way that she had been raped," she said.

Committee member Portia Johnson says that is what shocks and saddens her the most about the incident, that three men could be falsely accused, and that so many people would quickly assume they were guilty. "This is something that these men were innocent of. They did not do what was allegedly said they did. It needs to be brought out," she said.

There are some people in Duluth who do not feel this matter needs to be so publicly brought out. They would rather it be forgotten as a horrible thing that happened in a different time. But city leaders are supporting the memorial project.

In June, there were poetry readings, a memorial fundraiser and a march to the site of the lynching. Amy Weidman of the Duluth Public Arts Commission says this is not the kind of event any city likes to tout in its tourism brochures, but it should not be swept under the rug, either. "I think that Duluth and the community is ready to embrace their history. I think that out of due respect, we need to acknowledge this part of our history. In doing so, I think public art is the perfect medium," she said.

The city also hopes the memorial's planning, construction and dedication will be a starting point for a more open discussion about race relations in the city. Duluth is about 92 percent white, and some local African-Americans say their voices are not always heard. Sheryl Boman works for a local anti-racism group, and hopes publicity surrounding the memorial will change that.

"Obviously, it was a very horrific, racist act that happened," she said. "It was clear that these three men were hung because they were African-American. So, we need to link that to what are the lives of African-American people in our community [like] today?"

One example that open discussion might already be starting is the city's plan to enact a human rights ordinance. A proposed ordinance has been presented to the Duluth City Council, and several hearings are planned to gather local opinions about it. The small memorial park at First Avenue and Second Street is expected to be ready for dedication late next year.

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