Confronting the Duluth Lynchings 100 Years Later

On June 15, 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth; now, MNHS is making sure this crime is not forgotten
The Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial remembers the three black men—Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton—who were lynched in Duluth in 1920.
The Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial remembers the three black men—Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton—who were lynched in Duluth in 1920.

Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on May 25 and the subsequent protests throughout the Twin Cities and the country, Minnesota finds itself in the midst of another historic event. This week, 100 years ago, three young black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman and were lynched within 24 hours of being arrested in Duluth. Their names were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie; they died at the hands of a white mob of almost 10,000 people.

In recognition of this incredibly horrific moment and the long standing racism that has remained in our state and country, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) has designated the week of June 8-15 as one of remembrance for the lynchings. With the help of local historians and community leaders, MNHS hopes to explore the context of the lynchings within Minnesota’s racist history and confront how racism continues to impact our communities today.

Besides daily social media posts including oral history clips with black Minnesotans who lived in or near Duluth in the 1920s, on June 10 at 7 p.m., Michael Fedo, author of The Lynchings in Duluth, and William Green, a history professor at Augsburg University, will be talking via Facebook live about the history of African Americans in Minnesota and racism within the state more broadly. Then to end the week, on June 15 at 12:30 p.m., a video featuring perspectives from Minnesota historians, authors, and prominent community members will premiere on Facebook. If you’re able to, though, go beyond these posts and events and look through all of the gathered material about the lynchings on the MNHS website.

“Through this remembrance we hope that people will develop greater understanding and empathy for those who suffer the violence of racial persecution,” says Avi Viswanathan, MNHS director of the Department of Inclusion and Community Engagement, in a press release. “We hope that people will be inspired to take action and do something to support our communities and make systemic change.”

In addition to work being done by the MNHS, the leaders of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc. have been organizing a commemoration around the anniversary of the lynchings, but they postponed it until June 2021 due to COVID-19. (You can still visit the permanent memorial exhibit located at the corner of E. First Street and N. Second Avenue E. in Duluth.) The Duluth News Tribune has also been chronicling an investigative story of the lynchings in podcast form.

For decades, the lynchings in Duluth were hardly remembered. Yet, as police brutality against black people enters the spotlight again, it is time to recognize that hate crimes have spanned centuries, and to remember that injustice will repeat itself if we let it.