On June 15, 1920, the lynchings of three Black men – Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie – would stain Duluth, Minn., for the next 100 years ago. Spurred by the news that a white woman, Irene Tusken, claimed to have been raped, an angry mob of thousands broke into the prison and hanged the three men. Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were in Duluth with a traveling circus and were rounded up with others who fit the race of the assaulter than Tusken described.
Today, the legacy of that night extends up to the highest offices: Ms. Tusken was the great aunt of Duluth Police Chief Michael Tusken.
“This memorial really truly represents for my own family, for our community, this was repressed and was not talked about,” he said.
Chief Tusken hadn’t learned the connection to his own family until he was already a sworn officer and in his 20s. It was his mother who broke the family silence when Irene Tusken’s name was about to be made public for the first time.
“And it was during that time I learned from my mother that, when she had married into the family, my grandmother told her about this event and said you are never to speak of it again,” he said.
In 1920, Black people were migrating from the South to northern cities that offered good-paying work. At that time, the steel industry in Duluth lured these workers amidst strained labor relations with local workers, despite preexisting racial tensions. As told in TPT’s groundbreaking documentary, North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers, the John Robinson Circus was in town as part of a northern tour. Irene Tusken and a male friend had attended the circus that evening, a century ago. The couple reportedly encountered some Black workers loading circus cars, and Tusken’s companion would later report that she was raped. But a report by a medical examiner would later disprove the claim. As a child, Chief Tusken had no idea his great aunt would be centrally linked to this horrific crime.
“She was my grandfather Walt’s sister, so I knew her only as a young boy of eight to 10 years old… at that time she looked a lot like my grandma,” he said.
A crowd of reportedly 10,000 people swarmed the city jail that night and breached it, while authorities were ordered to stand down to avoid any deaths of white men. They took the three men to the intersection and hanged them from a lamp post. In a common post-lynching practice of the era, the white mob took a photo with the hanged bodies as a kind of trophy. The men crowded into the photo as one would at a class reunion or after a celebratory animal hunt. Brazen and disturbing to look at, the photograph was widely sold as a memento.
Taken 100 years apart, a video that captured ex-police officer killing George Floyd bears an eery resemblance to that photograph of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie, who were lynched in Duluth in 1920. Twin Cities PBS Senior Producer Daniel Bergin reflects on what the images – one moving, one still, both disturbing – say about Minnesota’s long history of systemic racism.
“When I think of this, I wonder if Irene had known the grave consequences of making those statements if she would have done the same thing knowing what it evolved into,” Chief Tusken speculated.
Earlier this month, the accused assaulter in 1920, a Black man named Max Mason, was posthumously pardoned by the Minnesota Board of Pardons. He had been tried, convicted by and all-white jury and served four years of a 30-year sentence. After the lynchings, many Blacks left the area.
Chief Tusken said that the city has still not healed from this horrific past.
“This memorial means a lot to me, not just as a Duluthian …but also now as a leader of a police organization of the same city, and understanding that I’m in a position [in which] I have an opportunity to change policies that don’t treat people fairly,” he said.
Jordon Moses, who identifies as Black and biracial with both a white and Black parent, moved to the city 10 years ago to attend college. He said that the legacy of the lynchings permeates more than the history books, explaining that racism, white supremacy and a sense that people of color are still outside of the power structures continues today.
“I think there’s a lot of folks who still do not want to have this conversation. There are folks who say, ‘Why do we still care about this?'” he said of the city’s past.
Moses had worked on organizing events around the 100-year commemoration, before they were canceled due to COVID-19. He said it’s not been lost on him that he has been stopped multiple times while on foot – even in his own neighborhood – for no other reason than being Black.
“We don’t lynch people in huge mobs anymore. We do, however, find ways to control people. That’s what the lynchings were about – they weren’t about justice,” he said.
Moses said these casual stops are not being tracked, leading to a perception that Black, Indigenous and other people of color are able to be questioned with impunity.
“The Duluth Police Department regularly works with our communities and Citizen Review Board to ensure our policies are fair and equitable for all. Additionally, we regularly engage with all in our community to strengthen relationships so we know how to best serve our citizens. All police subject stops and traffic stops are recorded. However, we may not record community engagement, an interaction with a neighbor who may have seen the direction of a fleeing suspect or a conversation that enhances community safety. We work hard to keep racism out of our policies and our department, but the Duluth Police Department is always open to feedback on how we can do better for all who live, work and play in Duluth,” Duluth Police Department spokesperson Ingrid Hornibrook said in a statement.
The commemorative events have been postposed to 2021. Moses said he hopes that 10,000 people from the community come out to show their support for change and to honor the men who brutally lost their lives.
“Every time I come here, I’m just thinking about what still needs to be done, we can’t go back, we can’t undo, so what can we create?” Moses asked.
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