This piece was originally published June 2020.
Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie
This day is set aside for the purpose of recognizing and remembering the tragic event that took place in the streets of downtown Duluth in 1920, the lynchings of the innocent black men Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. I wanted to take the time to visit the memorial on 1st Street East and North 2nd Avenue East.
To be transparent, it was my first time making my way over there. I haven’t been avoiding the intersection; it just is not on a path I find myself taking often.
When I first decided that I was going to drive down to see the memorial, I was expecting to park, walk to a corner, snap a few pictures, and have my moment of silence. The one or two other times I have driven past the intersection on my way to a different destination, a quick glance showed me only the three men on the stone wall. In walking with intention to the memorial, not only did I see Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, I saw many words and quotes carved into the walls. At first, I was there alongside two other people, but slowly, one-by-one, others had the same idea. I was there for over half an hour reading quotes, reading history, and reflecting on the events of the past, connecting them to the heaviness I felt from the weeks leading up to my visit.
Ten thousand. Ten thousand Duluthians not only witnessed, but watched Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie be lynched by an angry mob of white men. The most recent protest attendance in Duluth was reported as about one to two thousand individuals marching on the street of downtown. From watching the news coverage and live videos on social media, that one to two thousand count looked like a sea of people. Can you imagine ten thousand individuals in the streets of Duluth?!
Duluth News Tribune’s The Duluth Lynchings Podcast helped me have a clearer understanding of the definitions of “lynching” and “mob.”
A lynching is known as any killing done in front of a mob. In this case, along with many other killings, hanging was a common method used.
A mob is defined as “angry, mis-informed people.”
Knowing these specific definitions reveals the sad clarity of history repeating itself over and over again. One hundred years feels like the distant past to many of us. The truth is, there are people living in the Duluth community today who had close relatives who could recall to them the June 15th events one hundred years ago. From my point of view, George Floyd was killed by angry, mis-informed men less than three hours from where Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were lynched. What are we going to do with our next one hundred years?
Visit the MN Historical Society to learn more about June 15th, 1920.
A friend of mine who had also gone to visit the memorial with her daughters felt the grief and the heaviness too.
“As we were getting ready to leave, a black gentleman, who was sitting down, grabbed something out of his bag and started walking towards us. He then handed each one of my daughters a wrapped Little Debbie treat and asked if they wanted a brownie–a cosmic brownie at that, my daughter’s fave. Then I started to cry again because I don’t feel like we deserved it. Here is this black man who just looks down and out. Tired. Spent. Sitting down looking at a memorial where three black men were hung and he thought to ask us, three white people, if we wanted a treat.”
Family Tourist Sites
The common tourist sites we take our kids to in and around Duluth are usually places like the Glensheen Mansion, Enger Tower, Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the William A. Irvin and they’re all filled with racial history, some filled with tragedy. They all made Duluth what it is today in some form. As did the lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.
Take your kids to the memorial. Make a lesson out of it, especially if you are looking for a homeschooling field trip or an educational summer outing. Pack a couple of sticks of chalk to occupy your younger kids while you take in the memorial surroundings. Write messages of love.
There is an event at the memorial site on June 15th, 2023 at noon.
Imagine that little corner in downtown Duluth, and the streets connecting to it filled with ten thousand Duluthians of all ages. Try to picture yourself back then. What do you think you would have done or said?
In my friend’s words: “I made my girls read every single word etched in stone and I please beg you to do the same. I was trying to hold it together but I couldn’t. One hundred years seems like a lifetime but it’s still happening.”