Duluth reflects on its most shameful day

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The legacy of three Black men who died 90 years ago this summer has lived far beyond anything the trio might ever have imagined. Unfortunately, their lives did not have a happy ending. The reason they are being remembered isn’t for celebratory purposes, but rather for the tragic circumstances of their deaths.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were wrongly accused of raping a White woman June 15, 1920, in Duluth, Minnesota. An angry mob of Duluthians beat the men for hours, then later hanged them in a public viewing at the intersection of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East in Downtown Duluth.

“If the people of Duluth took that much energy to ending racism, then a lot could be done,” said Mari Trine, a board member of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial.

Trine addressed a richly diverse crowd – Black, White, Hispanic, Indian, young and old – during a Day of Remembrance Observance held June 15, the 90th anniversary of the murders.

Today, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial stands prominent and silent at that intersection as an eerie reminder of the most shameful day in Duluth’s history. The memorial was unveiled and dedicated in 2003. Every June 15 a crowd will gather, not just to remember Clayton, Jackson and McGhie, but to reflect on racism everywhere.

When it comes to discussing racism, Duluth finds the subject as painful to address as most anywhere else. As inscribed on the memorial, “An event has happened to which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”

“There’s still a lot of prejudice in Duluth,” noted Susan Spaeth, a middle-school substitute teacher for the Duluth School District. “Not just between Blacks and Whites, but also among Hispanics, gays, Asians and Jews.”

Spaeth said the subject of racism is “so taboo,” but she added that the observance of the memorial “at least gets people talking about it” – the first of many steps to overcoming it.

A recent incident at the University of Minnesota-Duluth reminds us that racism persists in the Twin Ports area. As reported in a May 4 Duluth News Tribune article, two White female students allegedly engaged in a Facebook wall discussion on April 14 about a Black female student who had entered the UMD study lounge they were in. The cyber conversation included racist slurs that spread quickly for Facebook friends to see.

While the investigation itself is ongoing, the public outrage over the event was immediate. Within two weeks of the incident, there was a campus-organized three-mile protest march starting in downtown Duluth and ending on campus.

Marchers included Duluth Mayor Don Ness and UMD Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin.
Other colleges participated in protests of their own, including the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Protesters from The College of St. Scholastica joined marchers at UMD.

The City of Duluth has taken great strides in creating organizations and resources to overcome personal prejudices among races. There is, for example, the Anti-Racism Coalition, a group that works towards “creating a City that enforces the civil rights of all its residents and provides equitable employment, education, housing, health care and safety for all of the City’s multi-cultures.”

A resource has been made available called “Race Matters,” which is a toolkit designed for a foundation official, program officer, policymaker, practitioner or advocate that reportedly yields successful results for all children, families and communities. The toolkit provides strategies to help close equality gaps among races. If utilized properly, the systematic plan, as outlined in the toolkit, will work toward racial equality.

Also, the Duluth Task Force for Improved Community Police Accountability has been developed. It is an organization that works to strengthen the relationship between the Duluth Police Department and Duluth’s multicultural communities.

Community-focused efforts are worthwhile, but many believe these measures will only get you so far. Duluth City Council Member Kerry Gauthier attended the June 15 observance, his third time to the annual event. “Racism really comes down to a lot of ignorance and a lack of awareness. It is more of a challenge of one’s self,” said Gauthier.

He added that Duluth is a segregated city, not so much publicly as by neighborhoods. There is the low-income West Side and the higher income East Side, with many cultures and socioeconomic statuses dwelling in between.
“People stay where they live,” said Gauthier.

During the observance ceremony, four candles were lit, one for each Duluth lynching victim and a fourth candle for all other victims of racism.

Buma Foncham is a 2010 Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Scholarship recipient who promises to fight racism at the personal level. He promises to stand up for minorities whenever he encounters prejudice. His words were hopeful.

“Ninety years later, look at us,” said Foncham. “Minorities and the majority are together here trying to end racism. The Duluth community is trying to end racism… I will get involved in anti-racism clubs and hopefully people will join me.”

If people do join Foncham, future observances at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial may be for a celebration of the end of racial intolerance and inequality, a personal – but public – battle that could take many generations to conquer.

Felica Shultz welcomes reader responses to fshultz@charter.net.