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'Lynchings' author coming to Duluth

By now, many Duluthians are aware of a horrible and, until recently, unspeakable event that occurred in Duluth on June 15, 1920. That's when a mob of thousands dragged Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie to a light post on the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street and lynched them.

These three young, African-American men (two were 19 years old, the other 20) were circus workers accused of raping a white woman. That accusation turned out to be a lie.

For 80 years the lynching has been a skeleton in Duluth's closet. Then last year, the ugly truth about the city's darkest hour resurfaced when Michael Fedo's book, "The Lynchings in Duluth," went to print for the second time. The book was first published in 1979.

Fedo will present a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Duluth Public Library. He will discuss the book, how he came to write it, and the impact it's had on northern Minnesota. Until Fedo's book, the only information available was a few archived newspaper articles written when the lynching happened.

Fedo's visit was made possible by a collaboration between the Duluth Human Rights Commission and a new organization called the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial Committee.

This new committee's endeavors will make it impossible to ignore the lynching any longer, or to forget the three young men who came to such a horrible end. Without pointing fingers, the committee plans to make sure that Duluth faces its past so that awareness and healing can begin.

"It's about people knowing their history and not wondering about it," said committee member Heidi Bakk-Hansen. "People are ready to turn around and know about this. The story is about Duluth --who we are and who we were."

Bakk-Hansen said large groups took part in a rainy, day-long vigil last year on June 15. That's when it was decided to create a committee and a permanent memorial.

After one year, the committee is enormous, said Henry Banks, a co-chair, with more than 40 members. At least a half-dozen subcommittees are currently organizing events for a commemorative week to be held this June.

The commemoration will include a march and rally, a concert, poetry reading, a marathon reading of Fedo's book and an anti-hate forum. The committee also plans to unveil the design of its memorial at this time.

"It's not just going to be a plaque," Banks said. The committee hopes to have $50,000 to $75,000 put into the memorial, along with support and help from the city, the Duluth Arts Commission and the community. "We're just in the process of deciding what we want this thing to look like," Banks said, adding that the community may be called upon to submit design ideas.

The committee also hopes to purchase a parcel of land, now a parking lot, and turn it into a small city park where the memorial can be placed.

In addition, the committee is setting up a college scholarship fund, and it's working with the school district. Catherine Nachbar, a social studies teacher at Duluth Central High School, has approximately 30 students developing a week-long curriculum that will focus on the lynchings. The students are now in the process of creating a survey, which will indicate how the community feels the curriculum should be taught.

"A vicious cloud is lifting," Banks said about facing


Bob Grytdahl, assistant police chief and a member of the Human Rights Commission, said the committee is more than just putting a memorial together. It's about bringing the community together, especially during the committee's meetings, which take place every third Thursday of the month.

"It's that discussion, it's that dialogue that the real growth comes from," Grytdahl said.

Committee members as well as Grytdahl are crediting Fedo and his book for the recent resurgence of facing a historical event that many would rather forget.

Ironically, Fedo said he never intended to write "The Lynchings in Duluth." He planned to write a novel based in northern Minnesota right after World War I. His idea was that one of his characters would be a witness to the lynchings and would recount the event. Fedo tossed aside the novel when he discovered during his research that no one, in all those years, had ever written about the lynchings.

"Even though it's awful, it's an outstanding story. An amazing story" from a writer's point of view, Fedo said. "It's hard to even be able to put yourself back in a situation 80 years ago, but we have an 80-year advantage to say we could never have participated (in the mob)."

"I'm, of course, pleased that something will be done, that the city will have a closure to this, and the city and state can accept the fact that a grave injustice was done," Fedo said of the memorial. He also expects to take part in the commemorative week this June.

Fedo said he has received little negative feedback about his book, except for one non-threatening letter he received in 1979 and some comments on a radio/talk show.

Members of the memorial committee said they have only experienced support for their efforts.

"I think that says

something about the

community. I think that says something about Duluth wanting to change," Banks said.

Sandi Dahl is a news and education reporter for the Budgeteer News. Contact her at 723-1207 or at