Desolation Row

29. The Duluth Lynchings. In an earlier post, we looked at the Omaha lynching of 1919. The sour racial climate in that city had been aggravated by meatpackers bringing in African American workers from the south as strikebreakers. We look on the “Great Migration” as a good thing, as some African Americans were able to get out of the Jim Crow south. But in reality, they also ran into northern-style racism, including the possibility of mob violence and lynching.

Something similar had happened in Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth, of course, is one of our most northern cities, and seemingly the place we’d least expect to find lynchings. When U.S. Steel opened its huge new plant in 1915, they had brought in black workers recruited down south, as well as a number of recent immigrants from Europe, both of whom were willing to work for low wages, and it had caused resentment among the mainstream white workers._original

It’s an ongoing fact of American political life, even in 2016, that when workers are underpaid, they tend to blame other workers rather than blame the tightfisted corporations, and if they can blame those other workers on the basis of race or ethnicity, all the better.

In the early 1900s, for instance, a large number of Finnish workers had also come into the Duluth area, and in 1918, the “Knights of Liberty” had lynched a Finnish immigrant worker, Olli Kinkkonen, on grounds that he was a draft evader. The African American community was not terribly large. In 1920, it numbered just under 500, which was small even by midwest standards, and most of them were connected directly or indirectly to the steel plant.

At the plant itself, the African Americans and recent white immigrants tended to have the hardest, most dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs. But that didn’t protect them from the resentment and racism of the native white workers.

Thus, tensions boiled over again in June 1920 when, of all things, the circus came to town. The John Robinson Circus had a number of young black men who worked as cooks and “roustabouts.”

After the performance on June 14, two white teens, Irene Tusken (19) and James Sullivan (18), walked to the back of the big tent. What happened after that is fuzzy, but the next morning, Sullivan’s father called the police, claiming that six black workers had held the two at gunpoint, and raped Tusken. Tusken’s doctor examined her, but found no physical evidence of rape or assault.

The police caught the circus train on its way out of town, and rounded up a large number of suspects. The teens couldn’t identify the supposed perpetrators, and went only by fuzzy interpretations of physical size, etc. The police finally hauled six suspects downtown for further interrogation, all of them black. The headline in the local paper summed up the gist of the investigation:


But that didn’t matter. The newspaper reports only seemed to agitate the city, and by evening, a mob gathered that may have ended up numbering as many as 10,000, a tenth of the city. The Commissioner of Public Safety had ordered the police not to shoot any of the protesters, and offered little resistance beyond fists and firehoses. The commissioner said, “I do not want to see the blood of one White person spilled for six Blacks.”

By 11:00, the mob had busted their way into the jail and hauled out all six suspects. After a mock “trial,” three of the men, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, were beaten and hanged from a lamppost. By midnight, the police chief arrived and managed to break up the mob before the other three could be lynched.

A photographer captured the grisly scene, and it was reproduced and sold as a postcard. The smiles on many of the faces gives us a clue into the mob mentality:


As atrocious as the lynchings were, events in the days and months that followed were, in their own way, just as appalling.

Some newspapers were horrified by the lynchings. The local paper, the Duluth News-Tribune, published an editorial that said,“Duluth has suffered a disgrace, a horrible blot upon its name that it can never outlive.” The Minneapolis Journal said, “The sudden flaming up of racial passion, which is the reproach of the South, may also occur, as we now learn in the bitterness of humiliation in Minnesota.“ But the Mankato Daily Free Press approved of the lynchings, saying that the city had done nothing disgraceful and that lynching was better than asking the girl any embarrassing questions.

The next day, on the Wisconsin side of the harbor, the acting Chief of Police declared that “We are going to run all the idle Negroes out of Superior and they’re going to stay out.” Meanwhile, the manager of a carnival in Superior summarily fired all his black workers, and said, apparently while keeping a straight face, that “I shall never hire another one, even though I have never as yet had any trouble with any of them.”

As a result, a number of African-Americans, having nowhere else to go, sought refuge by walking over the bridge into Duluth. That sight prompted nervous whites to phone the police, driven by a rumor that the Superior blacks were going to team up with the Duluth blacks to kill whites.

Nonetheless, the Duluth police had come under severe criticism for their failure to prevent the lynchings. The police responded with claims that the men who were lynched had all been implicated by other witnesses and that no “innocent” men had died. Even today, that remains the standard response whenever unarmed African Americans are killed by the police. For instance, when the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, was murdered by George Zimmerman, the media made much of the fact that Martin had used marijuana at some point. When the unarmed Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the New York Times quickly reported  that Brown was “no angel.”

Things got tough for the African American community in Duluth. The lynchings had created a general atmosphere of fear and repression. Parents were afraid to let their children go out. Several movie theaters fired their ushers and replaced them with white girls. Shoe-shiners were replaced by white boys. Phone threats were made. Over the next few years, half of the black community had moved away.

Just a few days before the lynchings, the Republicans, at their national convention in Chicago, had included support for an anti-lynching bill in their platform. By January 1922, the bill had been passed by the House, but Southern Democrats in the Senate filibustered the bill and blocked it, and continued to block it year after year until the issue finally became irrelevant with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Duluth story horrified a young Roy Wilkins (1901-1981), who had been raised in St. Paul, and was a sociology major at the University of Minnesota. He said that the news of the lynching was an awakening for him: “I lost my innocence on race once and for all.” Wilkins went on to become a one of the great civil rights leaders of the 50s and 60s, holding several offices in the NAACP, 1931-1976.


It also inspired a resident of the mining town of Hibbing, in that same northeast corner of the state: Bob Dylan’s father, Abram Zimmerman, who was nine in 1920, lived only a few blocks away from where the lynchings took place.

The opening lines of Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” echo the Duluth incident: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging… The circus is in town… Now here comes the blind commissioner…” (In 2009 My Chemical Romance‘s abbreviated version introduced the song to a younger generation.)

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging….”

In 2003, the city dedicated the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial plaza, featuring seven-foot tall bronze statues of the men who were killed. In 2013, LaTonya Autry, a Delaware historian, was invited to speak at an annual Day of Remembrance. She told the local paper that she expected “the visceral nature of it to create backlash about wallowing in the past.” She said, “They want people to feel that pain… It’s an emotional choice people have to make. When we recognize such things, we create a culture that can stop it from happening again.”


Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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