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Duluth, Minnesota— a Beautiful City With a Shameful Past: A “Necktie Party”

Updated on March 5, 2020
Deb Pleasants profile image

Deb Pleasants is fascinated with historical and cultural topics, especially when they relate to the African American experience.

Like most people who visit Duluth in Minnesota, my husband and I wanted to enjoy the stunning views of Lake Superior. However, while driving around downtown, we stumbled on a more solemn site. On the corners of East 1st Street and North 2nd Street E, stands a memorial wall dedicated to three African American men lynched on that spot, 100 year ago.

Standing at the memorial.
Standing at the memorial. | Source

I had heard something about this monument several years ago, but it wasn’t exactly on my mind at the moment. If I had remembered, I would have been prepared for what I saw. Instead, I was caught by surprise. I stood there in silence staring at the faces of the three men. As a lifelong Northerner, I sometimes feel insulated from the atrocities that happened in the South. But this memorial reminded me hatred is everywhere.

What happened in Duluth, Minnesota?

On June 14, 1920, a traveling circus performed a one night show in Duluth. After the show, two teenagers, Irene Tusken and James Sullivan, who attended the circus together, claimed six African American circus workers robbed them and raped Tusken. The next day, the Duluth’s Chief of Police arrested the six black men the teens identified as the attackers, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were among the six. Tusken also underwent a medical examine that same day; the doctor said there was no evidence of rape.

Either that information didn’t get out to the townsfolk or they didn’t care because that same day, a mob gathered for vigilante justice. One of the ring leaders, Louis Dondino, was said to have driven around Duluth inviting everyone to the “necktie party”. The mob, which had swelled to 10,000, broke into the jail and brutally beat Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. Then, declaring them guilty, they dragged them one block away from the jail, threw a rope over a light pole and lynched them. After they died, members of the mob posed with the corpses for a photograph that was later printed into postcards and sold as souvenirs.

The National Guard was deployed to restore order to the city. The remaining black prisoners were moved from the city jail to the county jail for their safety. A few months later, a trial was held for another of the African American men, Max Mason. In spite of the lack of evidence and the brutal execution of the other three men, Mason was convicted and sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. Mason was released after four years on the condition he leave Minnesota.

Dondino was one of three white men prosecuted for rioting and murder. They were convicted only of rioting and and received a minor sentence. No one was convicted of murdering Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.

In the aftermath, a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in Minnesota. Also, with heavy lobbying by a black female activist named Nellie Francis, the state legislature passed an anti-lynching law on April 21, 1921.


Duluth Today: A City Working Towards Reconciliation and Healing

To document this for future generations so that it is never forgotten, the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, Inc. was founded it 2000. It’s mission is “to foster racial justice and promote healing and reconciliation in our community”. In 2003, Duluth dedicated a memorial honoring the lives of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. The memorial is located directly across the street from where the the three men were lynched. Duluth also holds a “Day of Remembrance” each year. The efforts Duluth is making, while cannot and should not erase the past, do go a long way to healing the wounds.


2020: The 100 Hundred Year Commemoration

This year marks the 100th anniversary of this miscarriage of justice. In recognition of this, the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial, Inc. is hoping for a massive turnout for their commemoration. The goal is to have at least 10,000 residents and visitors to gather at the memorial location on June 15, 2020.

I see a road trip in my future.


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