Duluth memorial speaks to Minnesota’s past and present

Photo by Tiffany Johnson The Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial in Duluth

In the city of Duluth in 1920, three young men were lynched after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a White woman. While there was no evidence to support these claims, the Duluth police were quick to arrest six Black men. 

From these six, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhee were taken from the jailhouse, beaten, and lynched from a light pole that stood just outside of the jailhouse.

While the lives of these young men were taken unconstitutionally, like many grim moments of our nation’s past, this event was long-unacknowledged despite many attempts from the community to bring the story to light. It was not until 2000 that community members, along with supporting businesses and organizations, formed Clayton Jackson McGhee, Inc. that would ultimately erect the Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial (CJMM) as a commemorative space for people to remember a long-forgotten act of injustice.

People can now visit the Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial year-round in Duluth. The memorial is paved with quotes engraved by some of the world’s most emboldened thinkers from throughout the years like Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, and Siddhartha.

The banner engraved above the memorial that features full-body sculptures of the three boys reads: “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent,” a famous quote by Edmund Burke. 

The year 2020 would have marked 100 years since this devastating event, and prior to 2020, board members of CJMM supported a robust year of events and activities to remind community members and tourists about the ongoing race conversation that we are still very much grappling with. 

Photo by Tiffany Johnson

Some of these events included a screening of the film “Just Mercy,” a spoken word and poetry workshop called “We all Belong,” and a concert featuring the works of William Grant Still called “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” to name a few. But because of COVID-19, the planned 100-year anniversary activities were canceled.

But as CJMM headed conversations to redirect the community’s attention to the racism that still exists in our state through this anniversary, the world was taken aback by the “lynching” of another Black man. Just 160 miles away and 100 years later in Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill.

Treasure Jenkins is a current board member of the Clayton Jackson McGhee Memorial and also a member of the Twin Ports chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). She is currently involved with the recent movement surrounding police accountability in Duluth. “We’re talking about having less use of the police and more use of community-based crisis response,” she said.

The tragic incidents that happened in Duluth in 1920 and in Minneapolis in 2020 draw a common thread that links not only the victimization of Black people in Minnesota but the trauma that Black Minnesotans have suffered at the hands of the police. Each event—Duluth’s and Minneapolis’—are examples of how local police have historically been predisposed to mishandle Black citizens.

“We’ve been in conversation with Mike Tusken, who is the police chief, and Emily Larson [mayor of Duluth],” said Jenkins, “and we’re doing an educational campaign on what it means for the community to take responsibility for the community.” 

“People who are victimized [by] exclusion and being shunned [for] not having affordable housing, not having affordable health care—stop jailing them. For the marginalized, they are traumatized by having the police handle everything,” she added. 

Jenkins is working alongside other members of the DSA and community members, as well as the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, to implement new systems and protocols that don’t always rely on the police. “Soon, say, within six months, there should be a community-based crisis response resource,” she said.

Clayton Jackson McGhee, Inc. has resumed programming to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the horrific events of 1920. As Minnesota continues to heal from a bleak history and a chaotic past 15 months, the Clayton Jackson McGhee memorial reminds us that it’s good to acknowledge and reflect on the past so we do not repeat it.

“Once people have been dehumanized, especially by the dominant culture, it’s hard for people who are part of the dominant culture to recognize the benefit of equity for people of color. But we have to keep marching forward,” Jenkins said. “We have to keep sending the message.”