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Remembering the 3 black men lynched in Duluth 97 years ago

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were dragged from jail and hanged from a light post.

It was a summer evening in Duluth. June 15, 1920, the day after the John Robinson Circus had come to town for a free street parade and performance.

Three black men, workers with the traveling show, wouldn't live beyond that night. Their bodies would end up hanging from a light post, having been dragged from jail and beaten by an angry mob over a dubious rape accusations.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie are now memorialized in downtown Duluth at the intersection where they were killed. And on Thursday, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc. group will host a "Day of Remembrance" to reflect, commemorate and restore peace and faith in the Duluth community."

One will be at noon at the memorial (on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue, where the light post the men were lynched from stood). There will be special guests such as the World Beat Drummers and spoken word group members, plus scholarships will be handed out.

The other is at 5:30 p.m.at Park Hill Cemetery, where the three men's graves are. There will be a vigil at the grave sites, including an open forum for community members to talk or start a discussion.

What happened that evening

Here's what led up to the lynching, as the Minnesota Historical Society explains.

Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were in town with the circus. The morning of June 15, a man called police to say a 19-year-old woman, Irene Tusken, had been raped by six black circus workers at gunpoint.

Six black men were arrested right away, placed in Duluth city jail on Superior Street and 2nd Avenue.

There was little evidence the claims were true. A physician examined Tusken that morning and found no physical signs she was raped or assaulted. The accusations came from Tusken's boyfriend, and were relayed to police by his father.

News filtered through town. Hundreds of angry residents mobbed the police station, breaking down doors and smashing windows to reach the six men. Police officers barely pushed back, after having been told to not use their guns.

The six black men were dragged down the block and given a "mock trial." Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were deemed guilty, beaten, then lynched.

The next morning, the Minnesota National Guard came in to protect the remaining suspects.

Remembering Clayton, Jackson and McGhie

Three white men were sent to prison later for rioting, though nobody was ever convicted of murder charges for the deaths of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie.

Black people in Duluth fled – the city's population rose overall throughout the next decade, but the black population fell 16 percent. Those that remained would start the Duluth chapter of the NAACP.

But the tragedy of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie would go unacknowledged for decades.

It wasn't until 1991 – 71 years after their death – that the men's graves were marked, the Memorial Inc. group says. A decade later, a group of locals banded together to push for a memorial that would honor the men, and recognize the seriousness of what had happened.

The Clayton, Jackson and McGhie was completed and dedicated in 2003.

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