For the past couple years I've been reading old Hibbing newspapers for my book. I find that reading every paper from every year is exhausting but still the best way to research. This method provides context about everything going on in the community, including the national and international news that shaped people's attitudes.
So I’ve read about a lot of lynchings.
I wasn’t looking for lynchings. That’s not the topic of my book. The first couple of wire stories caught my eye but I didn't linger. After all, I’d heard about the lynchings of Black Americans before. My teachers told me it happened in the South. Something about the Ku Klux Klan a long time ago.
But as I continued reading, national reports of lynchings on the front page of these Iron Range papers seemed as common as thunderstorms.
Moreover, these stories all appeared to follow the same script. In some city or small town an unnamed negro is accused of assaulting an unnamed woman or girl. He is pulled from the jail by a mob and hung from a tree or lamppost in front of a crowd. Sometimes the mobs are large or small, and there might be more than one Black man involved. But the stories always stop after one or two paragraphs. That’s all that the Associated Press provided. It was all the reader wanted to know.
The lynchings were never condemned. No officials were ever quoted. The lynch mobs were never punished. The guilt of the Black man was presumed. Indeed, each of these little inch-by-inch stories seem boxed in by silence. One imagines a local businessman reading these stories, giving a simple nod and turning the page. That’s what happens. This is how we deal with race in America.
And that’s why after reading years of this kind of reporting it becomes so much less shocking that such a lynching happened in Duluth on June 15, 1920. An angry mob lynched three circus workers -- Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie -- from streetlight poles after pulling them by force from the Duluth jail. Then the whole crowd posed for a picture with the bodies.
The details of this case are now coming to light 100 years after the shameful event. For instance, we know that the young woman who first made the accusation probably wasn’t raped at all, as she had alleged. We also know that the men rounded up from the circus train and hauled to jail were selected more or less at random, with no specific evidence of any involvement in a crime. Indeed, the three men killed were selected randomly from a larger group.
In knowing this, we can also consider another reality. This kind of mistaken identity, presumed guilt, and random terrorizing of Black citizens was the norm, not just some random mistake. In fact, the randomness of lynchings was the point. What these crimes really represented was the desire to preserve racial segregation. To keep Black people so frightened as to never question authority.
In this the deep-seeded fears, stereotypes, and resentments of the majority were given a voice that could never be questioned. To those who spoke in that voice these dark thoughts became as true as the gravity that completed each terrible act. And down it flowed through the generations.
I don’t know of any lynchings that happened in Hibbing. But the sentiment was still there. The town went wild when the Great Northern Railroad hired Black men to install tracks one summer. There was further controversy when Black waiters were hired at a hotel. In both cases, the workers were quietly sent away.
The Duluth News Tribune recently finished a six-episode podcast about the 1920 lynching of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. It’s called “The Duluth Lynchings.” What haunts me most after listening to the podcast is how easy it was for otherwise good people to get caught up in evil. In fact, it would have been the simplest thing in the world.
I can imagine some of my ancestors standing in the crowd, maybe even assisting the mob. And, despite my somber attempts at empathy in this writing, I can even imagine how I could have been swept up in such a thing during another time. I know how to laugh at a racist joke to please my elders. At times I am prideful and weak.
Conversations on race become uncomfortable. We land much more softly on arguments that absolve us from history or blame someone else for the problem. We think of a way out; a story or example that justifies the past. This is human nature.
Read. Listen. Then you know. And then maybe you can imagine these horrors from another point of view. The only accident in history is the skin we were each born into. The rest is something we can either make better or worse with our next action.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at email@example.com.