Our view: ‘The Black Man Did It’ — againNews of an attack buzzed from West Duluth. A young girl. Raped. Angers boiled. Fingers pointed. Those circus workers. Those out-of-towners. They did it. Those black men.
News of an attack buzzed from West Duluth. A young girl. Raped.
Angers boiled. Fingers pointed.
Those circus workers. Those out-of-towners. They did it.
Those black men.
Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were arrested by Duluth police 91 years ago this summer. What happened to them is as chilling as it is well-documented. Duluth’s most-shameful moment. A mob estimated at 10,000 stormed up Superior Street early that summer of 1920. They carried clubs, bricks and sledgehammers. They overpowered police armed with fire hoses. They smashed windows, battered down the jail’s front doors, and they pulled the three men — the three black men — from their cells. The mob kicked and punched and dragged the men up Second Avenue East. At First Street, they strung them up from a wooden light pole. Afterward, they posed for photographs near the dangling bodies. They smiled.
That the charges were bogus, that doctors’ reports and interviews later cast doubt that any attack or rape had occurred, came as little surprise.
That such false accusations continue to be leveled today also, similarly and sadly, comes as little surprise.
“It’s an old lie, claiming that The Black Man Did It,” Jesse Washington of the Associated Press wrote in the summer of 2009.
In 1989, when Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife in Boston, a breathless nation clambered for details after he reported a black gunman with a raspy voice had forced his way into their car, had ordered them to drive, and then had robbed them and opened fire.
Five years later, when Susan Smith of South Carolina drowned her little boys, ages 3 and 1, by strapping them into her car and then rolling it into a lake, a coast-to-coast search ensued after she reported to authorities she had been carjacked by a black man.
Less than two years ago, when a white mother from suburban Philadelphia falsely reported that she and her 9-year-old daughter had been snatched from their SUV and tossed into the trunk of a black Cadillac, an Amber alert was issued and a frantic search was launched after she blamed two black men. The woman was found later in a luxury hotel at Disney World.
And just two weeks ago, when 34-year-old Alcide Thomas Cloutier of Duluth allegedly shot himself in the abdomen, he reported to police he was wounded trying to stop two males from assaulting a female. He told a 911 dispatcher the attackers included a black man.
Law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, in her book “The Color of Crime,” documented 67 racial hoaxes between 1987 and 1996, every one of them a descendant of the drummed-up charges made in Duluth in 1920, the accusations that fueled a mob and left three innocent young men dead.
Every June, members of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board host a day of remembrance to honor those slain circus workers. And every June, some in Duluth grumble, asking why it’s necessary to dredge up and relive such an ugly piece of the past.
A past allowed to be forgotten is destined to be repeated, of course. But we in Duluth also gather as a community at the memorial at First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth because a willingness remains in our nation to tell the old lie — because our community, like other communities, is still far too willing to believe it, to accept, without questioning, that The Black Man Did It.