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Week of Remembrance honors victims of 1920 lynching in Duluth

In this 2013 file photo, Terry Brown of Duluth puts his arm around his son Timothy, 10, as they study the figures of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie before the annual Clayton Jackson McGhie remembrance ceremony talk about the 1920 lynching incident. "I want to let our younger generation know there was a past before this," said Brown, adding, "and how it will affect their future." (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

It's been 95 years since three black men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — were lynched in Duluth after being falsely accused of rape, but only in the past few decades has the event been widely discussed in the community.

That ongoing conversation will continue this week as annual Week of Remembrance events are held in Duluth.

Stephan Witherspoon, a member of the board for the group that oversees the memorial to the three men in downtown Duluth, said the troubling chapter in the city's history needs to be confronted.

"It's kind of like the dark side of America; nobody wants to talk about it, but we have to talk about it," he said.

Until recently, very few people in Duluth did.

While in Duluth as workers with a circus, the three men were falsely accused of raping a woman and were arrested. An angry mob of up to 10,000 people broke into the city jail on Superior Street on June 15, 1920, pulled the men outside and lynched them from a lamppost on the corner of First Street and Second Avenue West.

Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were buried in unmarked graves in Duluth's Park Hill Cemetery and the tragic event fell out of Duluth's public memory.

But in 1979, Michael Fedo wrote a book about the lynchings — a book credited with bringing renewed attention to the incident. An effort to locate and mark the graves of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie in 1991 resulted in headstones being placed that read, "deterred but not defeated."

"We have to talk about the struggle and resilience of African-American people and then how it affects us today because it's apart of the national historical trauma, especially for young black males," Witherspoon said.

Eventually the lynchings solidified in Duluth's collective memory with the creation of the physical memorial in 2003, across the intersection from the site of the 1920 lynching. The first event of this year's Week of Remembrance will take place Friday at the memorial with the theme of "Building Trust Within the Community." A number of Duluth city officials and activists will speak at the event — speakers who Witherspoon said are instrumental in achieving greater equity in Duluth.

"We have a great lineup of speakers that can directly affect lives," he said. "We just really want to live in a city that's safe, that has equity ... for all the people."

Witherspoon said he wants people in attendance to not just reflect and remember the past, but also examine the challenges people of color still face today.

"I want (attendees) to remember, to talk to one another ... to realize that there are still some disparities and racism does still exist," he said. "There's still a lot of work to do."

If you go

Day of Remembrance: Building Trust Within Communities

• Noon Friday

• Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, First Street and Second Avenue East

Vigil

• 4 p.m. Saturday

• Park Hill Cemetery, 2500 Vermillion Rd

Free showing of Selma: the Bridge to the Ballot followed by a discussion

• 4:30-6:30 p.m. Sunday

• Zinema 2, 222 East Superior Street

Online

Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc.: claytonjacksonmcghie.org

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