Celebrating Charles Scrutchin: Minnesota's first Black lawyer outside the Twin Cities and a defender of civil rights
Charles Scrutchin was Minnesota’s first Black lawyer to practice outside of the Twin Cities. He often represented lumberjacks and other laborers, many of whom had recently immigrated to the country. In the 32 years he lived in Bemidji he handled over 500 cases in Beltrami County.
BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Charles Scrutchin, Minnesota’s first Black lawyer to practice outside of the Twin Cities and frequently described in early Bemidji Pioneer stories as “Bemidji’s colored lawyer,” arrived in the northern Minnesota community just two years after the village had incorporated and soon became one of its most significant citizens.
Scrutchin often represented lumberjacks and other laborers, many of whom had recently immigrated to the country. In the 32 years he lived in Bemidji, he handled over 500 cases in Beltrami County, many of them attention-getting criminal cases involving theft, graft and murder. But some of Scrutchin’s greatest accomplishments had wider ranging effects for Minnesota and the civil rights of the state’s citizens.
From first-year successes, such as the acquittal of Henry Zarge (accused of stealing 10 tons of hay), to the biggest defense case of his life, that of William Miller, one of 11 Black men accused of raping a white woman in Duluth in 1920, Scrutchin proved himself one of the top criminal lawyers in Minnesota.
Scrutchin was born in Richmond, Va. in 1865 . His family lived in Georgia for a while; then, after his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Spokane, Wash. where Scrutchin graduated from high school and attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1890.
To earn money to pursue law school, he worked as a pullman porter for the Great Northern Railway and as a hotel waiter in several different cities. In 1893, he graduated from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor law school, the first public university to admit African Americans. Scrutchin was one of four African Americans in his graduating class of 319. The following year, he completed his master’s degree and passed his bar exam.
Becoming one of Minnesota's first Black lawyers
After practicing law in Chicago for five years, Scrutchin moved to Minnesota, where Frederick L. McGhee and William Morris were the first African American lawyers in St. Paul and Minneapolis, respectively. McGhee advised Scrutchin to set up practice in Greater Minnesota.
Scrutchin decided to move to Bemidji, a fast-growing logging village just two years old. He established an independent law practice and built his own office building in downtown Bemidji. He furnished the office with a complete law library and built his first home not far away on Irvine Avenue. Initially he made his living handling small civil cases, but eventually gained a reputation for taking on challenging criminal cases.
In 1899, Scrutchin worked with McGhee, Morris, J. Frank Wheaton, and John Adams -- all prominent Black leaders -- to author Minnesota’s constitutional rights law, which said no individual could be denied access to or services in public places based on race. The law was signed by Gov. John Lind that March.
The 1900 census listed just nine African Americans living in Bemidji, including Scrutchin and his 70-year-old cook and personal servant, Charles Sykes. Other Black residents included a saloon porter, two or three barbers, a baker, a laborer who was also a prizefighter, and two children. Three of the men were married to white women.
In 1900, Scrutchin married Laura Arnold from Alabama. She was listed in some places as “mulatto” but as “white” on her death certificate. The couple had no children.
Constitutional rights law put to the test
In 1901, the equal rights law Scrutchin had helped write was put to the test in Beltrami County and involved Scrutchin himself. In January, he stopped by a barbershop in Blackduck, Minn., for a shave. The barber, Eugene Smith, said the cost would be $5. (The going price was 15 cents at the time). When Scrutchin challenged Smith, the barber indicated that he had never shaved a Black man and had no intentions of starting. Accounts indicate racial slurs were used. Scrutchin asked Smith directly if he was being refused service because of his race, and Smith said yes, which led to a civil case.
Scrutchin and his Bemidji attorneys, W. F. Street and John F. Gibbons, requested a jury trial, which came to no agreement after a reasonable time (the vote was 11-1 in Smith’s favor). The jury was dismissed by Judge John M. Martin, and the two sides agreed to allow the judge, a Southern-born son of former slave owners, to decide the case. His decision upheld the law and awarded Scrutchin compensation for trial costs and $5 (the amount Smith had quoted for the shave Scrutchin never received) rather than the $100 for which Scrutchin had sued.
A civil rights leader and eloquent speaker
When the Beltrami County Bar Association was formed in 1900, Scrutchin was immediately admitted. In all of Minnesota, only six Black men practiced law in 1900. By 1904, Scrutchin, who held the highest degree of any lawyer in Bemidji’s 11 law offices, was a vice president of the organization.
An eloquent speaker, Scrutchin often presented to packed crowds in Bemidji, Duluth, Minneapolis and Chicago. His 1900 Memorial Day speech in Bemidji honored Civil War veterans. When the roof of the building leaked from rain, he requested of the crowd of 175, “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t move. These raindrops falling are the tears of the widows and orphans of the men who died in the war.”
In May 1903, he gave a sermon at the Methodist church called “The Trial of Jesus from an Attorney’s Standpoint.” The church was so packed that overflow space had to be created. The next day, The Bemidji Daily Pioneer described the speech as “one of the best ever delivered in the city.”
Scrutchin vs. the hangman
In more than one murder case argued by Scrutchin, he spared the accused the hangman’s noose, even when the defendant’s own actions and words worked against him. In 1907, James Godette, an African American laborer and professional boxer, shot and killed another Black man, Charles Williams, after an argument. Godette turned himself in, pleading self-defense. At trial, Scrutchin’s defense said Godette’s confession was improperly attained. Godette was sentenced to life in prison rather than death by hanging. Minnesota’s death penalty was abolished four years later.
In a similar case in 1908, Scrutchin defended John Henry, a Black man, who shot and killed a woman in Grand Forks, N.D. Scrutchin encouraged Henry to plead guilty, which, along with questions of the accused man’s sanity, led to a sentence of life in prison rather than a death sentence. The death penalty was abolished in North Dakota in 1915.
Scrutchin was a well-known citizen in Bemidji, a second vice-president of the Minnesota Afro-American Republican Association and a member of the National Afro-American Council. In Bemidji, he joined the Beltrami County Old Settlers Club, and he belonged to the Duluth African American Odd Fellows and Masons organizations.
His most famous case
Scrutchin’s most famous criminal case was defending William Miller, one of 11 Black men accused of raping a woman in Duluth in June 1920. The accusations by the 19-year-old woman and her boyfriend stated they’d been robbed at gunpoint by six Black men and that the woman had been raped. Six Black circus workers in town at the time were taken into custody. Three of the suspects, Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Nate Green, were taken from the jail by an angry mob of thousands, were found guilty by a mock trial and were beaten and lynched.
The next morning the Minnesota National Guard was called to Duluth to keep the peace. Additional suspects were arrested and the NAACP sent a team to investigate. A physician who examined the woman who had made the accusations indicated that there was no evidence that she had been assaulted.
Scrutchin, hired by the NAACP to defend William Miller -- one of the accused -- won his acquittal after another defendant had been found guilty and sentenced to “not more than 30 years.” Scrutchin led Miller’s defense, citing the lack of evidence that a rape had been committed. Miller was acquitted, possibly due, in part, to the conviction of the first defendant as a demonstration of someone being held responsible for the “crime.” After Miller’s acquittal, charges against the other suspects were dropped, since the accusers could not positively identify any of them as the culprits.
Thirty riot and murder charges were brought against white lynch-mob members. Eventually three were found guilty and convicted of rioting rather than murder.
The case received much attention and left a permanent stain on Minnesota’s self-perceived image as a lawful and tolerant state, but it led to an anti-lynching law that passed in April 1921.
Scrutchin returned to his practice in Bemidji, but his wife died in 1928, and his own declining health led to his death in 1930. Both are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Bemidji.
Editor's note: Information for this story came from a number of Bemidji Pioneer stories, various other sources in the archives of the Beltrami County Historical Society, and “Victories Yet to Win” by Dr. Steven R. Hoffbeck, which appeared in the Summer 1996 edition of "Minnesota History," a quarterly publication of the Minnesota Historical Society. Sue Bruns is a member of the Beltrami County Historical Society.