One hundred years ago, three black men were lynched at the intersection of East First Street and North Second Avenue East in Duluth.

Today, a memorial of that event now stands at the same downtown intersection. And in June, exactly one century after Duluth’s lynchings, the intersection will be home to a Day of Remembrance.

Five months out, local nonprofit Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is preparing for the Day of Remembrance with months of events and ground-level educational efforts. Organizers hope to build energy during the lead-up to June 15, 2020, exactly 100 years after Duluth's lynchings.

“This is a history that we have to heal from and reckon with. This is a history that folks in this city and the surrounding areas should know about and should be connected with,” said Jordon Moses, an organizer with CJM.

Work is well underway to reach CJM’s goal of drawing 10,000 people from Duluth and statewide to the “Day of Remembrance.” It’s a feat that requires strategic traffic and travel planning, business support and educational campaigns.

June 15, 2020

Nearly 100 years ago, black circus workers Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were accused of the rape of a white woman.

They were then arrested and held in Duluth’s jail. Although a doctor examined the woman and determined there was no evidence of rape, word of the alleged attack spread across town. A mob of thousands gathered, traveled to the jail and pulled Clayton, Jackson and McGhie from their cells.

The rioters threw ropes over light poles, and lynched the three men in the center of Duluth on June 15, 1920.

It occurred nearly a century ago and repercussions are still felt across Duluth. This, Moses said, highlights the need for widespread remembrance.

“Folks don't understand what that meant for our city and how that quite literally changed the culture of our city and the makeup of our city,” he said, citing a significant drop in the population of black people living in the city.

“These are things that quite literally directly translate to the culture of Duluth that we have today and the people that are here today,” he said.

Jordon Moses talks about events planned to remember Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie next year. The three black men – wrongly accused of raping a white woman – were lynched in downtown Duluth on June 15, 1920. Moses, who founded Blackbird Revolt, is organizing several months' worth of events for the 100th anniversary of the lynchings. One goal is to have 10,000 people attend June 15th’s Day of Remembrance. That would equal the estimated size of the lynch mob that murdered the three men. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Jordon Moses talks about events planned to remember Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie next year. The three black men – wrongly accused of raping a white woman – were lynched in downtown Duluth on June 15, 1920. Moses, who founded Blackbird Revolt, is organizing several months' worth of events for the 100th anniversary of the lynchings. One goal is to have 10,000 people attend June 15th’s Day of Remembrance. That would equal the estimated size of the lynch mob that murdered the three men. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

CJM is aiming to fill the streets June 15 for a day of remembrance. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of New York Times bestseller “Just Mercy,” will give a keynote speech.

To draw a crowd of 10,000 — which some believe matches the size of the crowd in 1920 — the organization will be going door to door and is focusing on event pledges, Moses said.

Close to June, CJM will deploy a team of door-knockers to educate people on the lynchings, and then invite them to the day of remembrance.

Pledging to attend the June 15 event will also hopefully encourage more to attend. CJM is giving out “I’ll be there” buttons and will roll out a pledge program for local churches, mosques, businesses, sports teams and more. Through it, the entity can pledge that a certain number of its members will attend the event. CJM also plans to roll out a social media campaign.

“It allows some folks to not necessarily have to get super-involved in volunteering or dedicate specific time to support what we're doing, but (can instead use) their own time in their entity or in their free time to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to engage this community to make sure we get we get folks pledged to be there,’” Moses said.

The city of Duluth is also working to uplift CJM’s efforts, said Carl Crawford, human rights officer with the city of Duluth.

As CJM has a lot of work ahead of it, Crawford said the city is helping in any way it can.

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“It's not just black history — it's our history. It's a history of what happened. And we could also lead the charge … with CJM to make sure that ... we also bring the history of healing and what that's gonna look like,” Crawford said.

Although CJM is primarily focusing on recruiting local residents, it does have its sights set on the rest of the state. It's predicting that a few hundred people from outside Duluth will visit for the event. A congregation in the Twin Cities, the St. Paul NAACP and a Minnesota design organization have all expressed interest in attending or helping with the event.

The organization is already considering day-of details to organize parking, hotels and shuttle buses, as well as a remote location where those who aren’t able to stand can sit and watch.

Moses hopes attendees understand why they’re gathering on June 15. To him, they’re gathering to acknowledge what happened and move forward.

“Everything in history impacts where we are today. … History isn't just stories; it's not fiction. There are real policies; there are real practices; there are real actions and events that impact where we are today,” Moses said. “There has never been any sort of formal reconciliation around our lynchings or around the broader system of racism, white supremacy in our country.”

Heidi Bakk-Hansen, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial board secretary, holds buttons that committee is giving out at events leading up to 100 year anniversary of the lynchings. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Heidi Bakk-Hansen, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial board secretary, holds buttons that committee is giving out at events leading up to 100 year anniversary of the lynchings. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Lead-up events

CJM is holding monthly events and reaching out to individuals and businesses to build energy for June 15, which Moses calls an “exclamation mark” for the months of events.

Its springtime events range from a spoken word and poetry workshop, to a concert that includes a commissioned piece, to the release of a documentary and more.

The monthly events are being held in locations across the city, ensuring numerous people have the opportunity to engage with CJM.

Moses said they want to “take over all of these different spaces as we move towards June so that so that if anyone goes to the store, if anyone goes to get a cup of tea or whatever — they're engaging this history in some way, shape or form.”

CJM is also planning beyond the June 15 event. Moses said they want people to stay involved with the organization.

“The first 100 years, we did the lynching. We celebrated the lynching. Then we erased the lynching and tried to kind of cover it up or leave it alone. And then we uncovered the lynching. And now we're acknowledging these lynchings,” Moses said. “The next 100 years is really about taking responsibility for these lynchings, healing from these lynchings and doing the work in our community, so that 100 years from June 15, our community looks different.”

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is giving out these buttons at events leading up to 100 year anniversary of the lynchings. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is giving out these buttons at events leading up to 100 year anniversary of the lynchings. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)