Daniel Oyinloye was among the dozens of people who traveled by bus to Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018 for the opening of a memorial to the more than 4,000 people who have been lynched in the United States — including Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, who were falsely accused of rape and killed in front of a Duluth mob in 1920.
It’s a story that Oyinloye has known since he moved to northern Minnesota about 15 years ago. This dark history was retold in a well-researched book by Michael Fedo, published in 1979, and nearly two decades later in an article by Heidi Bakk-Hansen that ran in a local alternative weekly newspaper.
On the bus ride back from Alabama, Oyinloye had a question.
“I kept saying, ‘Where are all the Black stories?’” he recalled. “How did the lynching happen in Duluth, and we don’t have Black people talking about it? It’s impossible.”
Enter Karen Nance, the great-granddaughter of William Henry Ray, the founder of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, and the granddaughter of Ethel Ray Nance, a pioneer and activist who worked closely with another activist, the writer and historian W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 2013, Nance dipped into her late grandmother’s papers and found enough photographs and stories to create a series of books about Ethel Ray Nance — including one that details the lynching that happened four blocks from her family’s Duluth home.
“I said, ‘Karen, I asked the universe, 'Where are the Black stories?’” Oyinloye said. “I believe in God. I said, ‘I think God sent you this way. I think I have a role in getting that story heard.’”
Oyinloye, whose business, DanSan Creatives, works to support Black storytellers, introduced Nance to local media Monday afternoon at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial — the downtown Duluth gathering space located across the street from where the three men were hanged from a light post in front of an audience of an estimated 10,000 people on June 15, 1920.
The traveling circus workers were victims of a false accusation about the rape of a white woman.
Nance, who lives in California, arrived in Duluth last week and has had a chance to see — and not see — the landmarks. The Ray family home at 209 E. Fifth St. was demolished, though she said she would like to rebuild it in her family's honor. She also met with Fedo, author of “The Lynchings in Duluth.”
“This is my first time in Duluth,” she said Monday. “It won’t be my last.”
Nance’s great-grandfather is the North Carolina transplant William Henry Ray, who landed in Minneapolis via Iowa and married Inga Nordquist, a white woman who emigrated from Sweden.
They eventually settled in Duluth’s Central Hillside.
On a summer night in 1920, a West Duluth woman accused employees of the John Robinson Circus of rape — which sparked a white mob with members bent on hanging the men from the traveling troupe. The intensity grew throughout the night, and the crowd eventually broke into the downtown police station, found three of the circus workers and dragged them up to the light post, where they were hanged in front of an estimated 10,000 people.
After the men were killed, W.H. Ray — as he was called in newspapers — was able to generate interest in a local chapter of the NAACP, which Ethel Ray Nance would later describe as the “one good thing” that developed from the events of June 15, 1920.
“He had tried before, but the Negroes weren’t interested, and they said he was trying to separate them,” she said in a recorded interview with the Minnesota Black History Project in the 1970s, of which a clip is available on the Minnesota Historical Society's website. “Because we had ‘no trouble’ here in Duluth, so we ‘didn’t need’ an NAACP branch.
“But he had no trouble after this happened.”
The events in Duluth were a far cry from the region W.H. Ray tried to sell to southerners during a 1919 trip he took with his daughter — four months spent trying to convince young people to move north.
“He had a way of saying how white people don’t favor you. It isn’t that they like you, but you’ll be sure of a fair trial,” she recalled him saying. “That’s one thing you’ll be sure of — you can get a fair trial.”
By September 1920, there were monthly NAACP meetings, and its members were able to secure W.E.B. Du Bois, the national organization's founder, to town to speak at St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church in March 1921.
Ethel Ray Nance, then in her 20s, offered the introduction, and according to the Duluth Herald, the speech was said to have been attended by “many of the white race.”
Ethel Ray Nance, Karen Nance's grandmother, was the youngest of four children and lived a life of historical milestones: She was both the first Black stenographer for the Minnesota Legislature and Minneapolis’s first Black policewoman. She lived briefly in New York City and was part of the Harlem Renaissance.
In a 2003 New York Times story about Zora Neal Hurston’s move to the New York City neighborhood in 1925, the author reportedly had “$1.50 in her purse, one published story to her name and ‘no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.” She crashed with three women described as patrons of the arts. Among them: Ethel Ray Nance.
In the mid-1940s, more than two decades after meeting Du Bois, she went to work as his assistant.
Ray Nance wrote for magazines such as Opportunity and Negro History Bulletin, according to a biography by David Ouse, available on the Duluth history website Zenith City, and she worked for the government, the NAACP, and retired from the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society.
She also kept “copious notes and different pieces of paraphernalia, and actual letterheads from her experiences,” Nance said Monday.
In addition to notes from her grandmother, Karen Nance also has history from her great-grandfather from the late 1800s and documents from Ethel Ray Nance’s brother, Oscar Ray.
This was passed along to Nance when her own father died in 2013.
“I’ve been working on the book ever since,” she said.
“My Father Poisoned Me,” by Nance, is the first of a collection taken from these documents. Published in February, it’s about Ethel Ray Nance’s older sister, Ora Inga Ray, who died of pneumonia in 1900 — just before her 8th birthday.
The next one is “The Duluth Lynchings: A Family Perspective,” she said.
Nance said she didn’t know that her family was close to the site of a lynching until she read through the Ray archives. This was not information her grandmother had shared with her, she said, and it was devastating to read.
“The family was intimately involved,” she said.
Last year, Oyinloye was tapped by the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee to create a documentary. “I Can’t Breathe” was his opportunity to feature voices from people of color for the film that covered George Floyd’s death, the 100th anniversary of the Duluth lynchings, and what it’s like to live in Duluth right now.
Now, through meeting Nance, Oyinloye is hearing more of the stories he wondered about three years ago on that bus.
“I have a son; he’s 2 years old right now, and these are the kind of stories I want him to read, these are the stories I want him to hear, these are the kind of stories that are important for him to know,” he said. “Not only of the lynchings, but of the culture, the history of Black people in Duluth, this history of all of us as we progress through white supremacy and break through and shift culture into a more equitable society.”