Duluth lynchings inspire variety of art
From the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial to Bob Dylan's 'Desolation Row,' artists have created works from a dark moment in Duluth's history.
The memorial to Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — who were lynched by a mob of 10,000 on this day 100 years ago — is a 54-by-70 foot curved wall with bronze sculptures representing the men alongside quotes from writers and activists ranging from Anne Lamott to Buddha.
Carla Stetson, the artist, said she knew as soon as she visited the space in downtown Duluth, that a memorial would need a mix of media.
“How can I even do justice to this,” she recalled wondering when she saw the request for artists to submit proposals for the public art 20 years ago. “Looking at the site, I got the idea for the walls. The complexity of the issue could be better addressed by visual and written components.”
Stetson joined up with writer Anthony Peyton Porter and they created the work that covers a corner lot on First Street and Second Avenue East — one of few in the United States that memorializes victims of a lynching.
Stetson and Peyton’s work is among the art inspired by the lynchings — a list that includes books, at least one play and some say even Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Clayton, Jackson and McGhie were part of a traveling circus troupe that made a stop in Duluth on June 14, 1920. West Duluth teenagers Irene Tusken and James Sullivan accused the men of raping the former while the latter was held at gunpoint at a ravine near what is now Wheeler Field.
A mob of 10,000 crowded into downtown Duluth, pulled some of the suspects from jail, dragged them up the street and hung them from a light post.
Tusken’s physician found no evidence of the assault.
Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee launched a movement to remember the men — which included the installation of a public art piece. Stetson's concept was picked out of 17 submissions.
She set up a studio space at the Duluth Art Institute and local men, including actor De'Lon Grant, modeled while wearing period-appropriate clothing. Drop-ins to the studio space were often asked to be hand models, as she worked.
“I felt like it wasn’t until the memorial was constructed that people realized it was going to be a thing of beauty and a place to gather,” she said. “We wanted to remind them of what happened, but we wanted it to be a place of reflection.”
Robin Washington, a journalist who has created multiple documentaries about race in America, said it is the most prominent memorial on the site of a lynching.
“That’s really important,” he said. “Some have memorials, but not where it was. Others have a sign or post or something. But clearly no monument … two house-lots is how I would describe it.”
Stetson left Duluth in 2008 — but when she returns, she always checks in with the memorial and "The Arising," a bronze sculpture near the Lakewalk that features sets of hands. She also sends reminders to the city of Duluth to clean the statues, she said.
“It was definitely the high point of my time in Duluth as an artist,” Stetson said. “I think it’s still the most important piece I’ve ever made.”
Abram Zimmerman, Bob Dylan’s father, would have been a kid at the time of the Duluth lynchings. According to Dave Hoekstra, a former columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, Zimmerman grew up at 221 N. Lake Ave. — just a few blocks from the scene of the crime.
“Zimmerman passed the story down to his son,” Hoekstra wrote on his website in 2001.
Dylan’s “Desolation Row” begins with the lines “They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown / The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.” Later in the song, he sings of a restless riot.
There is, like the song says, a postcard from Duluth’s lynchings. On it, men crowd around the lamp post where two of the men, half-clothed, are still upright and another lies dead on the ground. It, too, has become art. It's featured in "Without Sanctuary," an exhibition of souvenirs from lynchings around the country.
Rudy Perrault, a classically trained musician and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was commissioned by the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial to write a piece of music about the lynchings for the 100th anniversary.
“We Three Kings,” performed by the Gitchigami Piano Trio, premiered in March at the College of St. Scholastica. Perrault had to go to a dark place to write it, he said. He used the image from the postcard to get there, then considered the inhumanity, the rage, the gruesomeness of the acts.
“I have to live with the subject. It has to mean something to me,” he said. I can’t just write for the sake of writing. Everything I write has a very personal touch to it. It’s coming from very deep within.”
Of note, Perrault’s music was used with permission in the News Tribune’s podcast “The Duluth Lynchings.”
In 1992, Penumbra Theater in Minneapolis premiered “The Last Minstrel Show” by John B. Davidson. According to a News Tribune story from 2004, a record 11,000 people saw the sold-out run — which was around the same time as the Los Angeles riots.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune called the musical drama, based on the lynchings, “extraordinary” and “outrageous.”
In 2004, it was staged at The History Theatre in St. Paul, but that run was cut short because of the small audiences.
Michael Fedo’s book, “The Lynchings in Duluth,” recreates the days surrounding the lynchings with the help of newspaper archives and interviews with people who were there and knew the people involved.
It’s been used in high school and college classrooms and is considered the go-to source for those interested in the events of June 15, 1920. The book never earned Fedo money, but:
“It’s a legacy,” he said in January. “And I’m very pleased with that. That ultimately, it was clearly worth doing.”
Dale Botten read Fedo's book and bought the rights to turn it into a movie. He won $20,000 at the Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles and a few years later it was called a screenplay of merit at another festival.
Warren Read, an associate principal and writer from Kingston, Wash., was doing genealogy research when he discovered that his great-grandfather, Louis Dondino, played a starring role in the lynch mob. Dondino transported a group of men from West Duluth to downtown and ended up serving time in prison for rioting. Dondino had never mentioned this secret past.
Read wrote a book about coming to terms with this information. Fedo, in a blurb on Read's book, calls it "A riveting memoir that takes us beyond the Duluth tragedies to the triumph of a life passionately and artfully lived."
"The Alabama 35," narrated by Henry Banks and produced by Washington, is a radio documentary about the crew of dozens who traveled from Duluth to Alabama for the unveiling of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. It includes a telling of the story of the lynching and interviews with those who took the 2,400 mile trip.