Founder: Memorial neglect 'disrespectful'
One of the founders of Duluth's memorial to an infamous lynching held a fiery press conference at the site Friday to discuss the ways he believes it has fallen into neglect. Pointing out overgrown greenery and unkempt buildings and spaces around the memorial, Henry Banks said he was done taking no for an answer after several years spent addressing a variety of city offices and officials.
"As a founder, I'm very disappointed and I'm angry," Banks said from the brick courtyard of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, a solemn tribute to three black carnival workers — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie — who were lynched by a public mob in Duluth in 1920.
Standing at the corner of North Second Avenue East and East First Street, Banks called out tree limbs obstructing words on the memorial and a narrow easement immediately behind the memorial which was filled with stuffed trash bags, broken glass, clutter and rusting hydraulic lift equipment.
"It's disrespectful," Banks said to a horde of media and a gathering group of people and passersby. "It's been like this for 10, 12 years."
"It's an eyesore," said Archie Davis, a 23-year resident of the neighborhood.
"It's historic and the first of its kind," Ivy Vainio said. "I'm here to see what Henry has to say."
The city of Duluth responded to Banks' event at the memorial with an emailed statement issued by spokesperson Pakou Ly. It began by saying, "The CJM memorial is a historic site with great significance for the City of Duluth and our country."
The city challenged the notion it neglects the memorial.
"The City of Duluth had a volunteer group at the memorial site conducting clean up as recently as 2-3 weeks ago," Ly's response said. "The City has been and continues to be very receptive to the members and Co-Chairs of the Clayton Jackson McGhie organization in regards to the care and maintenance of the memorial."
The News Tribune was not able to make contact with the nonprofit Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc. on Friday to get its perspectives of Banks' claims. Banks made it clear he was speaking only for himself. After many years in leadership with the memorial, he is not currently associated with the board. He said it was the city's responsibility to make things right at the memorial. Of the nonprofit, Banks said, "it's not their role to do this."
Ly seemed to contrast that in the response from the city by saying, "the City of Duluth has an agreement with the Clayton Jackson McGhie nonprofit organization which provides a process and lays out duties of the City and CJMM as a steward that 'operates and maintains' the memorial in addition to uses/events on the premises. That agreement expires in January 2026."
The 15-year-old memorial is believed to be the first of its kind to attempt to reconcile lynchings in such a substantive manner. Other memorials have followed around the country, notably the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Banks explained that part of the reason he remains so frustrated with the condition around the memorial is precisely because Duluth has already led the way by building it in the first place.
Banks also cast a wider critical gaze at the immediate neighborhood surrounding the memorial. He pointed to the closed pawn shop and boarded up old Carter Hotel on either side of the memorial and the burned out Pastoret Building across the street as further examples of blight in the area.
"It needs to come down," Banks said of the Pastoret Building, which the city's economic development authority is currently exploring for demolition.
"This is a huge asset for every one of us," said Cashmere Hagbourne of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, "but look around."
Banks and others said if it were another memorial or special place in Duluth, there wouldn't be a question of neglect.
"If we were talking about the Viking ship or the Vietnam memorial ... there would be outrage," said Banks, who also noted the timeliness of his appeal to coincide with recent progress of the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, which would make lynching a federal crime.
Folks on hand were themselves weighing what to do.
"I'm here to support the memorial," Andrea Gelb said. "When people come to Duluth, I tell them this is a place they need to come."