As the 100th anniversary of the lynching deaths of three black men in Duluth nears, organizers of its commemoration are seeking descendants of those involved.
Finding the descendants – including those of the men who were lynched, a black man who was wrongly convicted of rape, and people who participated in or witnessed the lynchings – will hopefully help them heal from trauma caused by the lynchings, organizers say.
Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were lynched by a mob of up to several thousand Duluth residents on June 15, 1920. Another victim, Max Mason, was a black man wrongly found guilty for the rape of a white woman and sentenced to prison.
Leaders of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial are seeking relatives not only to invite them to the upcoming commemoration events, but also to help them heal.
CJMM event organizer Jordon Moses said the city, county and state have a responsibility to discuss and address the lingering impacts of the lynchings – a discussion that some are reluctant to have.
“In order to continue healing, we have to talk about it more and we have to begin to undo the harm that we caused,” Moses said.
For the descendants of Mason, he said they’re also seeking a posthumous pardon, meaning Mason would be pardoned of the crime that he was convicted of nearly 100 years ago. CJMM is working with top state officials and lawyers to obtain the pardon.
“We would like to be able to connect with Max's family to say, ‘Hey, we cannot undo what we did as a community, but we can do what we can to show that we are working and healing,’” Moses said.
Descendants of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie may not know they’re related to the men, but could still face historical trauma, which lingers in generations of certain communities that experienced trauma in the past.
“Within the history of the United States, there's so much trauma around being a person of color that a lot of folks don't talk about that itself (and) they don’t pass down stories of trauma (because) you don't want to have younger folks deal with it,” Moses said. Discussing the trauma validates it, he said, which may help those descendants heal.
The CJMM is also seeking family members of those who took part in the lynchings. “Some folks don't know about it at all. They don't know that's in their family history. And that's something that lingers and something that they might need to heal from,” Moses said.
With these descendants, Moses said their job is to normalize the conversations. “If you are the descendant of somebody who committed the lynching, it doesn't make you culpable for the lynching itself, but you are responsible for healing and exploring that history.”
Heidi Bakk-Hansen, a CJMM board member, said she’s using genealogy, prison records, letters, newspaper articles and more to find Mason’s descendants.
When she finds descendants, however, “it’s a delicate procedure.”
“I have to be very intentional about how we contact folks,” she said. We’re “being very careful in how we approach this and making sure we're prepared to deal with people who just don't want to hear that (information).”
She’s connected with a relative of Jackson, has communicated with some of McGhie’s likely descendants and is reaching out to possible Mason descendants next week.
State officials are also helping in the search. Earlier this week, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tweeted that he was seeking descendants of Mason.
I’m looking for descendants of Max Mason, black man who was convicted of raping white woman in Duluth MN in 1921, after lynching of 3 black circus workers in 1920. He listed family from Alabama: Raymond Mason, LouisMason, Arthur McDonald. Please respond if you have any leads.
I’m looking for descendants of Max Mason, black man who was convicted of raping white woman in Duluth MN in 1921, after lynching of 3 black circus workers in 1920. He listed family from Alabama: Raymond Mason, LouisMason, Arthur McDonald. Please respond if you have any leads.— Keith Ellison (@keithellison) October 28, 2019
Ellison wanted to use his twitter following of over 365,000 people to try and help in the search, according to Ellison’s Deputy Chief of Staff John Stiles.
In the months leading up to the June 15 anniversary, CJMM will hold monthly commemoration events starting in January. Then, on June 15, they're aiming to have "at least 10,000 people in the streets to say this is wrong," Moses told the News Tribune in September.
Much like a political campaign, CJMM also has plans to go door knocking in the months leading up to the anniversary to educate the community about the lynchings — and also ask “will you be there?”
The “events are just a venue and avenue to have conversations to explore history to do some transformational work and some work related to healing and justice and reconciliation in our community,” Moses said.
A fundraiser on Nov. 14 from 6-9 p.m. at the Bent Paddle Taproom will raise money to help with next year's events.