Family secret ends 90 years after lynching

Mike Tusken
Mike Tusken is a Duluth Police deputy chief.

Mike Tusken said he knew this call would come one day.

"How do you feel," he was asked, "when you see your family name in connection with the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie lynchings?"

For those who don't know the connection, Irene Tusken, Mike's great-aunt, was the young woman whose claim to have been raped by six black circus workers 90 years ago this week set in motion the most infamous day in Duluth's history.

For most of those 90 years, her name was kept secret.

"Nobody in the family ever mentioned anything," Mike Tusken said. "I didn't find out about it until 10 years ago."


Then, he said, "They were going to build the (Clayton Jackson McGhie) memorial, and my mother said, 'This is going to come out, and you need to know.'

"My initial reaction was shock. I just couldn't believe that it happened, that my family could be involved in an atrocity like that."

The elder Tuskens' conspiracy of silence was matched by their complicity in the crime. As the mob gathered, no family member came forward to say Irene hadn't been raped, as a physician examining her determined in well-documented accounts. And no one uttered a word about it until, or since, Irene died at 94 in Superior in 1996.

Now 41 and a Duluth Police deputy chief, Mike Tusken was a rising star in the department and said he approached his boss, then-Chief Scott Lyons, when he found out.

"Scott just said, 'Mike, you can't control what your ancestors did.' I know that, but I went to the point of talking to my employer about it. I feel guilty, whether it's deserved or not," he said.

His brother Tom, 38, shares that shame, intensified by his long career as a social studies teacher at Denfeld High School (now headed to East) and the fear it would come up in class.

"During Black History Month and Martin Luther King assemblies, there have been a few times when I've been potentially mortified, 'are they going to mention the name right now?' " he said, adding he, too, told his principals and colleagues.

Mike said he worries every time he steps out of a patrol car.


"I wonder if people in the community, especially the African-American community, if they know the story and know my last name and I show up at a call, are they thinking, 'Oh yeah, I know what you're all about.' Do they think I got to the top of the Police Department because, 'He's that racist'?"

With the irony of Mike Tusken's choice of law enforcement as a career -- the police who tried in vain to keep the victims from the mob were the only heroes in Duluth on June 15, 1920 -- maybe he is beating himself up too much. Likewise, Tom has dedicated himself to public service, saying they both embarked on careers to improve the community before learning their family's role in tearing it apart.

And while it's easy for anyone to swell with pride at discovering a great philosopher or royalty in a family tree, who would want to take responsibility for the horrific acts of their forebears?

One who has is Warren Read, author of "The Lyncher in Me" and a descendant of Louis Dondino, an organizer of the Duluth lynch mob. Unlike the Tuskens, Read does not live in the area and no longer has the family name, which no longer is prevalent locally (there are none in the Twin Ports phone book).

Read approached Mike a few years ago to participate in a reconciliation project, Mike said, but with elder relatives still alive, he declined. Similarly, Tom deflected the question he long dreaded when a visiting group of Minneapolis high school students finally asked it.

"I told them, 'Yeah, I'm a relative,' " he said. " 'I'm so far removed from it I can't tell you any more about it than anybody else. You'd have to talk to somebody else in my family.' "

Alive then but not talking was Bill Tusken, the last of Irene's siblings. His burial in 2007 left the current generation to sort out the guilt.

"Two years ago when I was assistant principal at Denfeld, I did a poverty immersion. The last stop on that tour was the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial," Tom said.


"I didn't know we were going to stop there. I did have an opportunity to make some peace silently at that point. I've tried to make my own internal peace and apologize for my forebears. That was kind of therapeutic."

Mike expressed a similar interest in the memorial.

"I was thinking to myself how would it look if I could repair, if I could get on that board?"

A disclosure: My wife, Julia Cheng, is co-chairwoman of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc. board, so I'm not entirely a disinterested party.

But maybe I could put a word in for him.

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at or (218) 723-5301.

Tom Tusken
Tom Tusken teaches social studies in the Duluth school district.

What To Read Next
Get Local