How One City Is Publicly Acknowledging Racist History

[Trigger warning: violence, racism, specifically lynching]

~Edit: I wrote this post in the middle of a migraine headache that ended up lasting two days. I’m pretty sure I failed to articulate why I think this memorial is important. The goal, as articulated on the website I link to below, is not simply to help us remember the distant past. As I studied photographs of the space, it struck me that the goal is not to memorialize a past event, but to remind us that we forget these events too often. When I say that I want more of this, I mean that I want more public art that reminds us of the consequences our states of mind have. Awareness is not about understanding that racism exists. If we don’t change our behavior as a result of heightened awareness, then it has done nothing. I want more public art that reminds me of my privilege and shakes me out of complacency. That’s what looking at this space did for me.~


Social media has gotten complicated, as people have posted links and opinions about the death of Michael Brown, and the reaction to his death. Someone I knew in childhood disappointed me today, by posting racist opinions I will not repeat. Then, someone else I knew in childhood and adolescence told me about a project that uplifted me. It turns out that a city I loved to visit at as a child, Duluth, Minnesota, is acknowledging racist history in an attempt to change hearts and minds. A large memorial went up in Duluth in 2003, dedicated to raising awareness about the horrific lynching of three young Black men in that city in 1920. The goal of the memorial and the foundation that shares its name? To acknowledge a horrific injustice and to  demand change, so that nothing like it ever happens again.

On the evening of June 15, 1920, three black men, wrongly accused of raping a white woman, were abducted from the Duluth, MN, City Jail. A mob numbering between five and ten thousand people savagely beat and tortured these three young men, then hanged them from a lamppost in the middle of Duluth’s downtown. The grim spectacle of the mob posing with the lynched men was then captured by a photographer, and then circulated as a postcard. At a time in America when the lynching of black men was all too common, it was widely agreed to be the most heinous lynching of 1920. Until recently, this event has been largely forgotten. The names of the three men, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were almost forgotten as well.

I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult to acknowledge this part of our history in places where White people make up the vast majority of the population, but it seems worth noting that Duluth, Minnesota is 90% White, according to the 2010 census. And yet, there is a park-sized memorial dedicated to changing an acknowledged problem with racism. The mayor of Ferguson, Missouri claims there is “no racial divide” in his city. It seems to me that it would be pretty easy for Duluth to make the same claim. Granted, this happened almost a century ago, and the people who see the memorial are not the people who were in those postcards, spectators to that lynching. Having grown up in this part of the country, however, I know that it’s quite common for people my age to live in the same neighborhoods their grandparents and great-grandparents occupied. The people who built this memorial probably had to face the knowledge that a direct ancestor was involved in that awful crime.

These are life-sized reminders that we cannot afford to forget.
These are life-sized reminders that we cannot afford to forget.

Can we make more of these? The lynching I wrote about last week took place in 1930, in Indiana. If you covered the name of the place, you might not know the difference between that crime and this one, in Minnesota, a decade earlier. Racism is not a problem that exists elsewhere, nor is its gruesome history confined to the South. Lynchings in Minnesota in 1920 and Indiana in 1930 preceded attack dogs, beatings, shootings, and more lynchings, in the 1960s, which preceded “race riots” or “race rebellions” in Detroit and Newark, in the 1970s, which preceded the awful riots in Los Angeles, following the police brutality directed at Rodney King, in the early 1990s. This is not our distant past, nor is it distant from you, geographically, no matter which part of the United States you call home. Perhaps we can being to move forward by making things like this memorial, things with dignity and permanence that confront passersby with the humanity of the people we have lost to racist violence. Real change happens when we view each other as human beings and value each life, simply because it is human, and when we cannot be convinced that any human is worth less because of difference. duluth memorial 2 duluth memorial 3

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