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Duluth Native and Author Michael Fedo
to Open Spring Semester of The Forum

RELEASED: Jan. 19, 2007

Michael Fedo
Michael Fedo

EAU CLAIRE — Duluth, Minn., native Michael Fedo, a former correspondent for The New York Times, will tell the story of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment of violence at his Forum presentation Wednesday, Jan. 31, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Fedo's program, titled "A Life Informed by a Lynching" — drawn from his book, "The Lynchings in Duluth" — will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Schofield Auditorium.

In the early hours of June 15, 1920, Duluth police arrested six young black men employed by a traveling circus on the charge of rape. Irene Tusken, a 19-year-old white stenographer from West Duluth, claimed that she was raped the previous evening while her boyfriend, James Sullivan, was held at gunpoint. Although she could not recognize the faces of her assailants, Tusken reluctantly selected the six men from a lineup of 100 to 150 black men based on their general size and shape.

Reported in the local newspaper, news of the arrests spread throughout the Duluth community. During the night of June 15, the city jail was stormed by a mob numbering between 5,000 and 10,000.

"The dozen or so officers who tried to protect the prisoners were almost powerless; the city's police commissioner had ordered them not to fire on the crowd," the Minneapolis Star Tribune recounted 71 years later. "The officers fought hard with nightsticks, fists and fire hoses, but several were injured and the mob prevailed.

"The crowd broke into the prisoners' cells and conducted a vigilante 'trial,' after which they picked three of the six to hang," the Star Tribune continued. "One by one, they were dragged a block uphill to a lamppost. Eloquent pleas from a police lieutenant, a judge and a Catholic priest — who climbed the pole to address the crowd failed to sway those in the crowd — from their purpose."

Three men were beaten and lynched: Isaac McGhie, 20; Elmer Jackson, 19; and Elias Clayton, 19. A photograph of the lynching soon appeared on a postcard.

In 1920 America was in the midst of a violent period of racial conflict. Just one year before the Duluth incident, a rash of lynchings and race rioting erupted in 25 cities throughout the country, including the Midwestern cities of Omaha and Chicago. In what would become known as the Red Summer of 1919, 15 whites and 23 blacks were killed in the Chicago riots alone. Between 1889 and 1918 at least 3,224 people — 79 percent of them black — were lynched nationwide.

The Duluth lynchings made headlines in newspapers throughout the country, with many expressing shock that such an atrocity happened in Minnesota, a northern state. The Chicago Evening Post observed, "This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute. The Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation."

The governor of Minnesota, who was also president of the St. Paul chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, commissioned a formal investigation. Twenty-five white men were indicted for rioting; three were convicted, and each served less than two years' prison time for the offense. None of the 12 men indicted for murder were found guilty.

Seven black circus workers were indicted for rape; one was convicted and served four years of a 30-year sentence. The testimony of Irene Tusken's doctor, who found no signs of rape or assault when he examined her the day after the supposed attack, was kept out of the trial.

A Duluth branch of the NAACP was established three months after the lynching. In 1921, the Minnesota legislature enacted an anti-lynching law that provided for the removal of police officers negligent in protecting persons in their custody from lynch mobs.

As the years passed, the memory of the lynchings of Duluth faded. The story surfaced in the work of Sinclair Lewis, who worked on his 1947 novel "Kingsblood Royal" while he lived in Duluth and interviewed black residents about their memories of the lynching. The story also is likely to have emerged in Bob Dylan's celebrated song, "Desolation Row" (1965). The first verse begins, "They're selling postcards of the hanging," and continues with a number of evocative references to the event. Dylan grew up in Duluth, and as a nine-year-old boy his father lived in an upstairs apartment three blocks away from the lynching.

And the story surfaced again in the 1970s, as Michael Fedo was researching a historical novel set in his hometown.

"As Fedo put together an outline of the book, he remembered something his mother had mentioned years before, in passing," Minnesota Public Radio reported. "There'd been a lynching. He knew nothing more about it, but he thought it might add a dramatic twist to his novel."

"It was going to be a peripheral event that I was going to include in a chapter perhaps," Fedo told MPR. "I would just simply pick up the book that somebody must have written back in 1925 or so only to discover there was no book. The historical society had a folder that had a few clippings it, so I just started to poke around. After reading about it over the course of a week or two, I filled a spiral notebook with notes, and then I decided this is the story. This should have been written years ago, and I forgot about the novel and wrote this instead."

Fedo's book, "'They Was Just Niggers,'" — quoting a statement made by a Duluthian after the lynching — was first published in 1979. In 2000 the book was updated and reissued by the Minnesota Historical Society Press under the title, "The Lynchings in Duluth."

"The book generated little discussion, and little notice," Fedo says. "It wasn't until Craig Grau, a University of Minnesota-Duluth professor, located the graves of the victims of this crime that brave activists within Duluth sought to redress the wrongs of that June night in 1920."

After the unmarked graves of the three murdered men were located in Duluth's Norwegian Lutheran cemetery in 1991, the Duluth NAACP sponsored a ceremony in which the graves were marked with granite stones that bear the men's names and the inscription, "Deterred But Not Defeated." On the 80th anniversary of the lynchings, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee was formed, and in 2003 the Duluth Public Arts Commission dedicated a memorial to the three men at the place where their lives were taken. The small plaza that fills the intersection of First Street and Second Avenue East in downtown Duluth is the only memorial of any size devoted to lynching victims in the United States.

Formerly a professor at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minn., Michael Fedo has written five nonfiction books in addition to "The Lynchings in Duluth." His writings have appeared in publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Christian Science Monitor.

The Forum will be interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing.

A coffee-and-cookies reception, also in Schofield Auditorium, will follow The Forum, and Fedo will be available to answer questions and to sign books.

Tickets are $7 for the public, $5 for those 62 and older and UW System or Chippewa Valley Technical College faculty and staff, and $3 for those 17 and younger and UW System or CVTC students. Tickets are available at the Service Center counter in the east lobby of Davies Center and also will be sold at the door.

Patrons may charge their tickets to MasterCard or Visa when they order by phone. Call 715-836-3727 or, outside the immediate Eau Claire area, call toll-free 800-949-UWEC. A $3 handling fee will be added to all telephone charge orders.

Wisconsin Public Radio and Community Television have contributed generous promotional support. Best Western Trail Lodge Hotel & Suites (715-838-9989) at 3340 Mondovi Road is the exclusive accommodations partner for The Forum.

Funded by the students of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, The Forum is administered by the Activities and Programs office.

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JS/NW

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