Remembering the Lives of Elias, Elmer, and Isaac

With the 100-year commemoration of Minnesota’s own egregious Duluth lynchings approaching this June, it is important to reflect on the three innocent lives taken on June 15th, 1920.

On the tails of the Red Summer of 1919, during which several hundred African Americans lost their lives to white terrorism, the 1920’s were steeped in racial injustice and fear. Black communities were facing unprecedented discrimination and violence across the South, but the North was not immune to racial terror. An estimated minimum of 219 people were lynched in northern states between 1889 and 1918 (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1918 (New York: Negro University Press, 1969 [1919 ed.]), 31.) With the 100-year commemoration of Minnesota’s own egregious Duluth lynchings approaching this June, it is important to reflect on the three innocent lives taken on June 15th, 1920.

On the evening of June 14th, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were among several in Duluth as circus employees. Two young adults named Irene Tusken and James Sullivan were at the circus and reported being held at gunpoint by six Black men. Irene and James claimed Irene was also raped during this time. The next morning James Sullivan’s father issued a rape charge on behalf of Irene. Six Black men were jailed by 7:00am and by 5:00pm a crowd had gathered outside the jail. With rumors circulating that Irene had died from the assault, the crowd reached upwards of 10,000 members by 9:00pm. By 11:30pm the mob broke into the jail and removed all six men. Against the protests of some community members, the mob beat and hung Elias, Elmer, and Isaac off a light pole. The well known photograph of the lynchers surrounding the three murdered men was sold as postcards. 

While thirty-seven indictments were issued to those from the lynch mob, no one was ever convicted for murder.

While thirty-seven indictments were issued to those from the lynch mob, no one was ever convicted for murder. The African American community in Duluth dropped by sixteen percent over the next ten years. A Duluth branch of the NAACP formed and spearheaded a campaign for anti-lynching legislation in Minnesota. One of the other men jailed, Max Mason (21) was ultimately convicted of rape and sentenced to seven to thirty years. Mason plead innocent but was sent to Stillwater prison after a failed appeal in 1921. An appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court the following year was also denied. He later applied for pardon in 1924 to no avail.

Though various testimonies of the rape have since offered conflicting details and the physician’s examination on the 15th showed zero signs of assault, Irene never withdrew the accusation or even made mention of the event throughout the rest of her life. Mike Tusken, current Duluth Police deputy chief, and great-nephew to Irene, was unaware of his family connection to the lynchings until his thirties. Mason’s case may be looked at once more this year and many hope for a posthumous pardon. 

Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minnesota at the intersection where the lynchings occurred

In 2003, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was completed. Twelve years later the Equal Justice Initiative presented Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. In 2018 EJI completed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie are represented on a marker for Minnesota, that will ultimately be returned to Duluth (see below).

This June, a series of events will lead up to a presentation by keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson, Director of the EJI. Transform Minnesota hosted Bryan Stevenson in 2018 and is proud to partner with this event as a part of our Racial Harmony initiative. CJMM hopes to have at least 10,000 present to match those in attendance on the same corner 100 years ago. Transform Minnesota believes there is significant value in the work organizations like CJMM and EJI are engaged in to remember and dignify each life lost to lynching. We also believe that in acknowledging and grieving the historical and present sin of racism in our nation, the Church can begin to serve as a place of racial harmony and justice. We hope you can join us this summer in Duluth. 

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

Click here for more information on and/or to purchase the CJM curriculum. 

Click here for more information about the Duluth Lynchings.

Click here for more information about the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, or join us on a Sankofa Journey and visit the memorial.

“Duluth Lynchings.” Minnesota Historical Society, www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/.


February 14, 2020
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