Atoning for Racism in Duluth, Minnesota

June 16, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, atoning for racism in Duluth, Minnesota. Fred de Sam Lazaro of Twin Cities Public Television reports.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: International shipping and tourists attracted to Lake Superior and the nearby woods have all helped Duluth get beyond its rusty industrial history.

SPOKESMAN: We are about to retrace the steps that were taken on that terrible day.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But this year, this city of 90,000 decided to revisit one of the ugliest moments in its history. A week-long public atonement that ended Saturday included vigils, readings, and a silent march.

MAYOR GARY DOTY, Duluth, Minnesota: Eighty-three years ago on Sunday, a shameful, tragic, horrific event took place in our city.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Reporter: It was a lynching– far less likely to occur in a northern city, especially one with less than 500 black citizens.

MAYOR GARY DOTY: Three young African American men were lynched in cold blood for a crime they did not commit. We condemn that act.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On June 15, 1920, rumors spread in the city’s working class and entirely white west end that a young white woman had been raped by black men working for the visiting circus. Six suspects were rounded up by police and jailed. But a growing mob, many already angry at blacks who were being hired amid local labor unrest, wanted its own justice. Watched by an estimated 10,000 spectators, the mob overran police guards, who were instructed not to shoot. They broke in and pulled out three men.

ANTHONY PEYTON PORTER: The crowd dragged the young men about a block away, beat them as viciously as you can imagine, and hanged them from a light pole that stood diagonally across the street from where you are now.

MICHAEL FEDO, Author, “The Lynchings in Duluth:” It’s really a horrible picture, and when you look at it, you can see people crowding into that picture. Probably in the back, people are on tip toes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Michael Fedo wrote a book about the lynching in 1979. It was recently released again.

MICAHEL FEDO: You can see people grinning, certainly happy to be there and probably proud of what they had done. I don’t think anybody would have posed in that picture had any thought at all that this could be evidence against them in a trial.

SPOKESMAN: We do know that only three men of the several hundred of those who did this dastardly act were ever convicted and spent one year in jail.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many black residents left Duluth. For years, Maxine Johnson Taylor says, no one in the traumatized community talked about it.

MAXINE JOHNSON TAYLOR: My mother was too… what happened was it became a shock, so when it happened, she went back… she was from Kentucky, and then she came back and lived here, so it became a mental block.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Reporter: So you were never told about this?

MAXINE JOHNSON TAYLOR: No, no, never. And not even from… even though that happened, not even from anyone from the community here. Nothing was said until the ’60s.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The civil rights era brought talk of righting historic wrongs, but it was years before any action was taken. In 1991, Duluth began to restore the dignity of the three men. They’d laid here in the pauper section of Park Hill Cemetery, anonymous for seven decades until their graves were finally marked with foot stones. But a diverse committee of residents, including Henry Banks, pushed for fuller reconciliation.

HENRY BANKS: This wasn’t something we were trying to black the eye of Duluth or what have you. We were trying to say we don’t want to blame anyone for their actions. We want to heal from their actions. And we want to make sure that our community becomes the best place it possibly can become.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The task became easier as the generation that witnessed the lynching faded into history.

MICHAEL FEDO: I think people don’t have so much a personal stake in it as they did, say, twenty/twenty-five years ago, when it would be brought up and people would be upset because they had an uncle, a neighbor, or a grandfather who had been there and participated.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It may be easier to talk about in Duluth today, but some, like Leon Paquette, don’t think the observances were necessary.

LEON PAQUETTE: I wish that we would forgive, forget, and let it lie. I don’t believe in bringing things up from so long ago, you know. It happened, it’s done with, and I’m sure it’s too bad, but it happened. It shouldn’t never have happened. Amen.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But many of the others we spoke to at the west end Veterans of Foreign War post were far more supportive.

FRIEDA ERICKSON: I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s way late in coming. It should have been there long, long, long time ago.

ROGER GALEA: A very good idea.


ROGER GALEA: They didn’t do nothing wrong to begin with.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And there are signs that views in the west end have changed with the times, even if some language hasn’t.

MARIE PAULSON: I’m involved with the Minnesota senior federation, and we have colored people that belong to that, and I’ve gotten to know them real well. And we have another lady that lives in our area, and she’s colored, and I don’t think I could find a better friend in the world than she is — and down to earth, a lot of fun, so I believe that there must a lot of those people, just like us.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: While there’s little outspoken opposition, event organizers worry about indifference. Crowds, for example, in the low hundreds, were just a fraction of those who showed up for the lynching. High school senior Eddie Glenn, a model for a bronze memorial to the three murdered men, hopes it will lead to more interaction across racial lines.

EDDIE GLENN: There really isn’t any conflict anymore. It’s just there’s still a lack of understanding, and there’s still, you know, segregation among the cultures that really just stems from not understanding and not really caring to understand, and that’s what I’d like to see change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The bronze sculpture will be unveiled sometime in October.