“They’re selling postcards of the hanging…” ~ Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
For a compelling read I strongly recommend The Lynchings in Duluth by Michael Fedo. The book is an eye-opening account of one of the darkest moments in Duluth history, well-researched and well-written. Even though its subject matter is close to home — it happened right downtown — the insights one can garner from its pages are universal in terms of giving a broader understanding of race relations in America.
The events were real. In mid-June 1920 a traveling circus was in town. A young white couple had gone out to that part of town where the circus was and an incident occurred. When the woman said she was raped, rumors spread and events were set in motion that resulted in outrageous events, culminating initially in the lynching of three black circus workers and later the sentencing of a fourth to thirty years in prison. The harrowing night of that lynching and its aftermath is what this book about.
When I think about the lynchings that took place here I am reminded of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, which Hollywood later made into a film starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn. It’s a story about a mob that is spurred to action after drawing conclusions based on erroneous information. Noble intentions (a desire for justice) often have ignoble ends.
What makes Fedo’s book so compelling is the manner in which the story is told, recounting hour-by-hour the spreading of the rumor, the response by various parts of the city, the responses by police and those in authority, the growing clamor in the streets and the ultimate battle between the mob and the deputies. It must have been a night of terror for the incarcerated black workers as well as for the policemen striving to defend them, putting their lives on the line.
The story doesn’t end with the events of that night of violence. There were men brought to trial. First, the white folk who incited the riots were tried. Nineteen men had been arrested on charges of inciting to riot to first degree murder. All were released on bail. The blacks who had been arrested earlier had not even been arraigned. Two of these men would remain in jail for more than five months before going to trial on rape charges.
The trial of the whites did result in a few convictions but, as Fedo notes, “Duluthians found themselves uneasy about convicting men who carried out their own sympathies, and felt the issue would best be forgotten.” In other words, in the minds of the public the girl was raped and the victims of the lynchings probably got what they deserved.
What makes the book masterful is the manner in which the author lays out the facts, the details as they were known, the improbability of what was being claimed and impossibility of the rest of it. Fedo does this carefully because the descendants still live among us. Out of respect for privacy he changed the names of the young woman and her boyfriend in this re-telling, but the evidence is fairly clear that their story was fabricated.
One piece of evidence used to prove that the girl was raped was that she had purportedly contracted gonorrhea from one of the circus workers who raped her. Nineteen black men were tested and only one test came back positive, that of Max Mason who said he did indeed have gonorrhea a year previous but was clean now. An inept defense in court resulted in Mason being charged and convicted for rape, and sentenced to 30 years. Fedo shows readers how impossible this was as well, that the girl had an advanced gonorrhea, and that Mason never received any treatment while in jail…. because he didn’t need it.
All too often we think of lynchings as something remote and distant. We say to ourselves, “It can’t happen here,” but it did happen here. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit gave us a glimpse of the hauntedness that festers beneath the surface when these kinds of things happen. Fedo showed us the unhealthy impact our lynching here had on the black community in Duluth, and the broader community’s soul.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com