“The Harvest of Solidarity”: Achievements of Black Activists Following the 1921 Duluth Lynchings
By Brenna Evans
Minnesota’s history with lynchings is a long and bloody one.  Over two dozen lynching attacks stain Minnesota’s history, but none are more infamous than the 1921 lynchings of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton in Duluth. But one part of this brutal history that is often overlooked is the tireless efforts of the local Black citizens who fought for justice and change following the lynchings. To shed light on the local social justice activists, the first part of this blog post will give a general description of events, while the second part will examine the people at the frontlines of the anti-lynching movement.
1. The Duluth Lynchings
Circa the 1920s, Duluth experienced a boom in its population. Even with the growth, the Black population during this time still only numbered around 495. Duluth’s Black population faced similar discrimination there as in the rest of the country, including segregated restaurants, white-only venues, racial covenants, and lower salaries.
The Duluth lynching was triggered by the arrest of six black men in connection with the alleged rape and assault of a white women named Irene Tusken, though evidence suggests that there was no actual sexual assault. Once the people of Duluth heard of the alleged attack, a mob formed demanding “justice” and went to find the accused men.
When the mob reached the police station, the city’s public safety commissioner reportedly commanded the other police officers to holster their weapons so that no one in the crowd would be injured. A few of the police officers attempted to hold off the crowd, but the mob, armed with ropes and saws, entered the police station. The Police Commissioner turned a blind eye as the mob broke Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton out of their cells. Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were then brutally beaten and lynched from the lamppost.
Out-of-state and local newspapers condemned the actions of the mob. The Chicago Evening Post wrote: “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 Duluth Rip-saw specifically called out the inactivity of the police and demanded their resignation.Duluth’s Black community also spoke out. Dr. Milton W. Judy, a local dentist, called the lynching “a horrible disgrace” and “a blot” on Duluth’s history.
Unfortunately , there was also public support for the lynchings. Local newspapers like The Ely Miner and The Mankato Daily Free Press published articles supporting the mob’s actions. Editorials and opinion pieces in The Ely Miner praised the lynchings and hoped that this event would keep Black people from working with circuses in Duluth. The Mankato Daily Free Press referred to the victims as dogs and beasts, stating: “Mad dogs are shot dead without ceremony. Beasts in human shape are entitled to but scant consideration. The law gives them by far too much of an advantage.” The Chief of Police for neighboring Superior, WI used this event as justification for running the black community out of Superior. All of these sources show the violently racist undercurrents that impacted the lynching of Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton.
2. The Aftermath
Following the lynchings, Duluth’s Black population dropped 16% as many Black Duluthians fled in fear for their safety. Motivated by the horrific events, numerous Black activists fought for both legal and legislative changes in a variety of ways. The most notable achievement was the enactment of H.F. No. 785, also known as the Anti-Lynching Bill. Signed into law on April 21, 1921, the bill enacted multiple revolutionary ideas. H.F. No. 785 allowed the removal of police officers who failed to protect persons in their custody from lynch mobs. The bill also required that police officers use their upmost power to protect prisoners from lynch mobs or else be faced with malfeasance claims. This portion of the bill was in direct response to eyewitness reports which stated the police willingly handed over the three men to the mob. H.F. No. 785 also provided that lynchers would be required to pay damages of up to $7,500 [around $108,000 today] to the dependents of the victim. After the passing of the Anti-Lynching Bill, no more lynching events were reported. Eventually, the act was repealed in 1984 based on the idea that racially motivated attacks could be federally prosecuted under the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
Nellie Francis, a prominent Black activist and suffragist from St. Paul, spearheaded the campaign for H.F. No. 785. Even as a student at St. Paul High School, Mrs. Francis was a fervent believer in racial equality. In an oration given during her graduation commencement, Nellie Francis called for the end of racial discrimination and hoped that “all, black and white, American and foreign-born, [can] shout with one glad shout that shall sound and resound from pole to pole, and from sunrise to sunset, this is the land of the free.” Called the mother of the act, she tirelessly drafted, initiated, and lobbied for the passage of a comprehensive Anti-Lynching bill following the Duluth lynchings and is thought to be the first Black women to lobby in front of the Minnesota Senate. Nellie Francis even met with Andrew Carnegie to secure a gift of $1,100 [around $17,000 today] for the H.F. No. 785 campaign. At a public testimonial celebrating her achievements, Mrs. Francis, visibly moved, stated: “Your children will reap the harvest of our solidarity, – of our determination to stand together, to fight together, and, if needs be, to die together, for they are dying, every day, the men and women of our race, martyrs to lynch-law . . . .” For the rest of her life, Nellie Francis was a prolific activist, most notably establishing the Everywoman Suffrage Club, the first Black suffrage organization group in Minnesota.
Nellie Francis’ husband, William Francis, was also a prominent lawyer and activist. Francis was one of the few Black lawyers practicing law in St. Paul during the early 20th Century. Throughout his legal career, he was regarded as a “busy lawyer who seems to have handled pretty much everything that came along…” and especially focused on civil rights. In 1919, he successfully challenged the St. Paul police for their commonplace practice of detaining Black women without cause. He also challenged businesses for their refusal to serve Black customers. Most relevantly, following the Duluth lynchings, Mr. Francis was associate counsel for Max Brown, one of the men arrested for the alleged rape of Irene Tusken. Although Max Brown would eventually be convicted and sentenced for the crime, Mr. Francis, along with Frederick Barnett Jr. (the step-son of Ida B. Wells), Charles W. Scrutchin, and R. C. McCullough, three other lawyers hired by the NAACP, fought for Mason’s freedom. In addition to his courtroom battles, William Francis also helped Nellie Francis with the Anti-Lynching bill, by lobbying, providing legal expertise on the final form of the bill, and contacting W.E.B. DuBois for NAACP support.
Following the lynchings, many other people also fought for the rights of the Black community. For example, J. Louis Ervin, a prominent Black lawyer, went by himself to Duluth immediately after the lynchings to write a fact-finding report that corroborated the six men’s innocence. Dr. Milton W. Judy, relentlessly pushed for a law that banned the selling of postcards depicting the Duluth lynchings. Unfortunately, few records remain of their heroic deeds, except for the occasional archived newspaper article.
The tragedy of the lynchings is a permanent stain on the state of Minnesota. However, we should also remember the actions of those left behind. People like Nellie Francis, William Francis, Frederick Barnett Jr., Charles W. Schrutchin, R. C. McCullough, J. Louis Ervin, and Dr. Milton W. Judy spent years fighting for the rights of Minnesota’s Black community and their efforts should not be overlooked.
For further information on the life and efforts of Nellie Francis, the author recommends Professor William D. Green’s book, Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota.
For further information on the Duluth lynchings, Minnesota’s history of lynchings, and interaction of lynching and the law, the author recommends: John D. Bessler, Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota (2003); Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (1st ed., 2020); Frank Shay, Judge Lynch, His First Hundred Years (Washburn, Inc., 1938); and the Minnesota Historical Society.
 J.D. Candidate, University of Minnesota Law School Class of 2022, JLI Vol. 40 Managing and Resource Editor.
 See generally, John D. Bessler, Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota (2003).
 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900: Population 457 (vol. I 1901); U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920: Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States 508 (vol. III 1922).
 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920: Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States 497, 508 (vol. III 1922).
 Duluth Lynchings: Online Resource, Minn. Hist. Soc’y (February 21, 2006), https://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/.
 Bessler, supra note 1, at 190.
 Id. at 185.
 Lynching, Minnesota National Public Radio, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/projects/2001/06/lynching/page1.shtml.
 Bessler, supra note 1; The Duluth Herald, June 16, 1920, at 1, 14, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, http://media.mnhs.org/things/duluthlynchings/00001847.pdf.
 Minnesota’s Disgrace, The Appeal, June 19, 1920, at 2, (quoting Chi. Evening Post) Minn. Hist. Soc’y, http://media.mnhs.org/things/duluthlynchings/00001834.pdf.
 Editorial, The City’s Shame, The Duluth Rip-saw, June 26, 1920, at 2, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, https://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/documents/The_Citys_Shame-82.001.php?return=collection%5B%5D%3Dmn_mhs-dlthly%26q%3Dthe%2520city%2527s%2520shame.
 Duluth’s Sad Experiment, Nat’l Advocate, July 3, 1920, at 1, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, http://media.mnhs.org/things/duluthlynchings/00001829.pdf. .
 Editorial, The Ely Miner, June 18, 1920, at 4, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, http://media.mnhs.org/things/duluthlynchings/00001827.pdf.
 “The Duluth Tragedy, The Mankato Daily Free Press, June 17, 1920, at 6, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, http://media.mnhs.org/things/duluthlynchings/00001831.pdf.
 Superior Police to Deport Idle Negroes at Once, Duluth News Tribune, June 17, 1920, at 1, Minn. Hist. Soc’y, https://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/documents/Superior_Police_to_Deport_Idle_Negroes_at_Once-119.001.php
 Bessler, supra note 1, at 216–17.