The Duluth Lynchings Online Resource: Historical Documents Relating to the Tragic Events of June 15, 1920
Created and maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minn.
Reviewed November 2003.
Of all the skeletons in the national closet, lynching has received but scant attention from historians and the public alike. Despite its long and widespread presence in American life and its use as a form of social and political control, scholarly studies of lynching remain relatively few and far between. Moreover, as some early-twentieth-century lynchings—with their horrific mutilations and the burning alive of their victims—are some of the most barbaric acts ever to occur in the United States, it is hardly surprising that many Americans would just as soon see such an unsettling part of our past be forgotten altogether.
But there have also been some notable recent efforts to shed light on lynching. An exhibition of James Allen’s remarkable collection of lynching photographs and postcards—published under the title Without Sanctuary (2000)—drew record crowds in Manhattan and two in-depth articles in the New York Times. New books on lynchings have also appeared: Laura Wexler’s Fire in a Canebrake (2003), Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise (2003), and Mamie Till-Mobley’s memoir, Death of Innocence (2003).
To this list may now be added The Duluth Lynchings Online Resource, a striking Web site created by the Minnesota Historical Society. An outgrowth of local efforts to memorialize Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, the three young African American circus workers who were lynched by a white mob in Duluth during the summer of 1920, the site features access to more than two thousand documents relating to the tragedy. Its statement of purpose reads,
This site is not an online exhibition, but rather a digital collection providing primary source materials with a minimum of interpretation. We have sought to provide a limited narrative that provides a succinct explanation of the lynchings and the context in which they happened.
As such, the site succeeds admirably. Brief, well-written entries describe both the background to the tragedy and the lynchings themselves as well as the subsequent legal proceedings, incarcerations, and larger aftermath. In addition, the site also includes an interactive timeline—keyed to a map of 1920 Duluth, and featuring an audio narrative—and excerpts from oral history interviews conducted by the Minnesota Black History Project during the early 1970s.
Photographs appear regularly throughout the site, which also contains an extensive bibliography and links to relevant newspaper indexes and manuscript collections and to various radio and television documentaries concerning lynchings elsewhere. Finally, the site also features short biographies of individuals involved in the Duluth lynchings and the subsequent legal proceedings and a helpful glossary of legal terms.
Well organized, beautifully designed, and easy to navigate, the Web site has much to recommend it as a teaching tool, particularly at the high school and undergraduate levels. But, even more important, it represents a courageous step by the Minnesota Historical Society to face up to a homegrown tragedy, a step that other state and local historical societies would do well to emulate.