They still came. Even through a rainstorm they still showed up. The day was June 15, 2000, and it was a day that marked the beginning of a movement. The memories of three young men wrongfully accused of a crime they didn't commit drove a city headlong into its past.
"After decades of denial, truth came into view, slowly, like an oarship approaching the Twin Ports Harbor," is how a Twin Cities Public Television (TCPT) documentary on the incident begins.
Located on First Street and Second Avenue East, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial has a rich history, originally beginning as just a plaque and developing into a monument. It started with a newspaper article by Heidi Bakk-Hansen titled “Duluth’s Lingering Shame” that was published on June 7, 2000, in the now-defunct Ripsaw.
The article re-opened a past not many people knew about.
"Post-war Duluth was rife with labor tension,” Bakk-Hansen’s article said. “The veterans of the Great War were bored, often unemployed, and seeking the diversion of noble causes. Severe class and nationality segregation divided the city.
Bakk-Hansen's article would be instrumental in generating the movement toward the memorial. The article was significant because, "It named the accusers, Irene Tusken and James Sullivan, publicly for the first time since," the memorial’s website states.
"There are a thousand whys, only some of which can be answered through the filter of years and the clarity of distance," Bakk-Hansen said in her article.
It was Bakk-Hansen's willingness to put voice to the questions that few seemed willing to face that injected fervor into the community. Her article dug into the past to bring to light the horrific lynching of three black men for a crime that probably never happened. Many people point to her article as the catalyst for the movement.
"It just seemed to me like an important thing to do,” said Richard Dolezal, one of the members of the memorial committee.
Dolezal has been there since the beginning, as he can remember going down to the vigil that rainy June night over a decade ago. He revealed that the original plan was to simply have a plaque hanging on that corner dedicated to Elias Clayton, Issac McGhie and Elmer Jackson, the three victims of Duluth's past.
"It seemed to me like there should be something," Dolezal said as he remembered his thoughts at the time.
The vigil that year generated talk about a plaque, and pretty soon a grassroots committee was formed to continue with the idea, according to a history essay written by the committee for school curriculum.
"People came together as persons interested in the issue, not from organizations," the essay said.
Lamar Advertising originally owned the site they planned on using, according to the essay. Dolezal said that they approached the company and asked if they would be willing to donate the land, and that was when the plaque became something bigger.
On Oct. 10, 2003, just a few short years later, the memorial debuted. It was an entire day dedicated to the memorial and the memories of the three men it symbolized, according to Sherrie Foster, co-chair of the memorial committee.
Susana Pelayo-Woodward, multicultural director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, also remembers that day.
"It was a very emotional day," Pelayo-Woodward said.
Pelayo-Woodward has been on the board for three years, but her involvement with the group began a long time ago. She said that both the vigil and the debut of the memorial were very powerful events because of the entire community came together to face its past.
"It made me very proud of living in Duluth, Minnesota," Woodward said.
Foster said that at least since 2003, there has been a day or week of remembrance every year, which usually falls on or around June 15. She said that while there have been vigils long before the memorial existed, it was really the memorial itself that brought the entire community together.
Foster added that while the memorial was the beginning of their organization, today they are heavily involved in the community. She listed the mission of the organization as "fostering racial justice in our community through education, reconciliation, and healing.”
"Once we built that memorial, we kept on going," Foster said.
Today, the organization hosts events like the Race Exhibit, which was recently in Duluth for a three-week period. There is also a scholarship endowment and fundraiser each year sponsored by the committee as well as an honor bestowed upon any elder member of the community that extols the virtues they strive for.
Dolezal said that the committee actively supports the Un-Fair Campaign, a recent movement that takes a look at racism in the Duluth community. The committee continues to move forward, expanding upon a simple idea that brought those people together over a decade ago.
"They just wanted to remember the men," Foster said.