During and immediately following World War I a large population of African Americans emigrated from the South to the North in search of jobs and escape in fear of being lynched. Whites perceived the black migrant labors as a threat to their employment, as well as they ability to negotiate pay rate. For instance United States Steel was the most important regional employer addressed labor concerns by leveraging African American laborers migrants from the South.
Race riots erupted across the North and Midwest in 1919. This period of violence became know as the Red Summer of 1919. Even after the riots subsided, racial relations between blacks and whites remained strained and volatile.
On June 14, 1920, John Robinson Circus arrived in Duluth, Minnesota for an performance. Two local teenagers Irene Tusken age 19 and James Sullivan age 18 met up at the circus when the circus was close to the public. Tusken and Sullivan ended up behind the big top watching the black workers dismantle the menagerie tent, load wagons and generally getting the circus ready to move to the next city. Sullivan started hurling assaults to the black workers, Sullivan then threw a punch when a fight broke out between Sullivan and some of the black circus workers. Sullivan took a bad beaten.
After the fight Sullivan and Tusken hatched a plan to say they where assaulted and Tusken got rape. Later that night Sullivan went home and told his father that he and Tusken were robbed and Tusken were rape while he was held at gun point by a group of five to six black men that work at the John Robinson Circus.
In the morning the very next day of June 15, 1920 Duluth Police Chief John Murphy received a call from James Sullivan’s father saying the six black circus workers robbed Sullivan and Tusken, and raped Tusken while holding Sullivan at gunpoint.
Murphy quick went to the circus and lined up about 150 roustabouts, food service workers, and prop-men on the side of the tracks and asked Sullivan and Tusken to identify their attackers. Murphy arrested six black men that was accused of the rape and robbery of Sullivan and Tusked. Three of the men being Elmer Jackson age 19, Isaac McGhie age 19, and Elias Clayton age 18.
The Authenticity of Sullivan’s rape claims is subject to skepticism. When Tusken was examined by the family physician Dr. David Graham on the morning of June 15, he found no physical evidence of rape assault, and when she was questioned by John Murphy she could only give vague physical descriptions of her alleged assailants.
The commissioner of public safety did not want whites to use their weapons, he stated I don’t want whites men blood to be shed over these niggers.
With rumors spreading around the town that Tusken had died in result to her being raped a large white mob estimating from 1,000 to 3,000 whites gathered outside of Duluth county jail where the six men were being held to beat and hang the accused. The white mob broke into the jail not able to use their guns to protect the men the deputies sprayed the mob with a water hose but was overpowered by the mob. The white mob end up seizing three the of the six men Elmer Jackson, Isaac McGhie, and Elias Clayton. The mob found the three men guilty in a sham trial. They took the men to 1st street and 2nd Avenue East where they where beaten, spit on, and hung by the white mob. The deputies including police Chief John Murphy and the commissioner of public safety watch as the mob beat and hanged the three men.
After the Lynching of these three innocent black men the angry mob found out that Tusken was not died but hospitalized after have a panic attack.
The next day the National Guard arrived in Duluth to secure the area and to guard the surviving prisoners, as well as nine other suspects. The prisoners were moved to the St. Louis County Jail under heavy protection. Few members of the White mob were indicted. The ones who received prison time were out in fewer then 15 minutes. The mob were convicted of rioting not the murder of the three innocent black men.
Photographs of the lynching was printed and sold as postcards for $0.50 cents .
The innocent killings of the three black men made headlines throughout the whole county and the Duluth authorities stand condemned in the eyes of the nation. “The lynch mob put a strain on the name of Minnesota. The sudden flaming up of racial passion, which reproach of the South, may also occur, as we learn in the bitterness of humiliation in Minnesota” an article in the Minnesota Journal stated.
The other blacks that worked for the John Robinson Circus was quickly fired
Enraged and horrified by the lynching’s, many blacks left Duluth. From 1920 to 1930, as Duluth grew overall by 2,000 persons, the city’s black population dropped 16 percent. Some moved to the Twin Cities, or places more distant, such as California.
James Sullivan died October 16, 1969 at the age 67 in Duluth Minnesota
Irene Tusken Died June 12, 1996 at the 94
No charges was file on Tusken and Sullivan for perjury.
On October 10, 2003, the event that took place Duluth, Minnesota on June 14, 1920 was commemorated.
By dedicating a Plaza including three seven-foot-tall statues to the three men that were killed. The statues are part of a memorial across the street from the site of the lynching’s.