By Frederick H. Lowe
Duluth, Minnesota, where three black-male circus workers were lynched by a mob in 1920 for reportedly raping a white girl, has removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the school district’s required reading list with the blessing of the local NAACP.
The Duluth School District did not ban the books from the schools’ campuses. They will remain in libraries. The district removed the books because of the use of the word nigger. The word appears in both books more than 200 times.
Other books will be substituted in ninth and eleventh grade English classes beginning next year, according to the Duluth News Tribune.
School superintendent Bill Gronseth said the books were removed from the required reading lists following years of complaints by students who said the books made them uncomfortable.
Stephen Witherspoon, NAACP president, said he was ecstatic with the decision because the novels contained hurtful language that oppressed people for over 200 years. Other school districts have removed the books only to later reinstate them.
Duluth’s history also is very uncomfortable, oppressing and violent.
On June 15, 1920, a mob dragged Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, employees of the John Robinson Circus, from their jail cells and lynched them for allegedly raping Irene Tusken, a 19-year-old, although Dr. David Graham’s examination of Tusken found no evidence of sexual assault.
That information did not prevent newspapers from publishing numerous stories about the alleged rape. The story about the lynchings is told in the 1979 book “The Lynchings in Duluth,” by Michael Fedo. A photo of the three men who had been lynched was made into postcards at the time and shown throughout Duluth.
Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” recalls the lynching. Dylan was born in Duluth but grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota. The first four lines of the ballad are:“They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlour is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.”
Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis wrote a fictionalized novel, “Kingsblood Royal,” about the lynchings.
In 2003, Duluth erected a monument to the men who had been lynched.