In 1920, Duluth is home to a small Black community. It is a period of heightened racial conflict across the country.
Located along the shores of Lake Superior in northeast Minnesota, Duluth is a harbor city with an industrial past. In its early stages, it grew rapidly, taking advantage of the abundance of valuable iron and timber in the region. These resources, along with its location on one of the Great Lakes and transcontinental railway connections, quickly made Duluth a nationally important center for shipping and manufacturing.
In 1920, Duluth was on the rise. From 1900 to 1920 the population of Duluth nearly doubled, growing to 100,000 residents.1 Thirty percent were foreign born; Scandinavians, Poles, Italians, Finns, Slavs, Germans, Russians and other Europeans came to Duluth in large numbers, finding work in factories, shipyards, and railroads. Many of these immigrants settled in West Duluth, a working class neighborhood.
A small Black community
Duluth’s Black community in 1920 numbered only 495.2 While a few Black people held prominent positions in the city, most found jobs as porters, waiters, janitors, and factory workers. The United States Steel Corporation actively recruited Black laborers from southern states, and by 1920 a significant portion of the city’s Black people were employed at the U.S. Steel plant.
Despite living in the far reaches of the north, Black people in Duluth endured similar treatment as those in the rest of the country. Certain restaurants did not serve Black people. A downtown movie theater forced Black people to sit in the balcony. Black people working for U.S. Steel were paid less and excluded from living in Morgan Park, an idyllic “model city” specially built for U.S. Steel workers. Many settled in nearby Gary, a poor neighborhood with substandard housing.
Racial conflict across the country
In 1920 America was in the midst of a violent period of racial conflict. Discrimination and violence greeted southern Black people as they migrated to northern cities in large numbers, seeking jobs. Paid less and sometimes used as strikebreakers, Black people were often seen by white and immigrant communities as threats to their livelihood.
Just one year before the Duluth incident, a rash of lynchings and race rioting erupted in twenty-five cities throughout the country, including the midwestern cities of Omaha and Chicago. Named the “Red Summer” of 1919, fifteen whites and twenty-three Black people were killed in the Chicago riots alone.3 From 1889 to 1918 at least 3,224 people were lynched nationwide, 79 percent of them were Black.4
Lynchings in the north
The events in Duluth shocked many, but lynching was hardly new to the north. From 1889 to 1918, at least 219 people were lynched in northern states.5 There have been at least twenty lynching deaths in Minnesota history. Of this number, the only Black victims were the three men killed in Duluth on June 15, 1920.6
- US Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900: Population. Volume 1. United States Census Office. (Washington, D.C., 1901), 457; US Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920: Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States. Volume III. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922), 508.
- US Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920: Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States. Volume III. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922), 497, 508.
- Waskow, Arthur, From Race Riot to Sit-in, 1919 and 1960s: A Study in the Connections Between Conflict and Violence (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), 38.
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States 1889-1918 (New York: Negro University Press, 1969 [1919 ed.]), 31.
- Ibid., 31.
- Marilyn Ziebarth, “Judge Lynch in Minnesota,” Minnesota History 55, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 72.