Memorialization and Its Discontents: America's First Lynching Memorial

By Apel, Dora | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Memorialization and Its Discontents: America's First Lynching Memorial


Apel, Dora, The Mississippi Quarterly


ALTHOUGH SPECTACLE LYNCHINGS WERE UNCOMMON IN THE NORTH, EVEN less common is the commemorative impulse for such an event. On October 10, 2003, in Duluth, Minnesota, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial---consisting primarily of sculptural relief figures, etched words, and carved quotations in a memorial park--became the first substantial public lynching memorial in the nation. Brought to fruition by the determined efforts of a multiracial group of Duluth residents, the project memorializes three black men who were falsely accused of and lynched for the alleged rape of a white girl in 1920, when a mob of five to ten thousand people watched as Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson, nineteen, and Isaac McGhie, twenty, were hanged from a lamppost in the center of town. The murders were documented in a now notorious photograph made into a postcard, arguably providing the visual departure point for the CJM Memorial, whose social and visual construction raise larger questions about the cultural work of commemoration and how it might function in Duluth more than eighty years after the event. (1)

The story told by a public monument becomes the official story, which addresses the political needs and pressures of the historical moment in which the memorial is produced rather than of the historical moment in which the events occurred. In Duluth, the commemorative process, constructed to foster a shared sense of community, produced forums for the discussion of the lynchings and their contemporary implications, and thus also created a locus for the structuring of collective memory. By bringing disparate antiracist elements of the populace together in the present, the monument that has become the most salient result of this process makes visible a black social, political, and cultural presence, offers cautionary advice to those who harbor racist impulses or feel exempt from civic responsibility, and provides a "redemptive" outcome for events long in the past. Journalist Ken Olsen notes that the history of the triple lynching remained hidden in Duluth and was "only spoken of when members of the African American community warned newcomers of color about Duluth's tragic past" ("Duluth Remembers"). The memorial thus emplaces African American memory in a largely white town in a way that has previously been denied. If control of a society's memory largely conditions the hierarchy of power, as Paul Connerton suggests, the hierarchy of power in Duluth has been permanently disturbed and altered by this insurgent eruption of black memory in public discussion and commemoration. (2)

But "collective memory" and "community" are complex fictional abstractions. Memory is not uniformly collective nor does a homogenous community exist in most places; instead there are many voices, divisions, and ideological agendas. Yet in the name of these abstractions and precisely because of the underlying fragmentation and threatened loss of memory, commemorative monuments are intended to lock into place for all time the meaning of the history they represent. They are meant to produce historical closure for painful events in the past, resolve conflicting narratives about those events, and secure a form of durable public consensus against an uncertain future. The Duluth memorial attempts both to fix against future erosion the brief narrative of the triple lynching itself, which is sandblasted onto a stone wall, and to reconcile and unify divided segments of today's Duluth population.

In reality, memorialization in America has a long and troubled history, whether commemorating the events of the Civil War, the Oklahoma bombing victims of 1995, or the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 (Savage, Linenthal, Princenthal, Phillips). Meaning changes over time in response to new political needs and pressures. Among the recurring questions that arise are these: Whose memory is being memorialized and for what audiences? Whose voices are heard and whose are silenced?

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