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.
Aerial view of
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.
View of Morgan
Duluth’s black community in 1920
numbered only 495.² While a few blacks 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 blacks were employed
at the U.S. Steel plant.
Despite living in the far reaches of the
north, blacks in Duluth endured similar treatment as those
in the rest of the country. Certain restaurants did not serve
blacks. A downtown movie theater forced blacks to sit in the
balcony. Blacks 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.
In 1920 America was in the midst of
a violent period of racial conflict. Discrimination and violence
greeted southern blacks as they migrated to northern cities
in large numbers, seeking jobs. Paid less and sometimes used
as strikebreakers, blacks were often seen by white and immigrant
communities as threats to their livelihood.
From the Minneapolis
Journal, July 30, 1919.
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 blacks 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
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