A Century Later, Minnesota Pardons Black Man in Case Tied to Lynchings

A protester holds up a photo of George Floyd in front of a memorial dedicated to lynching victims in Duluth, Minn., on May 30, 2020. (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A black man who served as a scapegoat for a lynch mob in 1920 received Minnesota’s first-ever posthumous pardon Friday, 100 years after his conviction was used to justify the murder of three of his co-workers.

After a mob lynched three black circus workers in the northern industrial center of Duluth on June 15, 1920, their co-worker Max Mason was arrested and tried for the rape of a white woman, Irene Tusken.

Jerry Blackwell, of the Minneapolis firm Blackwell Burke, argued to Minnesota’s pardon board Friday that the rape was fictitious and Mason had been arrested to grant legitimacy to the killings.

Tusken’s doctor had found no evidence of an assault, and scant evidence corroborated her account. That didn’t stop local authorities from entering the train where circus workers were staying to round up “every n****r that was idle between nine and ten o’clock,” when Tusken and her boyfriend claimed that six black circus workers had held them at gunpoint and raped Tusken, Blackwell said.

Six black men were arrested by Duluth police and held in the city jail, where a white mob gathered and forced its way in, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. With little police resistance, the mob took all six from their cells, and beat and lynched Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Eilas Clayton.

The other three men survived the night, and the National Guard came to Duluth the next morning to lock the city down and protect the trio until they were jailed again with 10 more black circus workers.

Seven black men were indicted, and charges against five of them were dismissed. Mason and William Miller were tried for rape, and Mason was convicted and sentenced to seven to 30 years in prison. He was discharged from prison and banished from the state in 1925.

Prosecutors in 1920 told the all-white jury, “We have mobs because people think the negroes won’t be convicted. That’s why they take the law into their own hands.”

Three white men were also convicted of rioting and sentenced to serve up to five years in jail. All three were paroled in 1922 and discharged from parole in 1923. No one was convicted for the murders of McGhie, Jackson and Clayton.

“Mr. Mason deserves our mercy, our clemency, because we served him a tainted justice when it should have been pure. A tainted justice is necessarily injustice,” Blackwell told the board Friday.  

He compared Mason’s case to that of George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day sparked nationwide protests and civil unrest. He also cited examples like Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was killed in February by two white men who chased him down, saying they suspected him of being a burglar, and Amy Cooper, a white woman who was recorded in May making a false police report in an apparent attempt to intimidate a black man who asked her to leash her dog in Central Park.

“[The incidents] all have in common, at the base of them, a stereotypical and racist view of black men in America,” Blackwell, who himself is black, said. “That they are other, that they are dangerous, that they should be imprisoned, restrained, subjugated, overly policed, unduly stopped, searched, harassed, disregarded or worse, as we have all recently seen on live television.”

The board, which consists of Governor Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, determined that it had the authority to grant posthumous pardons and approved Mason’s pardon without further objection. Mason’s is the first posthumous pardon granted in the history of the state.

“This is 100 years overdue,” said Walz, a Democrat.

The initiative to pardon Mason started last year when Blackwell realized the 100th anniversary of the lynching was approaching, he said. He realized that while Duluth made an effort to commemorate the three murdered men in 2003, “nothing had been done with respect to Max Mason, who was a young man who had to pay with four years of his life.”

Blackwell noted that pardons could be acts of mercy or issued in the public interest.

“I think this one was both for Max Mason. There is in the streets right now a public protest, a crisis in confidence in our justice system as it relates to racial equity,” he said in an interview. “We uphold equal justice and the rule of law, and that’s an important thing to say, especially now, and it’s something that was lost 100 years ago with respect to Max Mason.”

The pardon application had widespread and in some ways unexpected support. Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, Irene Tusken’s great nephew, called the lynchings a “great shame” for his family and “a total disregard for justice.” Former Attorney General Lori Swanson circulated a petition to all of the pardon board’s living former members asking for endorsement of the pardon, and all but one signed. The one holdout, former Governor Jesse Ventura, could not be reached, Swanson said.

“I think that’s a significant statement, when you have almost all living members of the board of pardons saying that it’s a good thing to do,” Swanson said.

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