Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Local Art Seen: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth

Thursday April 21 the Red Herring Lounge hosted the sixth and final installment of their Design Duluth series. The three guest speakers last week included Sean Elmquist of Chaperone Records, Candace Lacosse of Hemlocks Leatherworks and Heidi Bakk-Hansen from the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee. Interestingly, probably by no coincidence, the Red Herring is right there in the vicinity of this memorial.

The speakers spoke from the heart, telling their stories, how they got here from there, and making real connections with all our life journeys. The topic was the pros and cons of Minnesota Nice:
the politeness, the aversion to confrontation, and a tendency towards the stoic. After the presentations DAI Director once again led us in an exercise that involved interaction with small groups so we could get to know one another, and think a little more deeply on the theme.

Afterwards I asked Heidi Bakk-Hansen fo share here more about this project that stands as a powerful statement and a true work of public art.

EN: Maybe we should start with your writing. What do you do for a living? And tell me about your life path from youth to present in a brief overview...

Heidi Bakk-Hansen: I am primarily a freelance researcher and writer, focused most on local history. I write for Zenith City Online and do other projects; right now I’m helping do some research for the upcoming servant tour at Glensheen. I also do some substitute teaching in the local schools.

I moved to Duluth in 1995 from Chicago, looking for a change. I had quit my career job as a teacher and had spent six months driving a cab in that city as a sort of adventure, but could no longer afford my apartment. So I met someone who lived in Duluth, visited, and moved in the midst of the terrible heat wave that summer. I got a job working at Carlson Book and Record, which was located in the now-empty storefront across from the NorShor Theatre. At the time, it was a big rambling crazy used bookstore, and I loved books, so it worked out for awhile, until the owner got closed down by the IRS over long-standing debts after the millenium.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, moving to the city itself as an adult as soon as I could swing it after graduating from college with an English teaching degree. I spent the first half of the 1990s well-immersed in the progressive activist culture of Chicago, learning as much as I could about all kinds of things, especially developing my understanding of racism and feminism.

In 2000, when we started working on the Memorial in earnest, I did a lot of research on other memorial committees around the country. It seemed like our country was just beginning to hit a sort of understanding about the time period between 1890-1925 as the “nadir of race relations” (that’s a James Loewen phrase) having serious impact on us as a culture. Without Sanctuary was published (a book of lynching photography, which also toured the country as an exhibit) and the centerpiece of their collection was the Duluth lynching photo. Also, Michael Fedo’s book finally was made widely available for the first time.

I found that there were nascent efforts by Dr. James Cameron in Milwaukee to bring attention to the long-term consequences of lynching, and I think he was involved in the effort to have a national memorial to lynching victims in Washington D.C. He has since died, and his effort for a memorial did not come to be. Around the South, you can find various efforts to deal with lynching history. One example would be in Waco, where you find a lot of conflict in the community over the idea. Another would be in Moore’s Ford, Georgia where they actually were confronting living memory—actual perpetrators still alive. There, they actually do a re-enactment each year in an effort to help people understand what happened. We met with other communities in Mississippi where we were able to talk about Duluth and meet with other community leaders attempting to confront this history.

EN: How did the memorial project come about?

HBH: The Memorial project here came out of a conversation between me and Henry Banks in 2000 after I wrote my Ripsaw article on the lynching, in which I laid out what happened and for the first time since 1920 named the accusers in print. Together we announced a day-long vigil at the corner of the Shrine building and the idea for a memorial of some sort came out of that vigil. We started meeting as a committee soon after that. Lots of people worked very hard to make it happen, and the memorial was dedicated in October 2003.

The artists were chosen by the community at large, when in 2001-2 they were welcomed to come view the models proposed by several finalists. The model and artists that were chosen were Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter. She as artist designed the space, and he chose the words/quotes that would go on it.

EN: You mentioned that some discussion was had about fencing it in? Why was this being suggested?

HBH: In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion in the community about appropriate use of the memorial space. One issue some people had (including the police) was that neighborhood folks liked to sit there on a wall (as one of the only pleasant public places available on First Street). A few of them were prone to public drinking and boisterous behavior. Later, some people claim to have observed prostitution and drug dealing on the site. I don’t dispute that these things happened, but my stance has always been that illegal behavior can be dealt with by using current law. (I can only speak for myself here, but you can assume that the board has discussed these issues at length and reached consensus on them.)

The police over the years have sometimes expressed an interest in preventing any loitering on the site by eliminating the ability to sit there. A fence was proposed by some members of the public, and I believe the police floated this idea as well. They believed that this idea could create “open hours” and “closed hours” to prevent uncouth or illegal behavior there late at night.

Another issue has been the use by at least one political group that in recent years have used the site as a place for political meetings and open picnics, complete with a fire circle. I have historically had great sympathy for the original ideas of the political group that has occupied the site, but I don’t feel that “occupy memorial” is a positive way of expressing those ideas, especially when community men of color have asked them to treat the site as a memorial rather than as a park.

Our stance as a board is that the space is a sacred community space, memorializing the three men who were lynched. It should be open to all individuals at any time. Illegal behavior can be dealt with by existing laws, including those regarding un-permitted fires. (City ordinance dictates that public fires must be in designated picnic areas or permits must be acquired. The memorial is a “plaza” and is city property, but it is not a park.)

We know that there is a persistent problem on First Street involving available public space for gatherings of all types for the people who live there. We have urged the city (and we will continue to do so) to rectify this problem. People should have to right to sit outside in their neighborhood with dignity and without being harassed by the police.

There is a balance that must be maintained at the memorial so that it is available for its sacred purpose. No group should be able to monopolize the site for any reason or political agenda in a way that prevents non-members of their group from visiting it or feeling welcome there.

EN: What kind of feedback have you had from the community since this was inaugurated?

HBH: I have given countless tours and talks over the years since the memorial’s unveiling, and it is easily the most talked about and most visited public art in the city. The vast majority understand it as valuable and worthwhile, a living document to the work we have yet to complete in this community to make it live up to the words and ideals written upon it.

I think that those of us who live here, however, forget just how upsetting being there can be—more than once I have talked about the story of the lynching to young people who dissolve into tears at hearing it told. For young black men and women especially, it can be very emotional and difficult, because it is not a “distant past” sort of event. It is present in our lives all around us.

On very rare occasion, I have heard from people who ignorantly assume it is a “politically correct” memorial to rapists. I have spoken to this assumption many times, laying out the accusation that was made, the obviously unfair (and today, illegal) way the accused were chosen from a group of 150 men in the night, how the riot transpired, and the most bare fact that even if the men were guilty (and they were not), justice was not served.

The idea that the memorial is “too negative” or “creates more racism” by forcing a conversation or confrontation is, in my opinion, a stance taken by people who have not found a way to discuss their feelings about race without shame or guilt or accusation. It’s uncomfortable, but I can promise them that the discomfort eases with practice and effort. This is a matter of self-education, but also one that we all as a community (especially if you are white) must assist each other in working through. Otherwise, we’ll never move forward.

* * * *
Thank you, Heidi, for your work on this project and for choosing the City of Duluth to call home.

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