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This year marks the 94th anniversary of the tragedy that ended the lives of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, three young African American men who were falsely accused, taken by a mob from the old Duluth jail on East Superior Street, and lynched at the intersection where the CJM Memorial now stands. Monday June 16 will be a special Day of Remembrance. This is the 11th year since the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial’s dedication.
Michael Fedo, cousin of Duluth’s former mayor, is a lifetime writer and the author of 9 books including a short novel. His book The Lynchings In Duluth, has received recognition for its significant contribution to understanding the events of what many consider the Northland’s darkest day.
EN: What was your career path from youth to career author?
Michael Fedo: I was not an English major, but did minor in it, taking a few writing courses but made only average grades in those classes. I really do blame this on the professors, whose paradigms on good writing, or at least writing for the general population were extremely limited. I wrote a piece about this several years back for the old Loft magazine, but I think it’s archived at MinnPost.com under the title “You Were Wrong, Prof. Colllins.” Again, I became something of an accidental writer.
EN: What prompted you to take up the story of the lynchings in Duluth?
MF: I never intended to write the lynching story. Back in 1970 or thereabouts, I attempted to write a novel set in post-World War 1 northern Minnesota. I remembered my mother telling me when I was 9 or 10 that some black men had been lynched in Duluth about a mile from where she grew up. I don’t recall a context for her telling me this, but I thought I’d include the incident as a chapter in my novel, my main character being a witness to it. To be accurate in my depiction of the lynchings, I sought the book I assumed had been written about it 50 years earlier, but discovered there was no such book. Nor was there much information on the topic in Duluth at all. Collective amnesia was the norm in the city.
However, I found court transcripts and newspaper coverage in the State Historical Society archives. After filling a spiral notebook with data over two Saturdays spent in the archives, I abandoned the novel and documented the lynching story instead.
EN: What surprised you most as you wrote this story?
MF: What mostly surprised me about this story was learning that a former employer of mine during my undergraduate days at UMD had been arrested for participating in the crime. Charges were dismissed, but when I called him for an interview he declined and hoped I’d be like most good Duluth citizens, and forget about it. We never communicated again.
EN: What was the hardest part about researching this project?
MF: Researching the subject was difficult only in Duluth, where I was stonewalled, and where files didn’t exist. In St. Paul I read papers and court records, and was able to interview folks from Duluth who were knowledgeable because they either knew or were related to people who witnessed the lynchings.
EN: Which do you prefer, fiction or non-fiction and why?
MF: In present day literature I prefer nonfiction because much contemporary so-called mainstream fiction isn’t about anything. I can’t read a 300 page novel in which we’re exposed to what a middle-aged woman (for example) is feeling on a spring day in Albuquerque, or where ever. Back when I was in elementary school and we were made to stand in front of class and give book reports, we had no literary sophistication, so what we told the class was what the story was about--a boy who wanted to become a jockey, and how he loved horses and his struggles in finally winning the blue ribbon at the state fair, or some such. In much contemporary novels, one would be hard pressed to tell anybody what the story was about, or to say something that would elicit interest. This is why the perennially popular novels are genre works--detective, espionage, romance, sci-fi, etc. Genre writers still write stories that are about something beyond thoughts and feelings. Not that I’m a big fan of genre fiction, but stories are inevitable in those formats. T’ain’t necessarily so in the mainstream market.
EN: Of your other books do you have a personal favorite?
MF: Until publishing the new book, Zenith City: Stories from Duluth, my favorite of my books was One Shining Season, the story about 11 major league baseball’s one-year wonders. Great fun to do; the ballplayers were storytellers and I got to put those stories on the page. My wife’s favorite is my short novel, Indians in the Arborvitae, though for her, too, it’s now replaced by Zenith City.
EN: Any advice you would give to young people who wish to become writers?
MF: First of all, most of us in this trade can’t not write; it’s like breathing. I don’t know any writers who are not compulsive and disciplined. The old cliche says that everyone has a book deep within. This is probably true, and some people do record and publish memoirs or their account of a famous war battle, but they aren’t in for the long haul. The most important thing for aspiring writers is to be a reader, and more than that, read everything, including what you think is beneath you. Read it all. You’ll develop not only taste, but discernment so you can self-edit. Next to reading, write. Write daily if possible. Set word or page limits and try to adhere to that. I have taught writing at the Loft and at workshops and have encountered students whose talents exceeded my own. Few of them ever published though, because they either didn’t need to, or felt the process required too much effort. I publish because I’m serious about the work and stay with it.