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Stamping out the disease of racism

CJMM board member Stephan Witherspoon and his nephew Eyreon Witherspoon flank Claudie Washington, the 2015 CJMM honoree who was awarded for his work to foster racial justice. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)1 / 4
Lyn Clark Pegg, Linda Riddle and Renee Van Nett read the program for the Clayton Jackson McGhie gala. (Photo by Ivy Vainio)2 / 4
Denfeld High School senior Jasmine Fuller takes the podium to address the crowd. She was awarded the 2015 scholarship. Beside her is CJMM secretary Jodi Broadwell. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)3 / 4
A somber reminder of why the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was started. Many on the board were unaware of the existence of these funeral documents. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)4 / 4

The energy in the room was palpable. Greysolon Ballroom was so full of guests that two extra tables had to be set up for the annual Clayton Jackson Mcghie Memorial Dinner.

This year's event was named "Honoring the Past, Building the Future." Those in the crowd included leaders in education, business, government and nonprofits. They gathered to celebrate honoree Claudie Washington, president of the Duluth NAACP, and renew their energy to work toward racial justice.

Rogier Gregoire, co-chairman of the CJMM board, addressed the crowd, saying they were there to "stamp out a disease." Referring to last month's digitally altered photo with a noose around the neck of an African-American student, which circulated in social media, he said, "It's a disease that keeps occurring. And here we are looking at the same set of circumstances that led to the lynching of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. It's a disease that anyone can catch." He implored everyone to ask themselves, "Am I now a carrier of that disease?"

Four African-American Denfeld High School students sat at one table with Aaron Gelineau, a desegregation specialist with the Duluth School District. One of those students was Eyreon Witherspoon.

At the podium, CJMM board member Stephen Witherspoon acknowledged Eyreon as his nephew and the young man whose photo had a noose drawn around his neck. The crowd rose from its dinner tables with applause as a show of support for Eyreon's resiliency and courage.

"It was really cool to see such a swell of support for this young man," said CJMM Treasurer Jodi Broadwell.

Claudie Washington surprised the CJMM board members when he took to the podium to accept his award by presenting a gift of the funeral papers for the men who were lynched in 1920. He called present and former CJMM board members to the stage to help hold up the boards with copies of the funeral papers mounted onto them.

There was a document for each man: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. The documents were filled out in cursive writing. No next of kin was listed but the cause of death for each was listed as "lynching."

Both CJMM co-chairmen Rogiere Gregoire and Bob Grytdahl, as well as CJMM board member Jodi Broadwell, told the Budgeteer that they were surprised by the gift of the mounted copies of the funeral documents.

"We weren't expecting it," said Gregoire. "What a wonderful surprise and a wonderful effort."

Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Inc.: Who we are today

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was unveiled at First Street and Second Avenue East in Duluth on Oct. 10, 2003, 83 years after the tragedy ending the lives of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. It is the only U.S. monument of its scale dedicated to victims of lynching. The principle “Bring the Truth to Light” still guides our ongoing efforts to achieving racial justice through fostering education, reconciliation, and healing within our communities. Our current programs, resources and accomplishments include:

Host Day of Remembrance observance held at the Memorial annually the week of June 15 to honor the memory of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

Host an annual spring cleanup at the memorial followed by a volunteer appreciation lunch.

Host group tours at the Memorial including: Expanding Horizons, Humphrey Fellows, Leadership Duluth, and K.E.Y. Zone.

A $1,500 scholarship, awarded annually to a graduating high school senior from the Duluth-Superior-Cloquet areas.

Obtained Heritage Preservation Landmark Status and adopted visitor rules and regulations as stewards of the memorial.

Sponsors of Citizens in Action and Camp Wellstone.

Launched one-year strategic planning process to create a work plan.

Community involvement with the Table and other public meetings addressing disparities in the Duluth area.

Write and sign-on to public statements in response to events that occur in the Duluth-Superior area, as well as nationwide.

Source: 2015 CJMM Annual Dinner program

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at