Teacher, Writer, Experiencer of Life
In June 1920, in Duluth, Minnesota, a mob of over 10,000 convened upon the police station, inflamed by the rumor that black circus workers had raped a white teenage girl charges that would later be proven false. Three men were dragged from their cells and lynched in front of the cheering crowd. More than eighty years later, Warren Read a fourth-grade teacher, devoted partner, and father to three boys plugged his mother's maiden name into a computer search engine, then clicked on a link to a newspaper article that would forever alter his understanding of himself. Louis Dondino, his beloved great-grandfather, had incited the deadly riot on that dark summer night decades before. In his poignant memoir, Read explores the perspectives of both the victims and the perpetrators of this heinous crime. He investigates the impact the denial and anger that the long-held secrets had on his family. Through this examination of the generations affected by one horrific night, he discovers we must each take responsibility for "our deep-seated fears that lead us to emotional, social, or physical violence."
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Just over two years ago I began two daunting projects: an addition to our small house and a search for my family’s history. Both involved a great deal of digging, a few surprises, some uncomfortable situations, open conversation and finally the realization that put me in a place with more light, open views and a clearer vision of where my family will be generations from now.
I grew up knowing very little about my family history. My grandparents shared few stories of their own childhoods; information that my mother and father had was sketchy at best, based on anecdotal tales from their own parents. The stacks of sepia-toned photos that sat unlabeled in boxes only added to the frustration of knowing almost nothing about the people in my family who lived not more than two generations before me.
I’d been researching for several months and had pretty much given up on finding anything on my mother’s paternal side. She was the only child of her parents’ marriage and there were no aunts or uncles to which she could refer me. I couldn’t understand how an uncommon name like “Dondino” could bring one dead end after another. Then one night, I decided to try out another search engine I’d heard about and entered my information one last time: “Louis Dondino, Minnesota.” I was stunned and excited to see a collection of articles I’d not seen before come up as matches. As I read through each, the realization of what I’d discovered was overwhelming, as a long held family secret and its deeply buried shame was brought to the surface and unraveled—a tangled mass of information that I accepted we would now have to somehow try and incorporate into the already complicated tapestry that was our family’s life.
When the committee asked me if I’d be willing to speak today, I immediately agreed. While my mother would have liked to have been here as well, she was unable to make the trip. But as we began working out what it was I would say, we struggled to find a common ground between what we wanted to say and what we thought you might or might not want to hear.
She felt compelled to paint a picture of the later life of her grandfather and path that our family’s lives took, perhaps even as a result of this event. At the same time, I didn’t want to give the sense that I thought the spotlight today should be on anyone other than Mr. Clayton, Mr. Jackson and Mr. McGhie.
So I will give a short synopsis for you. If only for the sake of helping to more fully tie 1920 to the present day. I think that one of the things that adds to a sense of no resolution, of being trapped within the horrible postcard of that night is that it has for so long existed in a snapshot. People involved are viewed in a singular dimension and I believe that by bringing it to the present, adding details and new eyes to this very location we can seek to balance the horror with a sense of pathos, dignity and healing.
As my mother and I sifted through the mountains of newspaper articles, prison records and letters we received from the Historical Society and the Duluth Public Library, she shared a great many stories about her grandfather, stories that explained her shock and confusion over the discovery of this “other life” of a man she knew and loved so dearly. I remember as a child asking my mother if she’d ever encountered any feelings of racism or prejudice at her home.
I knew that my grandmother had grown up in Mississippi, and I’d learned some things about the south in school; I thought it incredible that she didn’t get some negative messages in that way. She always told me no, in fact it had been quite the opposite.
She told me a story about Bill, a man whom she’d known in the small town north of Seattle that her family moved to after she was born. Bill worked for Burlington Northern Railroad and lived in a dilapidated shack near the tracks. He was the only black man in town and his best (and only) friends were my grandfather and great-grandfather Dondino. Bill would come to my mother’s house for dinner occasionally and she remembered that he would save pennies in a coffee can and every so often had a full can that he would give to my mom.
She also remembered on more than one occasion one of her grandfather’s other friends giving him a hard time for being friends with a …black man. Louis would respond by telling them to “Go to hell,” that he’d “be friends with whoever he wanted to be friends with.”
We like to think that if he’d had it within him to talk about what had happened, to express his remorse for the role he played in that night, he would have. Instead, we have to believe that the way in which he completed his life, the example that he was for his granddaughter and his friends later in life spoke this for him.
Again, as a family we have been supportive of the project as soon as I discovered it. One of the risks inherent in digging into any of our histories, is the possibility of discovering something that is, at the very minimum, unexpected. At worst, what we find may indeed be deeply disturbing.
From the beginning, though, it was never about personal shame, but the anatomy of such shame—a synthesis of the events and relationships in our lives that spoke to the denial and cloaking of an event in our family’s past that was truly horrific. At this point, we are determined to bring the event full circle—to demonstrate that whatever fear or hatred may have sparked that reprobated incident did not continue in a cycle. As a family, we have used the discovery of this as a tool for continued discovery of ourselves—this means our past, present and future selves, and a lesson that
true shame is not in the discovery of a terrible event such as this, but in the refusal to acknowledge and learn from that event.
It’s been said that “True remorse is never just a regret over consequence; it is a regret over motive.” Since Louis Dondino is one representative of the thousands of people that night, it was upon his shoulders to take some responsibility for the events that took place.
I don’t know that he ever did that, beyond his short prison sentence; I like to think that in his own heart, he did. Nonetheless, I stand here as a representative of his legacy and I willingly place that responsibility upon my shoulders.
For Elmer Jackson, I am sorry that unreason and bigotry disallowed you the right to prove your innocence and deprived you the opportunity to create a legacy of your choosing.
For Elias Clayton--Ignorance and self-righteousness were the fuel for your untimely and undignified death. For this, I offer my deepest apologies.
For Isaac McGhie, I give you my heartfelt apology. Fear can never be used as an excuse for hysteria and passage of time can never be used as a reason for ignoring an injustice.
We will never know the destinies and legacies these men would have chosen for themselves had they been allowed to make that choice. But I know this: Their existence, however brief and cruelly interrupted, is forever woven into the legacy of my own life. My son will continue to be raised in an environment of tolerance, understanding and humility—now with even more pertinence than before.
I would like to extend my great appreciation to the committee for their invitation today and to you for your presence. Thank you.