Nearly 140 years after a mob of Grand Forks residents hanged Charles Thurber from a railroad bridge over the Red River, members of the city’s historic preservation commission are set to install a plaque memorializing the man – but they’re far from the first people to try.
The idea appears to first have been floated in 1997 by Grand Forks Central High School students and one of their teachers, and it’s popped up every few years since then.
But this year is the first it’s gained real traction. A Grand Cities trophy shop has a work order in hand for an 18-inch by 24-inch plaque remembering Thurber, a Black man who was lynched before he could stand trial for allegedly assaulting a pair of white women in nearby towns. They plan to install the plaque sometime next month at a spot on the Greenway within sight of the bridge from which Thurber was hanged.
“I think that this is a huge step in recognizing past wrongs,” said Maura Ferguson, a Grand Forks resident who set up a GoFundMe page to pay for the plaque. She and other organizers are putting together a memorial service for Thurber to coincide with the plaque’s installation.
After 20-plus years, the memorial is shifting from an “if” to a “when.” So what’s different this time? What happened when others tried to make it happen?
In 1997, the answer was simple: about a month after Grand Forks leaders set aside money for the plaque, the city found itself underwater. The Red River reached its highest-ever recorded mark that spring, and civic priorities changed dramatically as residents fled for higher and drier ground.
Audra Mehl, the white Central teacher who pitched the idea of a plaque to the city in February 1997 alongside several students, believes the Thurber memorial would have been built were it not for the flood, she told the Herald on Wednesday.
“For the most part, the community absolutely wanted to tell the story,” she said. “I don’t think I ran into anyone who thought it was a bad idea at the time.”
Even after the water receded, life in the Grand Cities didn’t return to normal for years, and the memorial was sidelined.
“Everyone was obviously very preoccupied with rebuilding their city,” Mehl remembered. She taught in Grand Forks for another year after the flood, then moved away and, ultimately, left the profession altogether. Mehl now works in sales in the technology industry.
Thurber was arrested on Oct. 23, 1882, for allegedly raping two white women near Buxton. He told a reporter from the Grand Forks Daily Herald that he had been intimate with one of the women, but that it had been consensual.
A day after he was arrested, a mob broke into the Grand Forks jail, but was held at bay by city officials, according to a contemporary report in the Herald. Authorities transferred Thurber to a nearby courthouse for a hearing, and the crowd returned around noon. The mob dragged Thurber from his cell at the courthouse, put a noose around his neck, then a second one, and dragged the barely-conscious man to the railroad bridge and hanged him from it. Members of the crowd jeered and joked before Thurber was killed.
“Many turned away in horror, unable to endure the sight,” the Herald said of Thurber’s hanging. “Others laughed. The executioners on the bridge passed around the bottle and drank to his health.”
The lynching was reportedly the first in the Dakota Territory. North Dakota became a state seven years later.
The incident largely faded from memory until Mehl – who brought up the lynching with her students during a lesson on “To Kill a Mockingbird” to demonstrate that racism and the national struggle for civil rights extended beyond the South – and her students brought it to the city’s attention.
But they weren’t the only people to try. In the mid 2010s, amid another spate of high-profile police killings of Black men nationally and, more locally, violence aimed at a Somali-owned restaurant, Amber Finley and Natasha Thomas were among several people who included a proposed Thurber memorial in their push for a wider-ranging diversity commission at Grand Forks City Hall.
“There’s a history that I think as a country obviously has to be reckoned with, but every individual community can do that work, too,” Thomas, who is Black, said Wednesday. “As women of color, we were attacked for that work.”
Some people threatened Thomas on Facebook. Others insisted there was no racial tension in Grand Forks, and still others “wanted everybody to be nice,” she said.
“It’s a bittersweet moment, now, seeing what’s happening in the country and how that’s sort of galvanized things,” Thomas said. “And to know that our community just wasn’t ready.”
Neither the memorial nor the commission made it beyond an October 2015 public forum. Thomas and Finley have both moved away since then.
“There were these three people of color telling them there’s something wrong with your city,” Finley, a citizen of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, said. “And they didn’t want to admit it.”
The city later established a Welcoming Committee at the urging of a group of mostly white women.
Governments and businesses across the United States are reckoning with longstanding racial issues after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer in late May. It sparked protests nationwide, including a trio of peaceful demonstrations in the Grand Forks area, and sustained pushes for social reform, particularly of police departments.
The present cultural moment was ripe for the city’s first Juneteenth celebration, its organizers said last month, and Ferguson said footage of the Minneapolis riots following Floyd’s killing partly made her consider a new push for the Thurber memorial.
“It’s trendy right now for people, for cities to be admitting things that have gone horribly wrong in their towns,” Finley said, noting renewed pressure for the Washington, D.C.-based NFL team to change its name, which many regard as a racial slur. “If it wasn’t trendy and if it was coming from a place like where we were coming from before, I don’t think it would still happen.”
Thomas said she and Finley pushed for the commission and the memorial at a time when “Black Lives Matter” was a more controversial movement and phrase.
“And now it’s on cups,” she said with a chuckle. “The world is different.”