A memorial nearly 138 years in the making is set to be dedicated Saturday, Sept. 12.
City workers last month installed a black and bronze plaque in the Greater Grand Forks Greenway that commemorates Charles Thurber, a Black man who was dragged from a courthouse jail cell and hanged from a Red River railroad bridge by a mob of Grand Forks residents on Oct. 24, 1882. It was one of the first recorded lynchings in the Dakota Territory, which wouldn’t formally become North and South Dakota for another seven years.
A memorial service for Thurber is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, at the plaque, which sits about 500 feet south of the Sorlie Memorial Bridge.
“This is a really important step in our community towards acknowledging past wrongs in the spirit of moving forward in a healthier direction,” Maura Ferguson, one of the service’s organizers, told the Herald on Friday. “This service is intended to be a positive healing event to our community, and I’m confident that it will be that.”
Ferguson raised money for the plaque via an online fundraiser, and she said surplus money from that fundraiser, plus a $3,000 donation from local labor unions, will be the beginnings of a scholarship in Thurber’s name.
Ferguson helped push the plaque across the proverbial goal line, but she’s not alone and is far from the first person to try -- something she’s quick to point out.
Audra Mehl, then a Grand Forks Central English teacher, and her class first brought the idea to Grand Forks leaders in February 1997, but that idea fell to the wayside, and Mehl moved away, after the momentous flood a few months later. In 2015, Amber Finley and Natasha Thomas were among several Grand Cities-area women who advocated for a Thurber memorial amid a broader push for racial introspection after a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager. That effort never made it past a 2015 public forum, but the city later assembled a Welcoming Committee.
And an East Grand Forks man has maintained an effort of his own for years.
Richard Rybacki said he first heard in 1972, while stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, that a Black man had been lynched here. It stayed in the back of his head for years, and he recalled hearing Grand Forks residents speak poorly of Black airmen when they’d head into town.
Rybacki said he began researching Thurber’s murder shortly after Mehl’s effort petered out.
“I picked it up and started to run with it,” he said.
He lobbied Grand Forks civic leaders for years, and that push intertwined with a sometimes fraught relationship with Grand Forks City Hall. Police investigated three separate threats Rybacki allegedly made to city workers, including one to then-City Council President Hal Gershman.
Rybacki is a skeptic of the location of the memorial itself. Immediately north of the Sorlie bridge is a stone pylon that’s one of the last remnants of a bridge reportedly built in 1883 -- the year after people here killed Thurber -- and largely taken apart in 2000. Rybacki is convinced that it’s the bridge from which Thurber was hanged, and he points to a contemporary photograph of Thurber’s corpse hanging next to a pylon that looks nearly identical to the one that remains there today. He believes Thurber was killed at the northerly bridge while it was still under construction.
But a bridge just south of the Sorlie Bridge has a similar pylon, too, and that’s where Ferguson and other memorial organizers, plus members of the Grand Forks HIstorical Society, insist Thurber was killed. They point to an 1884 insurance map that only shows a southerly bridge connecting Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and a pair of railroad historians who spoke to the Herald said they believe it was the only one standing in 1882.
And contemporary Herald coverage of Thurber’s killing describes the bridge as property of “President Hill, of the Manitoba road,” an apparent reference to the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway owned by railroad magnate James J. Hill. The southerly bridge was owned by that company in 1882.
Still, Rybacki has his doubts: A 1907 photo of the southerly bridge shows no stone column supporting it, and a compass rose on the 1884 insurance map points more northeast than north, which he takes as a sign of its inaccuracy.
“The dedication for the plaque has got to be in the right spot,” Rybacki said. “That’s very important to me.”
Regardless, Rybacki said he’s happy to have the memorial built.
“Five tons of bricks came off my back,” he said.
Accounts of Thurber’s lynching printed in the Herald paint a grim picture of his death. Accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Buxton and a woman in Norton, Thurber was arrested Oct. 23, 1882, in an East Grand Forks hotel by a pair of Grand Forks police officers. A “vigilance committee” was already waiting for him, and a mob attempted to rip Thurber from his jail cell that evening. City officials and police held the mob at bay for several hours, and it eventually dispersed around 5 a.m. Oct. 24.
But Grand Cities residents returned around noon that day, waiting for Thurber’s preliminary hearing in Grand Forks District Court. They generally agreed that any furtherance in his court case would be “tantamount to conviction.”
Police formed a cordon around Thurber as they escorted him to the courthouse, while the growing mob followed closely behind. A man holding a rope stood by as they crossed the railroad tracks.
The judge who was supposed to hear Thuber’s case was not ready in time, and police moved Thurber to a small jail cell in the courthouse. The mob took that as a sign the officers and court weren’t acting in good faith and rushed Thurber’s cell. Police, badly outnumbered, struggled to hold the mob back, and eventually someone used a rope to yank away the cell door.
The mob was reportedly in good spirits as Thurber was dragged to the railroad bridge. Residents laughed, drank and joked -- “Hang him on the Minnesota side, he wanted to go there!” -- before they shoved Thurber from the bridge, hanging him, shortly after 4 p.m.
The lynchers cut the rope they had used to hang Thurber into pieces, and a man named J.H. Snyder sold them for 10 cents apiece. Rumor has it that residents sold small pieces of Thurber’s body -- fingers, toes, ears -- as well. The Herald printed more than 2,000 extra copies of its account of the killing.
“A hanging matinee don’t often occur, but when it does, the people must know all about it,” the paper wrote.
Thurber was buried on Oct. 25, but it’s unclear where he was interred. No investigation was conducted into his killing.