Charles Thurber was buried more than a century ago, but Saturday was his first public remembrance.
A few hundred yards from the Red River railroad bridge from which he was hanged, about 100 people showed up for a memorial service for Thurber, a Black man who was lynched by a mob of Grand Cities residents on Oct. 24, 1882, after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Buxton and a woman in Norton. The Herald reported in 1882 that no mourners were present for Thurber’s burial, and it’s presently unclear where he’s interred.
“Though belated, all of us present today have used our collective power to rewrite that ending,” Maura Ferguson, a white woman who led this year’s charge to get a memorial plaque for Thurber built, told attendees. “Modern-day journalists can now write that many mourners were present to honor Mr. Thurber, and, years from now, when someone chooses to research that awful moment in Grand Forks history, they will see that the Grand Forks residents of today have bravely chosen to acknowledge his wrongful death because they cared.”
Ferguson recounted Thurber’s death: the hours that separated his arrest and murder, the mob that grew and grew before it dragged him from his courthouse jail cell, and the celebrations -- in person and in the pages of the Herald -- that preceded and followed Thurber’s killing.
“It is critically important for us to acknowledge his death in its full, terrible truth,” Ferguson said. “We cannot move forward as a healthier, more equitable community without fully understanding the horrors of our past.”
The service was interspersed with songs and prayers, and more than one speaker drew a line from Thurber’s lynching to the modern-day death of George Floyd and other Black people who’ve been killed by police officers in recent memory. After those killings, many decry the dead person’s criminal history.
“But that is not the important fact,” Shanelle Thompson, a Black woman who helped organize a demonstration for Floyd in early June, told mourners as a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train rumbled across the bridge from which Thurber was hanged. “It’s about what’s happening in front of you right now, which is someone just lost their life, violently and unjustly, for no good reason. There is no good reason. There is nothing that you can tell me to offer a good reason as to why someone has to lose their life like that. Charles Thurber, George Floyd, (Ahmaud) Arbery, Breonna Taylor, so many other people are perfect examples as to why we need to change as a nation and as a community.”
The Rev. Donna Olsen of the interfaith Hope 4 All church and Brent Garwood, president of the B’Nai Israel Synagogue’s congregation, went wider than that.
“As a community, we lament the institutional racism of discriminatory treatment within the justice system, housing development, banking and finance, school systems, divestment from Black communities, systemic policies and organizational practices,” Olsen said.
Garwood said confessions are “empty” without actions grounded in education and repentance.
“The sin of racism separates us from one another,” he intoned.
The Rev. Tawanda Murinda, a pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Thompson, North Dakota, who spoke forcefully at a Floyd demonstration in East Grand Forks, said that being Black makes him a target of racial injustice of the kind that happened to Thurber.
“138 years later, people like Charles Thurber are still dying at the hands of an oppressive and abusive system of racism,” Murinda said. “The problem, you see, in our country and in our world, is that there are people out there who, for one reason or the other, believe they are superior over other people. They don’t believe that every life matters, and so that’s why we cry out ‘black lives matter’ until the glorious day when all lives will matter in the same way.”