It’s possible Charles Thurber was a bad man. In 1882, he was accused of sexually assaulting two women in towns near Grand Forks. But while he was in a cell awaiting his legal fate, a mob dragged him to a railroad bridge and hanged him.
This week, a memorial will be dedicated near the supposed site of the incident. It’s important to forever remember this sad chapter in the city’s history.
The event is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, at a site about 500 feet south of the Sorlie Bridge in downtown Grand Forks.
The hanging of Thurber, who was Black, is believed to be among the first recorded lynchings in Dakota Territory. According to past Herald coverage, Thurber was arrested in an East Grand Forks hotel by a pair of Grand Forks police officers. A mob gathered and tried to take Thurber from his jail cell that evening. Police held the mob at bay for several hours, and it eventually dispersed before sunrise on Oct. 24.
But as Thurber was taken to the courthouse, a growing mob followed. One man held a rope. The crowd grew impatient, and especially when the presiding judge was late. The mob overtook police, grabbed Thurber and hanged him shortly thereafter. The rope they used was cut into pieces and sold.
Over the past two decades, several people have worked to commemorate the location with some sort of permanent plaque or marker. Their efforts deserve credit, since the community should always be reminded of this ugly stain on its history.
Unfortunately, the Herald played a sad role. The newspaper printed thousands of words about the incident over the course of two or three editions, and the headlines were nothing short of inflammatory and outright racist.
The n-word was used in the Herald’s stories and headlines; unfortunately, it was a practice of the day. But the coverage was so inappropriate that we’re saddened today that any newspaper did so much to stoke the racist firestorm. The language was so disturbing that the Herald this week chose not to republish those historic editions on its website.
The Herald printed more than 2,000 extra copies of its account of the killing, presumably earning extra revenue from the event.
So often, society excuses past racist behavior as a result of the times. The Herald’s coverage of the Thurber event went beyond the use of just words; it was incendiary, it excused the illegal acts of the mob and expressed satisfaction that Thurber was dead.
Today, the Herald apologizes for its role in the Charles Thurber saga.
Again, it’s possible Thurber was a bad person. Since we don’t know whether he was guilty or innocent, we hesitate to say we are commemorating Thurber. Instead, our goal is to tell the whole story for the sake of history.
Some day, maybe 100 or more years from now, someone will read this and better understand what happened. Our goal is to provide a more accurate account – one not darkened by the harsh filter of racism – than the embarrassing account provided by our predecessors.