The bronze figures of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, three black circus workers who were lynched the night of June 15, 1920.
CNN  — 

An African-American man convicted of alleged rape was granted a posthumous pardon Friday, nearly 100 years after angry mobs lynched three others arrested with him in Minnesota.

The killings in Duluth, far from the racial tensions that gripped the South at the time, sent shockwaves nationwide.

Max Mason was accused of raping Irene Tusken, a white woman, in the small city 160 miles from Minneapolis.

The incident started on June 15, 1920, when she alleged Mason and five other black circus workers held her at gunpoint and assaulted her. There was no evidence to support the claims, and a family doctor who examined her found no signs of rape or assault, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Duluth Police arrested Mason and five others in the case that was widely covered by local media. They held them at the police station, where the bloodthirsty crowd of thousands of people gathered outside on the night of their arrests.

Armed with bricks, rails and heavy timbers, they tore down doors and broke windows in the jail. They pulled all six black men from their cell and held a quick mock trial that declared three of them guilty. Despite pleas from some in the crowd, the three men – Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton – were dragged out of their cell, beaten and lynched.

“They met little resistance from the police, who had been ordered not to use their guns,” the historical society said.

The Minnesota National Guard later arrived and protected the three remaining suspects, including Mason.

The site of their deaths is now the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. It’s inscribed with the words of author Edmund Burke: “An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”

Outrage in the community

The local black community was outraged and demanded the killers be arrested and punished. Three were tried and sentenced to months in prison for rioting, but none of them got a murder conviction, the historical society said.

The other suspects in the rape were acquitted but Mason was convicted and sentenced to about 30 years in prison despite scant evidence. He started his sentence and was paroled in 1925, less than five years later, on condition that he leave the state.

Even then, many people believed the conviction was wrong, Ellison said.

Mason moved to Alabama, where he raised a family until his death, Ellison said. Horrified by the lynchings, many other black people fled the town. Others moved out-of-state.

“From 1920 to 1930, as Duluth grew overall by 2,000 persons, the city’s black population dropped 16 percent. Some moved to the Twin Cities, or places more distant, such as California,” the historical society said.

Tusken died in 1996, local media reported.

A posthumous call for a pardon

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he’s encouraged supporters to seek a posthumous pardon for Mason.

In a letter to Gov. Tim Walz this year, several pardon board members made a plea for the posthumous pardon and listed reasons why the Minnesota Board of Pardons should grant one.

 Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

“There are two strong reasons for the Minnesota Board of Pardons to issue this pardon extraordinaire,” it says. “First, there is strong consensus in the articles and books written about the Duluth lynchings that this conviction occurred because of Max Mason’s race,” it says.

It adds that authorities in the county in which Duluth is located also support a pardon.

“In his letter in support of the pardon, current St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin wrote, ‘The historical record clearly reflects that Mr. Mason was investigated, charged and convicted because of his race and not because of the strength and sufficiency of the evidence,’” the letter says. “He stated that this case would not have been charged today.”

The Board of Pardons met Friday to discuss the case. This was the first time a posthumous pardon has been granted in Minnesota.

“Justice delayed is justice denied … ,” Ellison tweeted. “The last weeks in Minnesota have shown us we have a need for a better quality of justice. A pardon for Max Mason is another long-delayed step toward it.”

CNN’s Raja Razek contributed to this report.