From the corner of my eye, I saw Grandpa lean forward in his chair.
“What you got there?” he asked.
I had been studying the picture for probably five minutes, without saying a word.
“Nothing, Grandpa,” I said, without thinking.
“Don’t lie to me, young lady. I see you have something. Show it to me.”
“Sorry, Grandpa,” I said.
I slowly handed him the ragged photo postcard, not looking at him. I knew better than to lie to him. Grandpa Bill was 88 years old but, as he liked to say, he wasn’t “feeble.” He had been living with us for a few months now, because it had gotten hard for him to get around by himself, but his mind was as clear as it ever was. He had always been a thin man, but now he seemed smaller, as if he had shrunk somehow. He had thick gray hair, and bright blue eyes, which sparkled when he smiled.
I spent afternoons after school with him, while Mom was at work. Most of the time I would rather have been with my friends, but not today. We’d been going through his box of old photos together. They were old family photos, mostly, and didn’t hold my interest for long. But, this photo postcard shocked me out of my boredom in a hurry. It was a dark souvenir of something you’d wish not to remember.
Grandpa drew in his breath as he studied the old photo postcard. Almost to himself, he said, “I’m sorry you had to see this.”
I moved from the floor where I had been sitting at his feet, to sit next to him on the sofa.
“I was just a boy then. It was June,1919.” He sighed. “My birthday is in June you know, and this happened close to my birthday.” He tapped the photo with his forefinger.
“This is my father, your great-grandfather.” He was pointing to a man fourth from the left.
I felt sick inside. This man, standing near three corpses, smiling at the camera, was my great-grandfather?
The photograph was of a crowd of white men clustered around the lynched bodies of two black men. They had been hanged on a lamp post. There was another dead man, also black, on the ground at their feet. The crowd around the dead men looked proud of themselves. They were smiling.
“The circus had come to town, and I was so excited”, Grandpa said. “My mom and dad took us kids to see the show at the fairgrounds, just outside of town. I was only five then, and this was the first circus I ever saw. My mom never took us to one again. It wasn’t until I had kids that I went back to one. You ever been to a circus, Karen?”
“No, Grandpa. They’re not as popular as they used to be, you know. Animal rights, and all that.”
“Too bad. Everyone should see a circus. It was the first time I ever had cotton candy, and I was mad because I had to share it with my sister. I also remember that my mom, your great-grandmother, was upset that night. I thought it was my fault because I didn’t want to share. You know how kids think everything is their fault.”
I laughed. I remembered the time I thought my Mom was mad at me for breaking a plate when I washed the dishes. She had started to cry. I felt so bad, I ran to my room to hide. Later that night I learned that she had been crying about the bills, and the dish really didn’t mean anything to her.
He paused, rocking in his chair.
“ My dad went out the next night, which was unusual. He worked hard, and was always tired when he got home. He hardly ever went back out after a long day’s work. When he came home really late that night, he and Mom had a big argument. I can still hear her crying through the bedroom wall. It scared me to listen to them.”
“ It wasn’t until years later that I put all the pieces together. I was a teenager when I saw this picture postcard for the first time, and realized it was taken the night after the circus, when Dad went out alone. I hid the postcard in my trunk. I tried to bury the past, but you can’t do that. It always comes back to you, demanding an explanation.”
“Can I have this, Grandpa? I’d like to take it to my history teacher, and ask her what she knows about it.”
“Sure, child. We need answers.We need to know the truth. My memories of all those years ago are not enough.” Grandpa leaned back in his chair, as if all this had tired him out.
Ms. McAllister was a big help. She had seen the postcard before, in a book about lynching in America. This had happened in my town, Duluth, in 1919. I couldn’t believe this kind of thing was here, in Minnesota. I always thought it happened somewhere far away. Then I learned that the lamp post was still at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue, and every year, on June 15, people gathered to honor the lives of the murdered men.
I rushed home that afternoon to share what I”d learned with Grandpa. We made plans to attend the memorial together. I went to the library, and learned the names of the dead men in the photograph: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. I made a promise to them that they would not be forgotten.
It was a sunny afternoon that June 15. Grandpa and I joined a small gathering standing silently around the lamp post. I felt, and I think Grandpa did too, that our presence here helped erase my great-grandfather’s part in this tragedy. We had redefined our family’s history. We all held hands, closed our eyes, and promised to work to erase prejudice from this country.
Grandpa leaned in to speak into my ear.
“My mother used to say, Karen, that there is no place for hatred in our hearts. She was right then, and her words ring true today, don’t you think?”
I felt the spirits of Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton, and Elmer Jackson with us that day, and knew they would be pleased with our promises.