Bainbridge Island schoolteacher Warren Read sat down at his PC one evening to research his family tree. And what popped up on the screen...
Bainbridge Island schoolteacher Warren Read sat down at his PC one evening to research his family tree. And what popped up on the screen was a newspaper story screaming the ugliest of truths: On June 15, 1920, in Duluth, Minn., a mob pulled three black men from their jail cells, beat them and hanged them from a lamppost downtown. Among those responsible for the deaths: Read’s great-grandfather, local businessman Louis Dondino.
And what made the discovery even more horrifying was a photo taken of Duluthians standing proudly with the bodies of the men. Such was the norm back then, images of lynchings later turned into souvenir postcards.
Dondino is not seen in the photograph and it’s not known how close he might have stood to the scene. But he was one of three men held responsible for the lynch mob, sentenced to five years in jail.
Fast forward some 80 years, when Read, 40, uncovers his startling past. That he was connected to something so appalling leads him back to Duluth, to publicly apologize on behalf of his family.
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Now he’s written a book, the just-released, “The Lyncher In Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History” (Borealis Books; $24.95). It’s a powerful story not only about racial prejudice and mob violence, but how an individual faces all sorts of ugly truths and takes responsibility. Alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse also marred Read’s childhood and he chronicles that too.
The book’s preface quotes W.H. Auden: “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.”
Read took a break from teaching fourth grade at Capt. Charles Wilkes Elementary School last week to be interviewed.
Q: Did you know you had a book in you?
A: I had done some writing before. I had initially thought I would fictionalize the story but at some point I realized it would be ridiculous because there was enough that really needed to be told. And I realized it was also more than just the story that happened. It was my personal journey through it as well. That stemmed from people asking me, “Well, why would you go and apologize?” I hadn’t really thought about it. I thought it was just in my nature. And so it really just compelled a lot of this self-reflection and facing issues that I really hadn’t faced, which was surprising because I thought I had already dealt with that stuff.
Q: Did you figure out why you needed to make that public apology?
A: One of the things I realized is I have this need and this belief in taking responsibility. And my father [who was convicted of statutory rape of his stepdaughter, Read’s sister] and my stepfather never really did. [Read writes in his book that his stepfather physically abused him.]
When I initially wrote up the idea for the book it was more about the concept of apologizing. I looked up different examples when corporations had done it, or hospitals. I remember reading that this particular hospital had this policy about apologizing in malpractice situations and it was found that the hospital had substantially less payouts.
I was really struck by that and it [the initial book concept] was a lot more on the nature of apology but people kept asking, What is it about your nature that led you to this?
Q: Your great-grandfather would have been how old at the time of the lynching?
A: Around 39 or 40.
Q: Your age.
Q: So as you’re researching the past how did you handle learning about it?
A: What makes it surreal is that you’re reading this documented information and it’s your family member. For my mother it was a different experience because it was someone she knew and loved. For me, what kept coming to mind was my grandfather [Louis Dondino’s son]. Because he was 13 at the time and I’m thinking, here’s his father and he’s going to jail and I’m thinking about all the stuff that happened with my dad [who also went to prison and who Read visited in jail as a young boy]. Talk about parallels!
On the one hand I’m trying to understand the nature of mob violence and that’s a very detached way of looking at it. And on the other hand I’m trying not to allow any excuse for it. I’m reading through this and in my mind it’s barbaric, the actions of my great-grandfather.
Q: What was your great-grandfather’s role in the lynching?
A: I know that initially my great-grandfather was charged with first-degree murder but I have no real explanation as to what exactly brought about the charge. [He’d later be convicted on charges of inciting a riot.]
We know for sure he was driving the truck that was rounding people up. We know for sure he was there during the storming of the jail. That he kind of grabbed the fire hose. The fire truck had gone down there and the police were trying to use the hose to blast the mob back and the hose got away from them so members of the mob grabbed it back. I know my great-grandfather was there because there was testimony about it.
Q: Was the book motivated by you wanting to reconcile whether Dondino was a monster?
A: I wasn’t looking to see how bad a person he was. What struck me is that when we look at something like mob violence or murder it’s sometimes so much easier to look at it as black and white. That a person is either bad or good. But the reality is that they’re people just like you and me and they are uncles and grandparents and I think that it’s much more realistic and unsettling to realize that the concept of evil is in everyone. That it’s in the shades of gray within all of us.
Q: The book’s title has a double meaning and you acknowledge some of your own racial prejudices. That’s a rarely-heard admission.
A: I don’t want to make a blanket statement for everyone but most of us, I think, have prejudices that are ingrained in us that we’re not aware of. Some of it comes from life experiences and some of it comes from maybe negative interactions we’ve had with any group of people in our past. Some of it comes from the media.
The lyncher in me. It’s that piece of me that is too often willing to jump to a conclusion based upon an experience that really is prejudice. And prejudice simply means to prejudge something. And I think a lot of us have that and we’re not always willing to admit that because it’s uncomfortable.
Q: In that one chapter you talk about how you and your partner — two white men — move into Seattle’s Central Area and then you begin to curse your surroundings. And how you had an inclination to — but didn’t actually use — racial epithets about the drug dealers and the teenagers in their music-blaring cars.
A: I think I’ve always understood that we all have an impulse to paint any one group with a broad brush. Men will make a blanket statement about women. People will make a statement about gays. And I don’t think we always recognize that as being prejudiced, but it is. I think I’ve always been aware of that but for me to really sort of dig in and recognize it and place it upon myself was sort of a first.
It’s not something that I’m proud to admit and I don’t want it to come across as me being racist but I think part of it is really looking at the inherent racism that’s in society that really affects us all. And a lot of us who are progressive, liberal people might say, “Oh, I’m not prejudiced.” But I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of us really are and we try not to let it drive our actions but it taints us.
Q: The lynchings stemmed from false accusations by a white woman that she had been raped by a black circus worker. Does it surprise you that no one else has ever come forward to acknowledge their family’s participation in the lynchings?
A: I can’t criticize anyone else for not coming forward. I know one of the things that’s not in the book is that I was able to connect with a descendant of Irene Tusken [the girl who alleged rape] and for a while we talked and he was real supportive of what I was doing. At some point I thought we might be able to have a real conversation and I might be able to work it in [the book]. In the end I just stopped getting responses from him and I just let it go.
Q: You show us the ugliest of human behavior: included in the book is an image of the lynching postcard. You also write a bit about modern hate crimes: Matthew Shepard, James Byrd.
A: I remembered seeing the book “Without Sanctuary,” a collection showing all these postcards. I remember seeing that and thinking this is so voyeuristic and so inhuman. And I hadn’t really connected the concept of lynching to hate crimes. It was once I read the back story and the mentality [of mobs] that I connected to it and I thought it’s still alive and well.
Q: And your reaction to how that word — lynching — is used so casually these days?
A: Infuriating. We think of all this stuff in the past and I think people get real flippant about it and they don’t realize the pain that’s associated with it. I liken the comment — “I’m going to call for a lynching party” — to someone saying I’m going to corral him into a gas chamber, about someone Jewish. It would just be so ugly and yet the term “lynching party” is so blasé.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or email@example.com