WHAT’S IN A NAME: BHS Media Center honors pioneering black lawyer – Bemidji Pioneer

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of 20 stories called “What’s in a Name?” completed by Pioneer journalists for our 2022 Annual Report. To learn more about the section, click the embed at the bottom of this article.

A plaque under a large painting of a man named Charles Scrutchin hangs in the media center at Bemidji High School, detailing the accomplishments and importance this man has played in local history.

The center got that name in 2018 after a student representative pitched the idea to school board members at a meeting in November 2017.

Scrutchin is known as Minnesota’s first black attorney to practice outside of the Twin Cities and arrived in Bemidji just two years after the village was incorporated in 1896 and quickly became one of its most prominent citizens.

Charles Scruchin.

Contributed

He was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1865 and his family lived in Georgia for a time before moving to Spokane, Washington where he graduated from high school and attended the University of Washington, graduating his degree in 1890.

After practicing law in Chicago for five years, Scrutchin moved to Minnesota and soon after came to Bemidji and established an independent law firm.

In 1899, he worked with several other prominent black leaders to draft Minnesota’s Constitutional Rights Act, which stated that no individual could be denied access or services in public places because of their race.

The law was signed by Governor John Lind in March.

In all of Minnesota, only six black men practiced law in 1900. When the Beltrami County Bar Association was formed in 1900, Scrutchin was immediately admitted.

In 1904, he held the highest degree of any barrister in Bemidji’s 11 law firms and became vice-president of the organization.

Plaque.jpg
A plaque commemorating Charles Scrutchin is on display at the Bemidji High School Media Center.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

He is perhaps best known for defending a black circus worker named William Miller who was accused of raping a white woman in Duluth in 1920.

His client was acquitted and charges against five other defendants in the case – all of whom were black – were eventually dismissed, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, but not before an angry mob broke into the jail of the city of Duluth and lynches three other blacks. men accused of the same crime.

The lynchings attracted national attention, and a grand jury investigation resulted in the passage of an anti-lynching law in April 1921.

Scrutchin returned to his practice in Bemidji after the affair and died in 1930. He is buried, with his wife, in Greenwood Cemetery.



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