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WHAT'S IN A NAME: BHS media center honors pioneering Black lawyer

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

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A portrait of Charles Scrutchin by area artist Alice Blessing is on display at the Bemidji High School. The school’s media center was named after Scrutchin in 2018.
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Editor's note: This is part of a 20-story series titled "What's in a name?" completed by Pioneer reporters for our 2022 Annual Report. Read more of the section by clicking the embed at the bottom of this article.

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

The center came to bear this name in 2018 after a student representative presented the idea to school board members during a meeting in November 2017.

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

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

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After practicing law in Chicago for five years, Scrutchin moved to Minnesota and shortly thereafter came to Bemidji and established an independent law practice.

In 1899, he worked with several other prominent Black leaders to author Minnesota’s constitutional rights law, which said no individual could be denied access or services in public places based on race.

The law was signed by Gov. John Lind that 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.

By 1904, he held the highest degree of any lawyer in Bemidji’s 11 law offices and became vice president of the organization.

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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 ultimately dismissed, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, but not before an angry mob forced its way into the Duluth city jail and lynched three more Black men accused of the same crime.

The lynchings drew national attention and a grand jury investigation which resulted in an anti-lynching law being passed in April 1921.

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

Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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