GRAND FORKS — Charles Thurber was reportedly near death when an angry mob of Grand Cities residents hanged him from a railroad bridge over the Red River.
Thurber, a Black man who had been accused of sexually assaulting two white women in nearby towns, was pulled from his jail cell and dragged to the bridge with a noose around his neck before he was killed on Oct. 24, 1882.
Now, as the United States debates which historical figures it should enshrine in its public spaces after the killing of another Black man at the hands of a white police officer, a handful of Grand Forks residents hope to erect an understated memorial to Thurber.
“I think in order to move forward in a healthy way as a community, we need to acknowledge our past fully,” said Maura Ferguson, a fair housing advocate and research assistant at UND who put together a GoFundMe page — a virtual pledge drive, in effect — to raise money for the memorial. “And that means recognizing that this occurred.”
The plan, Ferguson said, is to install a bronze plaque on the Grand Forks Greenway later this summer. The plaque would sit near the spot Thurber was killed — a still-standing railway bridge that sits south and east of the Sorlie Bridge. Susan Caraher, the preservation commission's coordinator, said they ordered the plaque on Thursday afternoon.
Ferguson is one member of an informal committee of people from the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, Greenway management staff and city government who have been working to get the plaque installed.
They aren’t the first group of people to push for a memorial for Thurber, but they appear to be the closest to actually making it happen thus far.
Some Grand Forks Central High School students acquired $500 from the Grand Forks City Council in early 1997, but the infamous flood that spring washed away those plans. Others have tried since then, and the plaque was approved by the Greenway Technical Committee in April 2018 but never built.
“It was approved by every body that needed (to approve it),” Ferguson said. “The only thing stopping it was finance, the funding.”
Ferguson created the GoFundMe page last week, and she said, it hit its $3,000 goal in 22 hours. People had pledged a total of $3,605 there as of Thursday afternoon, and Ferguson said a handful of people had donated money via other avenues.
She also stressed that the memorial is not intended to upstage or replace any other fixtures nearby.
“This is not competing with anything else,” Ferguson said. “This is something that we’ve been working on as a community for 23 years that we just need to finish.”
The plaque's inscription is set to read, in part: “Charles Thurber was not afforded due process of law and has been assumed to be guilty for all these years. Although life lost can never be replaced, it is fitting that this miscarriage of justice be acknowledged, and that Charles Thurber be accorded the dignity rightly belonging to all American citizens.”