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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Summer traveler visits issues - and another Duluth

Duluth News Tribune, Sept. 22, 2005.

Editor's note: The first day of fall is probably the last opportunity to report on what I did on my summer vacation. In no particular order...

DULUTH, Ga., Aug. 6 - The runaway bride is still running.

"She was here the other day at my store. This is her jogging path," says Elizabeth Clausse of Accessorize Again, waving carelessly out her Main Street shop door.

Clausse has lived in the bedroom community 30 miles from Atlanta for two years and has never heard of our Duluth, or the fact that hers is named for it. But since Jennifer Wilbanks skipped out on 600 wedding guests, hers has made the national map.

"People from New York say, 'Yeah, I know that place,' " Clausse says. Then she muses: "How come the guys don't run away? Oh, wait. They do that after the wedding."

Skittish betrotheds aside, a block away a stack of wedding guides sits on a shelf at the Duluth History Museum.

"That's not on purpose," volunteer Christine Forrester embarrassedly explains, saying they were there before Wilbanks' stunt.

Forrester, however, has not only heard of Duluth, Minn., but she's visited and works among artifacts exchanged by the cities: an Aerial Lift Bridge and cityscape quilt, a proclamation by then-Mayor Gary Doty and copies of "Duluth!" - the 1871 railroad bill speech by U.S. Rep. J. Proctor Knott. The cities were at either end of a 19th-century railroad, one changing its name from Howell's Crossing in honor of its northern sister, inspired by Knott's over-the-top speech.

"Duluth!"I read aloud with too much glee to my wife, Julia. "The word fell upon my ear with a peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses..."

Forrester has family in North Branch, Minn. "My cousin was looking at UMD. When I went to North Branch, I went to Duluth in 1995," she says, adding, predictably, "It was so cold!"

Back on Wilbanks' jogging path at Raven's Nest Artisans Marketplace, owner Terry Cochran has also been to the Zenith City of the Unsalted Sea.

Her Duluth, she says, "Grows on you ... like moss."

A freight train rumbles by but the passenger station is long gone. Cars are the primary mode of transportation and Cochran warns of speed traps.

"How do you think they paid for that new downtown?"

However they did, it's nicely done. I like this Duluth.

WINNIPEG, July 12 - If your name is Birkenstein, you're related to me, as well as to Rudolf Birkenstein Cohn, my third cousin once removed who found me on the Internet. Ours is the only family in the world with the name, and Cohn enlightens me with written records going back to the 1700s and oral history to the Inquisition when, as Spanish Jews, our ancestors fled for the German states.

My great-great-grandfather Sigmund Birkenstein came to the United States shortly before the Civil War and I have a fair knowledge of kin in this hemisphere. But I never knew of his brother, Eduard, who stayed behind, nor of Eduard's descendants.

Nor that some were lost in the Holocaust. I had thought my family had all long escaped - a belief that fostered, I'll admit, a false sense of superiority. Now I know those shameful thoughts have no basis. Some relatives did perish and Cohn's own father was among those swept up into Dachau in 1935. Miraculously, he got out two years later and hurried his family overseas. America wouldn't take them. Colombia did and Cohn grew up there.

Moving to Winnipeg 20 years ago and snowbirding in Costa Rica, he still has family documents emblazoned with swastikas. He also has a first-hand memory of "the monster." The Cohns' neighbor's brother was Hitler's chauffeur and the Fuhrer paraded through their town.

"My mom said, 'don't go,' " Cohn recalls in an account translated by his daughter, Ingrid. He and his brother ignored their mother.

"Hitler was there, greeting the people. (The neighbor) gave him her flowers. He was about 20 meters away. He looked at us for a moment but nothing happened."

When they returned, their mother was worried sick.
"She said, 'Did you go to see the monster? He is the cause of all the bad things happening to us, but you don't understand.' "

My cousin lived to tell that story. So many others did not.

PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 18 - I'm taking a break from the yearly gathering of the nation's editorial writers to visit my friend Kara Briggs, a Yakama journalist at the Oregonian. She's on medical leave, two days past a mastectomy. She's been chronicling her progress on the Indian Country Today Web site as one of the few Native American women who will speak about breast cancer. Her doctors had said her chemo had been effective, but she still wanted the mastectomy.

Good thing. The breast was still cancerous. But now it's gone and everything went well - though the free tummy tuck that came with the reconstructive surgery hurt like hell; people pay for that? she asks - and she looks complete, the same as before.

So we discuss other battles, such as the one against American Indian mascots she's written about forever. I wonder about one of our own; we have a town named Esko, I tell her, and -

"Eskomos," she guesses and laughs. Well, does cleverness trump offensiveness? And would it help if they had three guys named Mo there?

She's wondering if there's another way to convey the hurt of mascots to those for whom words and images do not carry the legacy of lynching or genocide. Maybe, I suggest, if black players on the Washington NFL franchise spoke up on behalf of their native brethren. She laughs again. Not likely. I agree.

Except later, I read Washington linebacker Ray Brown, who is black, has done exactly that. "I don't tell people I play for the Redskins," he told the Baltimore Sun. "I just tell them I play for the 'Skins ... I'm not saying everyone else should do it, but that's what I do."

The next day Portland is swarmed by runners in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure for breast cancer. Some crowd the light rail I take to the airport. I look at them a little differently now than in Boston a few years back, when the race was one of many clogging the streets on Sundays in September and October.

Similarly, Rabbi Amy Bernstein's concluding words at Duluth's Temple Israel services take on added meaning: "We say Kaddish for the 6 million lost in the Holocaust" - now includes some of my own.

And Duluth, Georgia? Well, it's not quite so profound, but I look at that differently as well. Sometimes, you just have to be in a place to appreciate it, before the summer ends.

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