I know the story. I taught the story. Or at least made sure my Intercultural Communication students were exposed to the story. In 1920, three black men, who were accused (falsely) of robbing and raping a teenage girl, were dragged from their cells at the downtown Duluth, MN jail and lynched. This was and still is a terrible and heart wrenching tragedy.
Fast-forward 93 years. Jebeh and I and a few other friends were out for ladies night at a downtown bar. An invite came to cross the street to another establishment with a unique cellar bar boasting old stone walls and a historic ambiance. That establishment had renovated the historic building connected to the old police station and jail. I didn’t think twice about the invite. Jebeh, however, said “I don’t want to go there.”
I felt terrible. Had I been insensitive? Was I a bad friend for not thinking of her feelings or perspective? Jebeh would say “no.” But the guilt was still there. That guilt. I’ll talk about it a lot. It can become consuming, overwhelming, and can cloud your rational thought process. My reaction didn’t make me a bad person, but when checked against Jebeh’s gave me an opportunity to grow, learn, and be a “better” friend. The point is she thought about it (the history, the story, the horror). Her gut said “no.” I didn’t think about it consciously, and even if I did my gut didn’t say “no.”
As a human, I question whether I should feel “okay” drinking and celebrating in a historical landmark that to Jebeh and many others has a connection to the events that transpired on June 15, 1920. I can’t imagine what that would feel like as a black American. But I can be open to asking. To talking. To learning from what Jebeh has to say if she is willing to share. I think that’s what makes us work so well – we are not afraid to share, to be honest in the moment, to acknowledge sometimes awkward situations, our own and our kids.
This led to a conversation about how they can honor the victims in that space. A plaque? An opportunity to learn? A space to acknowledge?
Who knows…But what we learned is that even things that seem inconsequential, like running across the street to a different bar, matter. They matter because we are the same and we are different. She is black. I am white. In that moment, that was my privilege; not having my gut say “no.” Not immediately remembering what those buildings had been or what they represent to many.