Among the saddest ironies of the fading American election season is the arrival of Donald Trump in Washington as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski simultaneously slips into retirement.
Trump would have us ostracize immigrants wishing to join the American mainstream. He’s told us this repeatedly. Mikulski brought us a different message. She spent the past half-century as a champion of those who arrive here from distant shores hoping to be accepted.
As a young city councilwoman out of Southeast Baltimore’s melting pot, the Polish-American Mikulski shared crowded office space with the Italian-American Dominic “Mimi” DiPietro and the African-American Clarence “Du” Burns. Each of them knew the sting of bigotry in their lives and each rose above it, and their mutual embrace spread warmth across Baltimore.
As a young congresswoman, Mikulski wrote a memorable op-ed piece for The New York Times, “Who Speaks for Ethnic America?”
She wrote: “We came to America looking for political freedom and economic opportunity. Many fled from countries where there had been political, religious and cultural oppression for 1,000 years.
“Our names, language, food and cultural customs were the subject of ridicule. We were discriminated against by banks, institutions of higher learning and other organizations controlled by the Yankee patricians. … We called ourselves Americans. We were called ‘wop,’ ‘polack’ and ‘hunky.’”
Mikulski was writing about European ethnics, but the lesson remains the same for Muslims and Mexicans maligned by Trump as he divided the country during the past year. He understood the dark corners of the melting pot. In our anger and fears, we sometimes designate new arrivals not as individuals with dreams identical to our own, but as faceless masses to be suspected of dark motives.
Mikulski appealed to the better angels of our nature. Fifteen years ago, when I wrote a book called “Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore” about our racial and religious mix, she and I sat for a few hours at Jimmy’s Restaurant in Fells Point.
The place is owned by Nick Filipidis, of Greek descent. His kitchen help were mostly Latinos and blacks. Here came a Korean deliveryman in an Orioles cap. The customers, as always, ranged from neighborhood working-class people to political pros who drop in regularly because the place is a great cross-section of an American city.
Mikulski talked about her parents’ roots in Poland, and about aspects of the immigrant experience most of us overlook.
“Think of the melancholia of leaving a country and your family,” she said. “This is hard to imagine, at 16 years old, getting on a boat and saying goodbye, no matter how desperate or dangerous the situation.”
And then she got personal. This is not a woman easily given to public displays of grief, but here it was. She was in high school when her parents’ East Baltimore grocery store was destroyed by fire. It devastated the family.
“And there was Mr. Dopkin and the Joffe brothers,” she said, “these Jewish men who did business with my parents. I was there. It was 1954. I’m 18 years old, and Dopkin says, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And my father said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have money for this.’
“And Dopkin said, ‘Just don’t worry.’ Can you imagine that? He says, ‘Just don’t worry. We’ll give you credit. You’ll pay when you can.’”
More than a half-century later, sitting in the crowd at Jimmy’s, Mikulski took off her glasses and wept openly. This was trust across all lines, this was the American mix.
“These two men shook hands on it, that’s all it took,” she said. “Two mentsches.” Two honorable people. “What did we know? Those things counted. We were forever grateful. They were wholesale grocers, and they showed us they were friends.”
And that’s the legacy of Barbara Mikulski: reminding us, across the years, of the things that bind us whenever some would cynically divide us.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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