Of Blacks and Jewish Scholars: Looking Back at a Joint History


Just in time for Martin Luther King Jr Day, a little-known chapter of 20th century Jewish history is receiving some much-deserved attention in a new exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History: “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges." 

A visitor wandering through the well-kept, Spanish moss-draped grounds of Tougaloo Memorial Gardens Cemetery, located on the campus of Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, Miss., could be excused for feeling a sense of cognitive dissonance upon seeing the grave of Ernst Borinski. 

Borinski, a Jewish professor who fled Nazi Germany and wound up teaching for almost five decades at Tougaloo, is part of a little known chapter of 20th century Jewish history that is about to receive some much-deserved attention in a new exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” opened Jan. 15, purposefully timed in advance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Inspired by the 2000 documentary, From Swastika to Jim Crow (which itself was inspired in part by the 1993 book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb), the show tells the story of the Jewish academics who were forced to leave their positions in Germany by the 1933 legislation that barred “non-Aryans” from all civil service positions, including those in academia. Faced with the loss of their livelihoods as well as an ominous future under the Nazis, many German academics chose to immigrate to the United States.

Once here, “the Hannah Arendts and Albert Einsteins found it easy to get jobs at major universities” but “other folks early in their careers found it much harder” to land positions at American institutions, explains Steven Fischler, the producer of the documentary who also came up with the idea for the exhibition, which originated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York in 2009.

Although Jewish-American organizations like the New York-based Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars worked assiduously to find the immigrants employment, there were few openings. The country was still deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to come by for United States citizens, to say nothing of how institutional anti-Semitism worked against Jews.

However, there was one group of schools that was willing to offer employment: historically black colleges like Tougaloo, Howard, Clark and others. “The black colleges were aware that they were refugees,” Fischler emphasizes. “They deserve a lot of credit for reaching out and bringing them to their campuses.” 

To Josh Perelman, the chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of American Jewish History, what happened next was “the beauty of serendipity. You had these refugees in search of home, safety and work, and you had these historically black colleges, which could not tap into the traditional white establishment of academia but which were hungry for well-trained teachers, regardless of their skin color.” 

Perelman begins the exhibit with a stark reminder of just what faced both the black Americans and the Jewish professors on a daily basis in the American South of the 1930s — a mannequin in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. “I wanted a very strong piece to dramatically establish the situation in the Jim Crow South,” he says.

Begun during Reconstruction and continuing unabated until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Jim Crow laws (named after one of the first and most popular 19th-century minstrel song-and-dance hits, “Jump Jim Crow”) were enacted and enforced by local and state authorities to ensure segregation in virtually every aspect of life in the South. As a 1936 editorial in the Afro-American newspaper put it, “Our constitution keeps the South from passing many of the laws Hitler has invoked against the Jews, but by indirection, by force and terrorism, the South and Nazi Germany are mental brothers.” 

The professors were not only exposed to this racism; they were subjected to it as well. Fischler recounts the story of Ernst Manasse, a professor of German, Latin and philosophy at what is now North Carolina Central University. One day, he invited his students to come back to his house after class to continue the day’s discussion. “Afterwards,” Fischler says, “Manasse’s white neighbors told him that if he ever invited his students over again, they would shoot them.”

The exhibition features rooms of artifacts, documents and multimedia displays that help shed light on the time and the people, including works of art both by Viktor Lowenfeld, a professor of art at Hampton Institute in Virginia who wrote the influential art-education book,  Creative and Mental Growth, and his most famous pupil, John T. Biggers. Biggers attended Hampton to learn plumbing. With Kornfeld’s tutelage and friendship, he became a muralist whose works are in the collections of major art institutions.

Get With the Programs

Throughout January and February, The National Museum of American Jewish History will host numerous events in conjunction with the exhibition, including:

Jan. 21: In honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, the museum will open its doors to the public for free. There will be an art project conducted in collaboration with Fleisher Art Memorial and Amber Art Collective, as well as showings of the documentary From Swastika to Jim Crow that will be followed by a talkback with producer Steven Fischler.

Feb. 20: As part of the museum’s continued emphasis on outreach to the greater community, it has partnered with the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Jewish studies program at the University of Pennsylvania to present a conversation between Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College and author of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century, and John L. Jackson Jr., professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the upcoming book Black Judah: Race, Gender and the Twelve Tribes of Transnationalism. They will be discussing the topic of the past, present and future of black-Jewish relations in America. Sara Lomax-Reese, the president and general manager of WURD Radio, a sponsor of the exhibition, will moderate.

To see the full schedule of events related to the exhibition, which runs Jan. 15 to June 2, go to: www.nmajh.org.


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