Shared history: Black colleges a haven for refugee scholars

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In Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, an exhibition, aptly opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, highlights a historical moment of mutual respect and cooperation between the African American and Jewish communities.

Although their relationship has often been tense, the hiring of Jewish refugee scholars in the 1930s by historically black colleges stands as a beacon to the potential for common ground between the two groups.

Ivy Barsky, executive director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, explains the museum’s goals in mounting the “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” traveling exhibit created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Ernst Borinski, a refugee from Germany, teaches a class at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1960. photo/courtesy of mississippi department of archives and history

“We wanted through this exhibition to really look at what happens when groups or individuals live together, understand each other and their histories, and come from a history of shared empathy and understanding — what happens when those relationships are shared and deep, real and authentic.”

In producing the exhibit and its attendant programs, Barsky and her staff collaborated closely with the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Patricia Wilson Aden, its interim president and CEO, notes that the subject matter — the little-known history of Jewish refugee academics from Germany and Austria who were given jobs and dignity by the historically black colleges — “provides an opportunity to delve into our mutual history.”

The exhibit grew out of a film that was motivated by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s book “From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges.” Filmmaker Steve Fischler learned of the book in a New York Times letter to the editor from refugee scholar John Herz, who referred to it during a period of overt discord between Jews and blacks. The film that Fischler produced with partner Joel Sucher was first aired by PBS in 2000. The two men actively helped to develop the exhibit.

During the interviewing process for the film, Fischler was particularly impressed with the mutual recognition by scholars and their students of their shared experiences of oppression. “You will see some of the students talking about how, when they learned about this history of their teachers, they felt simpatico in some ways. Having themselves been victims of racism, they saw the scholars being subjected to anti-Semitism and worse in Europe. They felt they were two exploited groups that did have something in common, and that bonded them together.”

These shared experiences contributed to strong connections between the Jewish refugee scholars and their college communities, but the reciprocal nature of their relationship also was noteworthy. “It was not one-sided,” says Barsky. “The colleges give these professors homes and communities, and the professors bring their talents, content knowledge and incredible teaching skills.”

In contrast to relationships during the civil rights era, the black colleges were the philanthropists, as it were, offering the highest form of tzedakah to the refugee scholars: a livelihood. “They are the ones doing the helping,” says Barsky, “and in a very real way these lives were saved.”

As young academics, the refugee scholars did not have established international reputations, and they could not get jobs in the white institutions of the Northeast. “They were here during the Depression, on tourist visas, afraid that if they didn’t get jobs they would get sent back,” says Fischler.

The scholars’ gratitude to these colleges was so strong that in some cases they never left, even in the face of offers from prestigious institutions.

The programming around the exhibit is  opening up possibilities for revisiting the current relationship between the Jewish and African American communities.

“People are absolutely hungry for this type of programming,” says Barsky, citing a conversation with Robert Jennings, president of Lincoln University, a local historic black college: “He says his students don’t know Jews, and what they perceive about Jews is not good, and our community desperately needs to have this conversation.”