Parallels between Jewish and African-American communities' quest for civil rights have sparked debate and empathy for ages. But while the two groups' shared history is well-known, little has been told of one specific period of collaboration--when Jewish professors exiled from Nazi Germany found a home and an audience at historically black colleges and universities across the U.S.
It's a collaboration examined in the National Museum of American Jewish History’s exhibition, "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars At Black Colleges." The collection of items, which went on display Tuesday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, tells the story of Jewish academics from Germany and Austria who, amid a depression, xenophobia and rising antisemitism, were dismissed from their teaching positions in the 1930s and forced to take jobs at HBCUs.
According to the exhibiton's curators, those who found work at black colleges were often more comfortable in the black environment than their peers at white universities who faced prejudice at their jobs. Many went on to fight in the Civil Rights movement, both officially or unofficially, including Tougaloo University professor Ernst Borinski, who is said to have organized a series of lectures and discussions designed to engage blacks and whites in substantive conversation, many for the first time.
“In our memory, when we think about the relationship between Blacks and Jews, our minds tend to go straight to the Civil Rights movement after the war,” Josh Perelman, chief curator of the museum on Independence Mall, told CBS Philly. “What this exhibition does is help push this history back. And even though the relationship is much longer than even the 20th century, it illuminates how the bonds between these communities were forged over time.”
"Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow" runs through June of this year. Check out a sample of the exhibition's more than 120 artifacts below.
Donald Cunnigen’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity sweater from Tougaloo College, ca. 1970–1974
Donald Cunnigen was a member of a black fraternity during his time at Tougaloo. Social life at a black college was similar to student life at white colleges and universities. Dr. Cunnigen followed in Prof. Borinski’s footsteps and became a sociologist.
Civil Rights pin belonging to Joyce Ladner
Joyce Ladner, a student of Prof. Borinski, was active in student civil rights organizations, such as SNCC and CORE. She went on to get her Ph.D. in Sociology, and became the first woman president of Howard University.
Professor Ernst Borinski’s menorah
Prof. Borinski kept his personal life and identity private, "for his own mental health," but towards the end of his life "he drew closer to the Jewish community."