Jews and blacks, friends and foes Show reveals mixed feelings of the two groups

April 18, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Between 1882 and 1925 there were 3,783 lynchings in th United States. Following is an excerpt from an eyewitness account of a man burned alive in 1925:

"I stood in a crowd of 600 people. . . . I watched the blaze climb higher and higher, encircling him without mercy. I heard his cry of agony. . . . Soon he became quiet. There was no doubt that he was dead. An odor of burning flesh reached my nostrils. I felt suddenly sickened. . . . [T]he crowd walked away. . . . 'I'm hungry,' someone complained. 'Let's get something to eat.' "

While 95 percent of those lynched were black, there were exceptions. In 1915 Jewish merchant Leo Frank, accused of raping and murdering an employee, was lynched in Marietta, Ga. The Frank lynching was one incident that brought American Jews closer to African Americans in the fight against the forces of bigotry such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose Imperial Wizard William Simmons declared the Klan's opposition to "Koons, Kikes, Katholics, Reds."

At times it's not easy to take "Bridges and Boundaries," the exhibit on the history of relations between African Americans and American Jews that opens at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland and the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center today. Stopping here on a national tour, it originated at the Jewish Museum in New York and was organized by historian and curator Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, an African American. In a recent telephone interview from Cooperstown, N.Y., Ms. Sorin said she thinks it's the kind of exhibit too seldom done in this country.

"My feeling is that most history exhibitions in this country are about single groups -- African Americans, Asian Americans. But none of them exists in a vacuum. What this country is all about is this diversity of cultures coming together, the clash and the common ground."

At this moment in American history, there seems to be more reported about clashes than about common ground between African Americans and American Jews, especially in the wake of recent open conflict between the groups in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The exhibit reveals that, as Ms. Sorin says, "there have been some relationships [between the groups] during the entire 20th century, and they have always been characterized by conflict and cooperation."

Personal baggage

And also by deep personal feelings, which Ms. Sorin found everywhere bubbling to the surface in preparing the show. "We made an effort to bring as wide a range of scholars together as possible, and because this is such an emotional issue everyone told their own story -- 'When I was growing up I remember this,' 'My situation was this' -- even scholars expressed history as anecdotal, and it was very difficult to get beyond those anecdotal experiences and say, 'This is your personal baggage. What was it like in New York? Or Baltimore? How different was it if you were working-class or upper-class or middle-class, college-educated or not?'

"We realized at that point that viewers would also be bringing their personal baggage, and I think it's important to address up front that there is no truth. History is about a body of factual material, but it's also about perception, about who's telling the story, whether it's from an African-American middle-class woman's perspective or an upper-class male or a Communist in the 1930s working in the labor movement.

"We wanted to show people multiple voices so they might start trying to understand one another's point of view, and what it feels like to be marginalized. For instance, it's important for African Americans to understand that Jews are frightened of their position in American society, even though from the outside they have very successfully moved up."

The show begins with the common ground of two peoples whose history is one of enslavement and persecution. The Jews' history of enslavement in Egypt and the story of the Exodus has long been a powerful beacon to African Americans. This section, called "Let My People Go," includes pictures of African-American slaves, of Jewish victims of pogroms, of Jewish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, two extraordinary migrations took place, of Jews from Eastern Europe to America and of blacks from the south to the north. This, together with the early 20th-century increase of racism and anti-Semitism, led to cooperation in efforts to combat prejudice.

"Obstacle or Opportunity," the show's second section, explores both bigotry and the challenges to it. "We cater to white trade only," reads a 1938 sign in a window in Lancaster, Ohio. An early 20th-century flier from a hotel in the Adirondacks carries the legend "Applications from Hebrews not desired" along with "No dogs allowed."

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