Two cultures' common struggle

April 25, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Artist John Biggers was studying to be a plumber when he took a night course on art taught by a German Jewish professor that changed both men's lives.

Another professor, Lore Rasmussen, took her students at Talladega College in Birmingham, Ala., cotton-picking so they could experience first-hand what their ancestors had endured.

And Albert Einstein was a frequent guest lecturer in physics at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, though he routinely turned down invitations to speak on the world's leading campuses.

Those are just three of the intriguing insights to be gleaned from "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," a traveling exhibit opening Sunday, April 23, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The exhibit, which contains more than 100 photos, texts and objects, traces the bond between German Jewish professors fleeing Nazi Germany and the African-American students they taught in historically black colleges and universities in the United States.

The exhibit is based on a 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb and a television documentary co-created by Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher that aired on PBS in 2000. The art exhibit originated last spring at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

"When I heard about the exhibit, I thought it made a lot of sense for us to have it here," says Michelle Joan Wilkinson, the Lewis' director of collections.

"It's such an important and little-known part of our past. Before I saw the documentary, I hadn't heard about this relationship. And if I, who have a Ph.D. in African-American cultural history, didn't know about it, how could the general public?"

The African-American and Jewish communities in the United States haven't always gotten along; In the 1990s, in particular, there were several intensely painful, racially charged encounters between the two groups. After one such incident — a 1994 speech disparaging the Holocaust made by former Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad at Howard University — a retired professor named John Herz wrote a letter to the editor published in The New York Times.

"He wrote that people forget that black intellectuals ‘lent a helping hand to immigrant Jewish refugees like me,' " recalls Fischler, who also served as a consultant for the art exhibit. "Both communities share a long history of oppression. We thought this was a really interesting and overlooked piece of history."

Fischler thinks the museum show and his film reach viewers in different ways.

"The one thing you can do in an exhibit that you can't do in a film is show people the actual artifacts," he says. "Objects have a tangible emotional power."

In the 1930s and 1940s, many German Jewish professors who lost their jobs after Adolf Hitler rose to power fled to the United States, only to encounter another wave of anti-Semitism in the Land of the Free.

The exhibit contains the heartbreaking reminiscence of one man who was told unofficially that his "non-Aryan" background prevented him from being hired in this country for a university position for which he was well-qualified. Another husband-and-wife couple, both professors in their native Germany, worked for the better part of a decade as domestic servants.

About 100 German Jewish intellectuals eventually found work teaching at historically black colleges in the South — jobs spurned by white, American-born educators. In later years, several refugee professors were offered positions at such influential institutions as Princeton University, only to turn down these prestigious plums and remain at the schools that initially welcomed them.

Other Jewish academics became active in the civil rights movement; Ernst Borinski, for instance, was branded as a "race agitator" by the state of Mississippi. Borinski instructed his African-American students to arrive early at the popular social science forums that he created and scatter themselves among the seats. White people arriving later were forced to sit next to a black pupil.

"One of the things that really amazed us was the depth of the bond between these teachers and their students," Fischler says. "Many of these relationships were very close."

So, for instance, Calvin Hernton, a poet who was on the faculty of Oberlin College, dedicated his 1966 book, "White Papers for White Americans," to his son and to Fritz Pappenheim, his German economics professor at Talladega College.

Joyce Ladner, a former interim president of Howard University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, visited the grave of Borinski, who taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and who was buried on the campus at his request.

And Biggers, who became a prominent painter, described Viktor Lowenfeld, the professor of his night art course, as a "magic" teacher who inspired his talented student to fall in love with art.

As Herz once wrote, "It was a great good luck of mine to find my first teaching job at a black university where I felt I had so much in common with teachers and students."

Mary.McCauley@BaltSun.com

"Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Universities" opens at 10 a.m. today and runs through Sept. 26. Admission costs $6-$8. Call 443-263-1800 or go to http://www.africanamericanculture.org.

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