Saturday, September 12, 2009

German Refugees at Historically Black Colleges: "Beyond Swastika to Jim Crow"

There is a great temporary exhibit showing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan from now until January. "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges" tells the interesting story of German Jewish refugee scholars who found positions at historically black colleges in the U.S. South. The exhibit borrows its name (and materials) from the 1993 book From Swastika to Jim Crow by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb and the related PBS documentary by Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler. Here is the museum's overview of the exhibit:

By the time World War II began on September 1, 1939, Germany had purged itself of its Jewish professors, scientists, and scholars. Some of these academics, deprived of their livelihoods by the Nazis, found refuge in the United States. But in this new world, they faced an uncertain future.

A few dozen refugee scholars unexpectedly found positions in historically black colleges in the American South. There, as recent escapees from persecution in Nazi Germany, they came face to face with the absurdities of a rigidly segregated Jim Crow society. In their new positions, they met, taught, and interacted with students who had grown up in, and struggled with, this racist environment.

The exhibit draws the obvious parallels between the German anti-Jewish laws and the social, legal and political segregation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the United States. The exhibit highlights some of the refugee-scholars' early acts of civil disobedience (before it was even called "civil disobedience") in solidarity with their students.

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