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From Swastika to Jim Crow

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Racism in Europe and the U.S. Pages: 1 | 2

jewish emigration map
Map courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

From Swastika to Jim Crow
The Jewish refugees of the early 1930s arrived in a country rife with conflict but ripe for change. Activities of civil rights organizations just before World War II gave rise to a tide of opposition across the nation. Public opinion may have been influenced by the paradox of a nation urging war for democracy overseas while at the same time tolerating discrimination at home.

John Biggers in art class
John Biggers while student at Hampton Institute

Fleeing horrible persecution at home only to encounter plenty of anti-Semitism and anti-foreigner sentiment abroad, German-Jewish refugee scholars were in many ways condemned to a "double exile" experience. Opportunities were scarce, especially in academia, and more so for foreign Jews.

Administrators at Black colleges in the South saw in these immigrants, prominent scholars who might share a unique understanding of oppression with their Black students. These historically Black private institutions offered students a rare opportunity for educational advancement and - because they were exempt from local segregation laws - a unique sense of freedom. On campus, Blacks and Whites associated freely and an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students was encouraged. Fifty-one refugee professors found positions at 19 different institutions.

From the start, Southern Whites in the segregated communities surrounding these academic havens looked suspiciously upon their new neighbors. Close relationships between the refugee professors and their Black students only added fuel to the fire. Faculty who attempted to eat meals with students in town or invited students to their homes were often harassed, threatened, or accused of being German spies. Off-campus, professors could be arrested for fraternizing with Blacks in public restaurants because this was interpreted as "incitement to riot," a violation of the still-effective Jim Crow Laws.

I came from a situation of forced segregation [in Germany] where we were victims and now suddenly I was on the other side. I belonged not to the oppressed, but to the oppressor. And that was very, very uncomfortable for me."
- Ernst Manasse, professor at North Carolina Central University, 1939-1973


The irony did not escape the immigrant scholars. Talledega College teacher Lore Rasmussen recounted, "When they found out that I had escaped the Nazis and I was a refugee, they said, 'Well, you should be glad to be in a place where there is democracy and freedom.'"

Despite their different histories, the Jewish refugees and their Black students understood racial tension and oppression. This common understanding and mutual respect could well serve Jewish-Black relations today.

There is a history, there is a kinship, and it goes beyond the rhetoric. Look, there's never going to be a crisis in Irish-Black relations or Italian-Black relations, because they have no relations. But we do.
- Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League


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