How HBCUs and Jewish Scholars are Linked

How HBCUs and Jewish Scholars are Linked


By Bobbi Booker of the Philadelphia Tribune 

America’s Jewish and African-American communities have a shared history of collaboration around civil rights and advocacy on behalf of minority groups, but little is known about the remarkable story of interracial cooperation that took place in the 1930s at historically Black colleges and universities.

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges” tells that story in an exhibit through June 2 at The National Museum of American Jewish History, at 101 South Independence Mall East (at Fifth and Market streets). In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, NMAJH will be open and free to the public on Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” tells the story of Jewish academics from Germany and Austria who came to the U.S. after being dismissed from their teaching positions in the 1930s. Some found positions at historically Black colleges and universities in the Jim Crow South. “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” looks at the empathy between two minority groups with histories of persecution, some of whom came together in search of freedom and opportunity, and shared the early years of struggle in the Civil Rights Movement.

In early 1933, before the Nazis began dismissing Jews from their posts, more than 12 percent of faculty members at German universities were Jewish. While top academics like Albert Einstein were in demand at prestigious universities, lesser-known professors had a much more difficult time finding teaching positions in the United States. The country was still in a depression, and unemployment, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were prevalent. As anti-Jewish actions in Germany escalated, several organizations, including the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, worked to obtain positions for the exiled scholars. Of the several hundred refugee scholars who came to this country, more than 50 found positions at historically Black colleges. This exhibition presents a World War II-era refugee story many visitors may not be familiar with, and one that had a major impact on the small Southern communities whose stories it relates.

“You had the situation where you had highly trained experience professors in search of work and you have HBCUs in search of quality educators to serve their community, so it was kind of this serendipitous wonderful serendipity of the moment where this mutual need led to a really wonderful outcome,” explained Josh Perelman, NMAJH’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.

The exhibition includes two films from the producers of the award-winning PBS documentary, “From Swastika to Jim Crow,” which captures the voices of the scholars and their students. Over 70 evocative artifacts and documents, including the work of fine arts instructor Viktor Lowenfeld (“Slave With a Burden”) and his student John Biggers (“The Gleaners”), highlight the lasting relationships formed in these institutions and the instructors’ impact on their students’ work. The exhibition explores what it meant to students to have these new faculty members as part of their community, how the students were affected by their presence, and what life was like for white European Jews teaching at Black colleges and universities during World War II.

“I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to illustrate this uplifting example of the connection between the African-American and Jewish communities in this country,” said Ivy L. Barsky, museum director and CEO. “And it’s a story that most have never heard. As a result, the exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to build bridges in the community and collaborate with Philadelphia’s African American Museum and other colleague organizations, and tease out the stories of courage, of leadership and of the power of good mentoring relationships.”

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Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or