In 1930s, Blacks Told Jews: 'We Shall Overcome'

During World War II, many Jewish academics who fled Europe found safe haven in the ivory towers of the South's black colleges.

The righteous gentiles who sheltered and saved Jews during the Holocaust were not just white Europeans. Thirty years before Jewish students were marching alongside blacks in the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, black communities in the South provided a safe haven to dozens of young Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria.

Now the story of these Jewish refugees, taken in by black communities in the segregated South, is being told. A special exhibition titled "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars in Black Colleges," is making the rounds of museums across the United States.

"It's an incredible story of African-Americans helping save Jews," says Ivy Barsky, director of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where the exhibit will arrive on January 13 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "These were not big names, like Albert Einstein, who were able to find jobs at the elite universities, but mainly newly minted PhDs who had nowhere else to go."

Of the several hundred Jewish scholars who fled Germany and Austria in the 1930s following the Nazi rise to power, more than 50 found refuge at historically black colleges in the South. But their plight didn't end at the ivory tower: They had escaped one form of persecution only to come face to face with another.

The U.S. academic world in the 1930s was rife with anti-Semitism, and a shortage of academic jobs brought on by the Great Depression didn't help. Across the elite institutions of higher education in America, Jews did not receive a warm welcome.

The exhibit, which includes two PBS documentaries devoted to the subject as well as more than 70 artifacts, documents the unusual bonds formed between these Jewish refugee scholars and their black students.

One such refugee was Viktor Lowenfeld, who found a position at the Hampton Institute in Virginia after fleeing Vienna in November 1938. He eventually went on to become an international name in art education. Lowenfeld, who died in 1960, had a profound impact on the artistic development of the renowned African-American muralist John Biggers, who was perhaps his best-known student.

Lowenfeld's son, John Lowenfeld, is now 81. He says his father was naturally drawn to a teaching position at a black college. "My father was very sensitive to irrational persecution," he says.

Isaac Byrd, today a lawyer in Jackson, Miss., was as a student mentored by Ernst Borinski, a German-Jewish sociologist who taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Borinski found a passion at Tougaloo, staying on as a professor there until his death in 1983.

"It was one of America's most oppressive states at the time," Byrd says of World War II-era Mississippi. "But Professor Borinski dedicated his life to making ours better, so you could say that both sides benefited from this relationship. He pushed me into law school, he gave me books to read, and he had a tremendous impact on my life. "

Borinski had been a judge in Germany before feeling Europe. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh before heading down to Mississippi, where he dared to defy segregation laws by instituting "social science forums" that brought Tougaloo's black students together with members of nearby white communities.

Marvin Hoffman and his wife Rosellen Brown were two other Jewish academics who joined the Tougaloo faculty in the 1960s and became close friends with Borinski. "This was a time when if blacks and whites were meeting at someone's home, you had to pull down the shades," recalls Brown.

Hoffman adds that Borinski often played the foreigner card, feigning naiveté in order to get away with acts that were considered subversive. "In fact, we had a feeling that he retained his German accent for that reason," says Hoffman.

Borinski, who is buried on the Tougaloo campus, also gained a reputation for getting his students into some of the best graduate programs in the country. Donald Cunnigen studied under Borinski and was his research assistant for four years. Today, after completing his doctorate at Harvard, he is a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island and a specialist on race relations.

"I'd sit at the typewriter, and he'd dictate these letters to people around the country and sometimes even overseas, challenging their ideas," recounts Cunnigen. "I'd never met anyone like that before who spent his life engaged in intellectual discourse."

The most prominent student to emerge from Borinski's classroom was undoubtedly Joyce Ladner, a well-known civil rights activist who went on to become the first woman president of Howard University, one of the most prestigious black colleges in America.

For many of the black students mentored by these refugees, these were their first encounters with anyone Jewish. Cunnigen recalls that in the small town where he grew up in Mississippi, the conventional wisdom among his peers was that Jews were black. "My classmates in high school couldn't imagine there could be people so oppressed who were white, so they just assumed that Jews were black. And that was another important role Borinski played for us -- he was our conduit into the Jewish experience."