The Uncomfortable Truths of Jewish Life in the U.S. South

A New Orleans museum that opened last month sheds light on surprising aspects of Jewish life in the 13 Southern states since the mid-1700s

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Albert Daube in Ardmore, Oklahoma, shortly after immigrating from Nazi Germany.
A Jewish man called Albert Daube is seen riding a horse in Ardmore, Oklahoma, shortly after immigrating from Nazi Germany.Credit: Collection of Catherine Kahn / MSJE
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

An advertisement in North Carolina’s Wilmington Journal in 1847 reveals a stain on local Jewish history. Ansley Davis, who came from Petersburg, Virginia, published the ad under the heading “Negroes Wanted.” The text stated: “I wish to purchase a large number of Negroes of both sexes, from the age of 14 to 30, for which I will pay the highest cash market price.” Davis, whose family owned one of the largest Jewish-run slave-trading companies in the entire South, would tour the region every summer seeking new slaves, which he later sold.

A newspaper ad published by a Jewish man in the 19th century, seeking African American slaves, 'from age 14 to 30.'Credit: MSJE

Davis was not the only Southern Jew who made a living in the slave trade prior to the Civil War. David Wise of New Orleans also put up slaves for sale at the time, working out of a depot on the city’s Baronne Street. “Has always on hand a large number of slaves, which will be sold for cash,” according to an ad that he placed in a paper. “A fine lot of young, likely, able-bodied negroes – girls and men – excellent field hands.” By the time the war broke out, New Orleans was the largest slave-trading city in the South.

The stories of Wise and Davis are presented on the website of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which opened in May in New Orleans. MSJE, as it is called, showcases the culture and heritage of the Jews who lived in the 13 southern states over a period spanning some three centuries: from colonial America through the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement and up to this day. Some 4,000 exhibits have been collected from Jewish communities and families in small towns, before they disappeared from the map.

The museum notes in one of its monthly newsletters, published online and as part of its website for two years already, that Jews in America today are distraught knowing that their brethren were among the slave owners and traders of the past – and it adds that it is not trying to prettify this history.

Southern Jews owned slaves in comparable numbers to their white non-Jewish neighbors; a few were active slave traders

Southern Jews owned slaves in comparable numbers to their white non-Jewish neighbors; a few, like Wise, were active slave traders. Such facts have been used – and widely exaggerated – by antisemites, but are among the uncomfortable truths of Southern Jewish history.

Another newspaper ad from the 19th century published by a Jewish man, seeking African American slaves.Credit: MSJE

But the general picture presented by MSJE’s website and its exhibits also reveals another, positive side, to Jewish life in the Southern United States. One of its heroes was Rabbi Israel Dresner, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., who was known as “America’s most arrested rabbi” during the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. On June 18, 1964, Dresner was among 16 rabbis arrested in St. Augustine, Florida.

The rabbi and his friends had come there following a request he received in a letter from King, who was jailed at the time after trying to order lunch at a local diner. After King was arrested, a group of Black and white activists jumped together into a pool at a nearby hotel, breaking the rules against racial segregation there. The hotel manager poured acid into the water to chase the swimmers out. A photograph of the incident, which was published around the world and appears on the museum website, became one of the symbols of the civil rights era.

KKK targets

Jews in the South suffered from more than arbitrary arrests during their centuries-long history; their lives were also threatened. In this context, MSJE displays an advertisement published in 1894 in which Jews were warned to leave Montgomery, Alabama and told that if they did not, they would pay the consequences. The threat was directed at the city’s Levine and Sons, and Rosenberg Brothers business enterprises, among others, and came from various local extremists, among them the Ku Klux Klan, who saw Jews as another target of the violent struggle they waged first and foremost against Blacks.

In some cases, the threats were carried out. For example, in Florida explosive devices were found near a number of important Jewish community centers and synagogues during the 1950s, including Temple Israel in Miami. The devices in that instance did not detonate and were found by passing schoolchildren who reported them to the police. In Jackson, Mississippi, on September 18, 1967, Congregation Beth Israel was bombed by local KKK members. The home of the congregation’s rabbi, Perry Nussbaum, a supporter of integration and equal rights for Blacks, was bombed.

In some instances, antisemitism emanated directly from the government. In 1862, during the Civil War, an order was issued by Ulysses S. Grant – who would become president nine years later – evicting all Jews from the general’s military district, comprising parts of Tennessee. (The directive was subsequently cancelled by President Abraham Lincoln, after Jews protested.)

In an effort to show other sides of the coin of Jewish history in the South, MSJE, whose staff also engages in research, tells the story of Jews who attained high offices in many cities throughout that region. According to data the museum collected, there have been some 200 Jewish mayors of Southern locales. The first was Mordechai H. DeLeon, who was appointed mayor of Columbia, South Carolina in 1833. Some cities had more than one Jewish mayor: Georgetown, South Carolina held the record with no fewer than seven Jewish mayors. Selma, Alabama and El Paso, Texas also had a number of Jewish mayors.

A photo showing the participants of the eighth annual Southern Interstate Young Judean convention, in 1927.Credit: MSJE

One of the Jews who held office in the South was Judah Benjamin, who was appointed the Confederacy’s secretary of war and secretary of state in 1861. According to the museum, more than 2,000 Jews fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side.
Another military-related story highlighted at MSJE – this one from the time of the founding of the United States – is that of Mordechai Sheftall. Born in Savanah, Georgia in 1735, two years after his parents immigrated there from England, Sheftall served in the Continental Army that fought the British, reaching the rank of colonel, the highest rank awarded to a Jewish officer at the time. The museum exhibit describes how he personally fought for his city and was arrested by British troops. He was served pork, which he refused to touch, and as punishment the British smeared his cutlery with pig fat so he could not eat anything else.

Alligator-skin goods

Some exhibits at the New Orleans museum are of a more pedestrian nature. One figure highlighted is that of Jewish manufacturer Brown & Hyams, which sold alligator-skin boots in Charleston, South Carolina, according to an ad in a local newspaper in 1862. The museum explains that Jewish merchants at the time apparently had no qualms about selling goods made from the skins of non-kosher animals. There were also Jewish businessmen involved in selling more typical products for the use of their community. Among them was B. Schur, who made Passover matzoh in Charleston and published an ad in a paper there urging customers to get their orders in early.

Also on show at MSJE is an ad from the April 16, 1785 edition of the Virginia Gazette, for Issacs & Cohen – also known as “the Jewish store” – which sold clothes imported from Europe. In one of its newsletters, the museum humorously described the available means of payment during that era: “They didn’t take credit cards, PayPal, Venmo, or Bitcoin, but you could pay with ‘Cash, Continental money, Continental Loan Office Certificates, Tobacco, Flour, Wheat, Hemp, and all kind of public Securities.’”

Other exhibits feature a wedding dress worn by Berta Hirsch of New Orleans in 1885; a bell from around 1900 owned by the Blechers, a Jewish farming family in Louisiana; and a sign from a Jewish-owned hotel in Arkansas, where Jews owned and ran such businesses as well as restaurants. The Knickerbocker Hotel, built in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the early 20th century, was marketed as the only modern kosher hotel in the city. The sign on the hotel features a Star of David and the word “kosher” in Hebrew.

Jews in the South suffered from more than arbitrary arrests during their centuries-long history; their lives were also threatened

Another object on display at the museum is a wooden leg that belonged to one Fred Galanty, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who ran a men’s wear store in the city of Lake Providence, Louisiana from 1896 to 1939. In 1929 he was run over by a wagon and injured; after that he served his customers while wearing a wooden prosthesis.

MSJE has also documented Jewish cemeteries throughout the American South, in an effort to shed more light on the history of its communities. Some of the stories it presents are difficult. For example, that of Rosalie Beekman, age 7, who was killed in an assault by the Union Army on the city of Nachez, Mississippi in 1862. Rosalie’s parting words after the city was bombarded, became quite famous. She was quoted as saying, after her father urged her to get up despite her serious injury: “I can’t Papa, I’m killed.” (She was the only fatality.)

Jewish women also have pride of place in the museum’s collection. One is Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, born in 1823, from Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Jacob Levy, was a successful businessman. Her husband, Thomas Pember, was not Jewish, and died shortly after their marriage.

She subsequently accepted an invitation from her friend, the wife of Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph, to become an administrator at Chimborago Hospital, outside Richmond, Virginia. There she supervised the nursing staff taking care of over 15,000 wounded and sick Confederate soldiers for a number of years, up until 1865. Jumping ahead to more contemporary times, another star in the MSJE exhibition is singer, actress and popular TV personality Dina Shore. She was born in 1916 in Tennessee to Jewish shopkeepers who had emigrated from Russia, and her career spanned four decades, until her death in 1994.

The museum also devotes special attention to Jewish athletes. The real pride of the South in this category is William Scott Goldberg, a professional wrestler and WWE’s 1998 Rookie of the Year, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966 to Ethel, a classical violinist, and Jed, a gynecologist. Even today he still a star in the ring. Last year, when asked about his Jewish origins in an interview, he said: “It’s an honor and a privilege for me to be put in that category. Usually when you go out there you fight for yourself, but I felt anytime I got in the square circle I was fighting for all the Jewish people.”

The exhibit describes how Sheftall personally fought for his city and was arrested by British troops. He was served pork, which he refused to touch, and as punishment the British smeared his cutlery with pig fat so he could not eat anything else.

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