Outcasts connect on Southern black campuses

Posted: January 13, 2013

Some escaped directly from Germany, thrown out of universities across the increasingly hostile country. Some fled previously safe confines of bourgeois homes and elite schools in Austria, fearful of what might happen during nights of torchlight and broken glass.

Thousands of Jewish scholars, barred from academic positions by Nazi decrees beginning in 1933, eventually made their way to the United States, where a small but significant number eventually found welcoming homes at historically black colleges.

"Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," which opens Tuesday at the National Museum of American Jewish History and continues through June 2, tells this little-known story of persecution, escape, and settlement in a land with its own brand of persecution and hooded torchlight gatherings.

The exhibition, curated by New York City's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, vividly illustrates powerful bonds that developed between white Jewish professors and African American students struggling to survive in the Jim Crow South.

Those bonds worked to change African American academic institutions across the region and strengthened the historic black-Jewish political alliance that played a critical role in the civil rights movement.

Most personally, the arrival of Jewish scholars profoundly changed individual lives of black and white Americans alike.

Donald Cunnigen, who studied sociology with Ernst Borinski at Mississippi's Tougaloo College and is now a professor himself at the University of Rhode Island, said he was continually challenged by Borinski.

"For people like myself, whom he considered as having potential, he had lofty expectations," Cunnigen said. "One of the things I got from Borinski was that I could do anything that I wanted to do, that I was a student comparable to any other student anywhere."

Cunnigen graduated cum laude from Tougaloo and went on to get his doctorate from Harvard University.

Borinski, who died in 1983 and whose grave marker on Tougaloo's campus says simply "Ernst Borinski Inspiring Teacher," studied law in Europe, served as a judge in the Netherlands, and expected to build his career as an educator in his German homeland. Instead, he fled in 1938, and showered his segregated students with seemingly limitless generosity and challenges.

"I had the feeling that I had a born talent to be a teacher," he once said. "If the Nazis had not come, it was my ambition to teach in one of the best law schools in Germany, not work as a lawyer, but teach law."

He arrived at Tougaloo in 1947, heading the sociology department, influencing countless lives, and working to break down the walls of Jim Crow.

"One of the things Borinski offered me intellectually was that he always had this critical view of society," Cunnigen once said. "His critical notion was that we can do a positive good in society."

Off campus, however, white authorities had a different view of Borinski. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, formed in the 1950s in an effort to maintain segregation, investigated his activities and concluded that the professor "fostered racial equality and integration of the races."

He was not the only German Jewish refugee to foster much-feared equality and integration. German-born mathematician Lore Rasmussen, who died in 2009, and her American husband, Donald Rasmussen, were vocal supporters of the civil rights movement while teaching at Talladega College in Alabama. As early as 1942, they ran afoul of Birmingham laws banning public racial mingling.

"Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow" includes $28 receipts for fines paid by the Rasmussens after their arrest for lunching with a black civil rights colleague at a black cafe. The act was deemed "incitement to riot."

Josh Perelman, the Philadelphia museum's director of exhibitions and collections, noted that many of the refugee scholars at historically black colleges viewed their campuses as islands where they could mingle freely with their students and colleagues.

"So they had this freedom and flexibility to live their lives as they chose within the campus environment," Perelman said. "But the surrounding community in many ways did not suppport the lifestyle that they were choosing, that equality of the relationship. Many of [the professors] talk about social ostracism, often verbal - people were very clear they did not approve."

"As soon as we left the Talladega campus we found a situation of extreme apartheid that appeared as an insanity to us," Donald Rasmussen once said. "We were in what we might call the best of America and the worst of America."

The exhibition tells the stories of the Rasmussens, Borinski, and many other professors and students with a wealth of documents, simple artifacts (a bracelet, a menorah), and photographs and art objects, including work by well-known muralist John Biggers, who studied with Austrian art educator Viktor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute and Pennsylvania State University.

The museum has scheduled a number of related programs, including "Dialogues & Divergences: The Ongoing Evolution of Black-Jewish Relations in America," a discussion jointly sponsored by the African American Museum in Philadelphia and moderated by Sara Lomax-Reese, president and general manager of WURD Radio. The discussion commences at 6 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Jewish history museum.

Related programs:
Information on various programs is at the museum's website, at www.nmajh.org.

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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