From Swastika to Jim Crow

From Swastika to Jim Crow(2000) This Cinema Guild documentary tells the important, scarcely remembered, story of Jewish academicians, who fled the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany to establish a new life in the United States. A few of these scholars, such as Albert Einstein, were welcomed at America’s top academic institutions. Because of the Great Depression and anti-Semitism, most of these Jewish émigrés had scant professional opportunities. Some dozens found employment at black Southern colleges.

Escaping Nazi racial prejudice, these black college professors encountered southern Jim Crow racism in which they fit naturally in neither the white nor the black communities. Moreover, the authoritative German professorial tradition did not mesh comfortably with the more informal black campus style.

In a strange situation in a strange country, from the 1930s to the 1960s, these Jewish professors significantly strengthened the academic caliber of these black colleges. Moreover, their understanding of racial terror and oppression from a different perspective enabled many of them to relate personally with what their students were feeling.

During this period traditional black southern colleges provided the only realistic higher education opportunity for many African Americans. A high point of this excellent documentary, based on Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s From Swastika to Jim Crow, are the numerous interviews with black scholars and artists who benefited from their Jewish mentors. Frequently, the émigré professors encouraged students to strive and to obtain the unimaginable, from PhDs to Fulbright scholarships. Their gratitude and appreciation are a heartwarming tribute to these transplanted German scholars.

Being a white German Jew in Jim Crow America was often a difficult transition that they managed well. After World War II, the great majority of these professors, instead of returning to Europe, chose to remain as Americans in southern black colleges. They faced a major professional crisis as the civil rights movement, which they supported, moved into the Black Power and ‘blacks should identify with blacks’ era of the late 1960s.As Jews were being marginalized from the black civil rights movement, the appropriateness of white Jewish professors in black colleges was also increasingly being questioned.

The documentary does not dwell on what happened to some of these aging Jewish professors or whether Jewish professors today are welcomed in black colleges and universities. What is unmistakably clear is that, from the 1930s to the 1960s, this cadre of Jewish professors in southern black colleges made a major contribution in developing educated African Americans who formed an intellectual elite in latter 20th century America.

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