Levine’s ‘Beyond Swastika’ charts Jewish scholars’ years at HBCUs

They escaped from Nazi Germany only to discover a new form of persecution in the Jim Crow South, where they taught at black colleges and universities.

They were Jewish scholars and their little-known stories are told in an exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges.”

“They were the cream of German society, some of the most brilliant scholars of Europe,” says Emily Zimmern, president of the Levine. “They went to poorly funded black colleges but what they discovered were incredible students.”

One of the first pieces of Nazi legislation, in April 1933, excluded “non-Aryans” from civil service or academic positions in Germany. Some of the leading scholars were thrown out of work, including University of Hamburg law professor Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy, grandson of the famous composer.

Many tried to emigrate to the United States, then in the grip of the Great Depression. Feelings were strong against foreigners taking work that could go to unemployed Americans.

“It was a xenophobic time of economic distress,” Zimmern says. “People were worried about jobs.”

Jewish philanthropists underwrote the salaries of some of the well-established scholars at top universities. Those with lesser reputations found work as butlers or cooks. About 50 found work at Southern black colleges.

Scholars’ influence felt

One was the noted Greek philosophy expert Ernst Moritz Manasse, who found a teaching position at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham. Among his students was Julius Chambers, who went on to become a prominent Charlotte civil rights attorney.

Wade Kornegay, son of a tenant farmer from Mount Olive, was another of his students. Kornegay won a Fulbright scholarship and later became a leading expert on ballistic missile defense at MIT.

Manasse was not prepared for the rigid segregation in the South that his students faced.

“I came from a situation of forced segregation where we were victims, and now ... I belonged not to the oppressed, but to the oppressor. And that was very, very uncomfortable for me,” he later said.

Histories intertwined

Jeffrey Leak, director of the Center for the Study of the New South at UNC Charlotte, says the connection between blacks and Jews has a far more complex history than most people know.

In the civil rights era, for example, Jews were involved behind the scenes in activist groups like the NAACP and Urban League.

“For blacks that don’t want to hear or believe that we have a history tied to Jews and Jews who might want to believe the reverse, the history is just full of contradictions,” Leak says. “Like it or not, we’re all family in a way, especially in the South.”

Zimmern said that cultural dynamic between the Jewish professors and the black students proved transformational for both.

John Biggers of Gastonia had been studying to become a plumber when he was mentored by refugee professor Viktor Lowenfeld at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia in the 1940s. Lowenfeld ignited a love of art in Biggers, known for his narrative murals and for founding the art department at Texas Southern University.

“Viktor took us to the African museum and taught us the meaning of African art,” Biggers later wrote. “He was also interested in our inner feelings, what made us tick. We express the most meaningful things in art.”

Arrested for dining together

Donald Rasmussen, teaching at Talladega University, was fined $28 in 1942 for sitting with a black acquaintance at a Birmingham, Ala., cafe in violation of city code requiring patrons to be separated by race.

“As soon as we left the Talladega campus, we found a situation of extreme apartheid that appeared as insanity to us,” he later said. “We were in what we might call the best of America and the worst of America.”

Part of the exhibit deals with an encounter at Talladega, where Rasmussen’s children worked at the black-owned co-operative store.

He recalled: “Some of the local people asked, ‘Are these white boys?’ and somebody said, ‘No, these are Jew boys.’ And then, ‘What are Jews?’ “Well, they are some sort of colored folks.’ ”