Friday, April 24, 2009

Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow

It's a simple bracelet -- a string of white plastic beads. Every time Mary Etta Madison puts it on, she recalls her days as a young student at a black college in Alabama, and the German-Jewish professor who gave it to her as a gift 57 years ago. Mrs. Madison, 78, a retired school teacher, says the Talladega College professor, Lore Rasmussen, gave her the confidence to pursue her own teaching career.

"I felt very close to her through the years," Mrs. Madison says.
Friendships like these had a cost in the segregated South. One night in 1942, Prof. Rasmussen and her husband were arrested for dining with an African-American in a blacks-only cafe.

There wasn't just segregation that kept blacks apart from whites; it was illegal for the races to mix.

Two jail receipts for $28 each from that night, along with Mrs. Madison's bracelet and dozens of other artifacts, photographs, documents, and paintings are part of an exhibit set to open next week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York's Battery Park City. The exhibit illuminates a period during and after World War II when scores of German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany found havens teaching in small black colleges throughout the South.

The Jewish scholars who had fled the Nazis and the young black students facing the hardships of the segregated South forged bonds that in many cases lasted long after the students had graduated and the professors had left the South for other posts.
A bond forged out of being victims of hatred.

The exhibit, called "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," draws on a book of the same name published in 1993 by a German-Jewish refugee, Gabrielle Edgcomb, as well as on research by the museum. A documentary based on the book aired on PBS in 2000.
[Google Books shows: From swastika to Jim Crow : refugee scholars at Black colleges
By Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb.Edition: illustrated. Published by Krieger Pub. Co., 1993
Original from the University of Michigan.Digitized Nov 5, 2008
ISBN 089464775X, 9780894647758. 144 pages]

The exhibit includes a couple valuable artworks, such as "The Gleaners," a large canvas painted in 1943 by John Biggers, showing a group of African-American men and women foraging for coal on a railroad track. Mr. Biggers, a black painter, had an influential German-Jewish mentor, the art educator Viktor Lowenfeld, with whom he studied in the early 1940s at the Hampton Institute, a black college in Virginia.

HWPL owns two books on John Biggers:

Black art in Houston : the Texas Southern University experience : presenting the art of Biggers, Simms and their students. [ART] Q 700.8996 B
Biggers, John Thomas, 1924-
College Station : Texas A & M University Press, c1978. 106 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 29 cm.

The art of John Biggers : view from the upper room. [Art] Q 759.13 Biggers W
Wardlaw, Alvia J. Houston : Museum of Fine Arts, in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
184 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 29 cm.

A centerpiece of the exhibit chronicles the extraordinarily close bond forged by a former German-Jewish judge and professor, Ernst Borinski, with his students at Tougaloo College , a historic black college in Jackson, Miss. Dr. Borinski had worked as a magistrate in Germany, but fled in 1938. He joined Tougaloo as a sociology professor in 1947, and remained there until his death in 1983. One of his students was Donald Cunnigen, now a sociology professor at the University of Rhode Island. He recalls how Dr. Borinski once penned 27 letters of recommendation to help him obtain a place in a prestigious graduate program.

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