April 2018 – Nearly 1,200 Jewish academics came to the United States—many penniless and without fluency in English—after they were expelled from Nazi Germany in the early 1930’s. About 50 landed at black colleges in the segregated South—places like Talledega College in Alabama and Tougaloo College in Mississippi—helping to educate generations of studentsThe scholars’ “double exile” to “a strange country within a strange country,” is the focus of the documentary film From Swastika to Jim Crow, which the Drew University Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study screened on campus. The screening, part of the series From the Holocaust to Social Justice, included a discussion led by Professor Emerita Lillie Edwards, who directed American Studies and Pan-African Studies at Drew.Two of Edwards’ former professors—Calvin Hernton at Oberlin College and John Hope Franklin at the University of Chicago—are featured in the doc, sharing how the Jewish scholars shaped their academic lives. “The legacy that was given to me was given to them, and I’m grateful,” she said. “These are professors who clearly shaped individuals and institutions.”The film blends historical footage and testimonials from some of the professors, including Ernst Manasse of North Carolina Central University in Durham. “This was a different world,” said Manasse, who arrived at the school in 1939 and taught there for 34 years. “It was a little country college, but it was my salvation.”
The Jewish refugees generally were not accepted by their white neighbors but found an affinity—a common understanding of racial oppression—with their students, according to the doc. The professors brought with them a formal European style of teaching that at first seemed as out-of-place in the rural South as they did. For example, they wore suits and insisted students stand to answer questions.
Still, the professors ultimately helped create a bridge between the white and black communities and are considered seminal to the civil rights movement. Indeed, in Edwards’ estimation, they are part of a rich “legacy of civil rights activism and coalition between African-American and Jewish communities.”