Throughout modern history, the persecution of people from both African and Jewish cultures have at times gone hand in hand. Of these occurrences, the havens supplied by historically Black colleges and universities stands out. Donned with the acronym HBCU’s, these institutions were the driving force of black education during a better part of the 20th century. One of the factors in bolstering the education of an entire people, came from the Eastern European Jews who emigrated here during the turmoil of the Nazi regime and World War II.
Many of these folk, who suffered terrible atrocities and oppression in their native lands, would come to America only to find the same doors of opportunity being slammed in their faces. Ironically, it was among the oppressed where they would find stability and stature. Jewish professors coming to America found that they were unable to find work in the mainstream American colleges and universities. They were equally astounded to the apartheid they were witnessing against Black Americans.
Georg Iggers, a German Jewish refugee who taught history at Philander Smith College, told My Jewish Learning’s journalist Rahel Musleah “Racial segregation reminded me a lot of Nazi Germany, except that I wasn’t a victim, the black population was.” Iggers would later join the NAACP (1951), teach history at Dillard University, and become the first white person initiated into Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc (1953).
Jeffrey Leak, director of the Center for the Study of the New South at UNC Charlotte, was quoted in the African American Registry stating:
“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. Like it or not, we’re all family in a way, especially in the South.”
The African American Registry also had accounts of an interview with Samuel Biggers of Gastonia, NC., who had aspirations of becoming a plumber. He happened upon Jewish professor Viktor Lowenfeld, who fled Austria in 1938 and became the assistant professor of Industrial Arts at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). As their relationship developed, Lowenfeld candidly urged Biggers to follow and develop his love of art. Biggers complide is now renowned for his narrative murals and having founded the Texas Southern University art department.
Of their time together, Bigger’s said:
“Viktor took us to the African museum and taught us the meaning of African art. He was also interested in our inner feelings, what made us tick. We express the most meaningful things in art.” (African-American Registry, 2013)
The relationship between Biggers and Lowenfeld is so inspirational that Jacqueline Lawton covered it in her play, The Hampton Years.
These are just a few of the many recounts of how Blacks and Jews came together and achieved excellence despite living under the cloud of oppression. This synergy between them would lay the foundation for a culture of tolerance, respect, achievement and educational excellence that would propel HBCU’s to produce most of America’s Black intellectuals. It would also spawn a relationship of co-activism. The brilliant minds coming out of HBCU’s were the ones at the forefront of the American civil rights movement. They were contributing factors in every aspect of industry, technology, government, politics, and education. They were at the forefront of all innovation and had a controlling factor in changing and shaping American society.
For more information on Georg Iggers, check out his book or this interview: