Oct 22 2020

Bridge-Builders: A Prelude to Kamala Harris

Published by at 6:25 pm under From Time to Time

From Time to Time

History does not repeat itself,
But it certainly likes to rhyme.





Black Colleges, German-Jewish Refugee Academicians

and The Civil Rights Movement:

A Prelude to Kamala Harris, the “Mameleh


 by Michael Panitz, Old Dominion University


The selection of Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President, a woman of multi-cultural (South Asian and Jamaican) heritage, is without a doubt partly the effect of the renewed American focus in 2020 on the year’s second pandemic, the pandemic of racism. The massive wave of protests that broke across the cities of this country after the putative murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a White Minneapolis police officer has produced profound political as well as social consequences. Blacks and Whites marched together, demanding a dismantling of the structures of institutionalized oppression in the United States. One of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party, aligned itself with the protestors, and its (then) presumptive nominee, Former Vice President Joe Biden, signaled that he was looking closely at selecting a Black, female running mate. Senator Harris, already a serious contender for that post prior to the Floyd murder, became the leading contender in June and was duly selected in August.

One of the sad ironies of this season of protest against bigotry is that it has exposed a strain of anti-Semitism within the African American community. Despite the demonstrations of support on the part of most Jewish Americans for the protests against racial injustice towards Blacks, there has been a dismaying drumbeat of anti-Semitic expressions on the part of American Black cultural icons. The rappers Diddy, Ice Cube and Waka Flocka Flame, the sports journalist Nick Cannon and the celebrity athletes DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson followed in the footsteps of the inveterate anti-Semite, Minister Louis Farrakhan, voicing a range of anti-Semitic tropes: the Jews own all the banks; they murder Black children; they are satanic.[1] Jewish fellow athletes then engaged their peers in attempts to raise consciousness. Moreover, other prominent African Americans, such as the sports legends Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the sports journalist, Jemele Hill, and the cultural critic L.Z. Granderson, called out those expressions of bigotry[2]. Some, although not all, of those who had made bigoted remarks then recanted them.

Even so, the flurry of expressions of anti-Semitism served as a sobering reminder that high levels of anti-Semitic prejudice recorded in earlier surveys of African Americans have not disappeared.[3]

Against this backdrop, the elevation of Senator Harris offers positive prospects. Although a few progressives, White and Black, have criticized Harris as being insufficiently radical, a large chorus of voices has responded approvingly. Significantly, both Blacks and Jews have applauded her selection enthusiastically. It came as a revelation to many Jews that Senator Harris is married to Douglas Emhoff, a Jewish man, and that she celebrates aspects of Yiddish and Jewish culture in her family’s identity. Her fondness for the term of endearment, “Mameleh” (Yiddish for “mother dear”) can serve as a shorthand for the widespread embrace of Senator Harris by a majority of American Jews: Kamala has become a Mameleh.

Given this patchwork of hopeful and sobering signs of the times, it is timely to remember an episode in American history in which certain leading institutions within African American society came to the aid of Jews, with the Jewish beneficiaries later returning the favor and campaigning for Civil Rights. This is the outreach by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to hire German and Austrian Jewish refugees, fleeing Hitler and seeking asylum in the United States. Those academicians served ably in their African American settings, and in many cases, became key allies in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s.[4]


  1. From Asylum Seeker to Ally and Mentor: Jewish Academicians at HBCUs

Looking back at the history of the Civil Rights movement for instances of Jews and African Americans working, and sometimes suffering, in partnership, there are some iconic images: Jewish Freedom Riders across the South; the three voting rights activists, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, two Jews and one African American, murdered together in Mississippi in 1964; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speaking at the March on Washington, just a minute before Dr. Martin Luther King took the podium; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm and arm with Dr. King at Selma, 1965, a score of other rabbis in the line of march.

We should add other, earlier images to this gallery. These images should include scenes of African American students at schools such as Fisk College, Talladega College, North Carolina Central University and other HBCUs, gathered around their German-Jewish refugee professors. Emblematic of an entire set of images is that of Professor Ernst Borinski, the distinguished sociologist, teaching social science to his African American students at Tougaloo College, Mississippi.


Professor Borinski and his students, c. 1960. Credit: Coral Gables Museum


The outreach on the part of HBCUs to Jewish refugee scholars began in the late 1930’s, as the Nazi oppression of Jews grew ever fiercer. Three examples will serve as illustrations: Viktor Lowenfeld, Ernst Manassee and John (Hans) H. Herz.

Viktor Lowenfeld was a leader in the field of Art Education. He was the art director of the Blind Institute in Vienna, also working in primary and secondary-level schools, until he fled Austria in 1938. During the war years he consulted for the U.S. Navy in the field of visual aids. His main work was at Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, where he was hired as assistant professor of industrial arts in 1939. When Hampton created an art department, Lowenfeld was named its chairman. He left Hampton when he accepted a position at Penn State University in Art Education in 1946, remaining there until his untimely death in 1960.

North Carolina Central University was a leader in the effort to employ Jewish scholars. In 1939, the president of the school, James Shepard, offered a position to the refugee philosopher Ernst Manasse. Manasse had fled Germany after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and had spent some time in Italy and in England while attempting to gain entry to the United States. Once in the USA, he was unsuccessful in his job search, and his visa had nearly expired, when Shepard brought him on board. He later reflected that he would most likely have been killed had he been deported.[5]

A position at one of the HBCUs was not always the first employment secured by the refugee scholar, but it could mean rescue rather than deportation when earlier employment ran out. A rising political scientist, John H. Herz, found temporary employment in America, 1939-1941, as assistant to Abraham Flexner, director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. But in 1941, Herz was failing to find steady, long-term employment at the college level. He was told that his being Jewish and a refugee were obstacles to his search. Schools were giving preference to American citizens, to help bring down the high unemployment that persisted since the Depression. He was saved from deportation when Ralph Bunche, head of the political science department at Howard University, hired him. Although Herz ultimately spent the bulk of his career at the City University of New York, he remained forever grateful for the open-mindedness he experienced at Howard. In 1994, he expressed this sentiment in a letter to the Editor of the New York Times: “’The helping hand stretched out by black colleges and black scholars should not be forgotten at a time when, alas, Jewish-black relations have become strained. I will forever remember in gratitude.”[6]

How did the HBCUs manage to make these hires, during the hard times of the Depression? There were financial inducements offered to facilitate the hiring of these scholars. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in 1933, was the most important institution working for the admission of refugee scholars to the United States and their successful job placement. Knowing that the public climate of opinion was isolationist, the Emergency Committee kept a low profile, turning to Foundations rather than to the general public in its fund-raising activities. One of its most fruitful partnerships was with the Rockefeller Foundation. These financial arrangements provided needed budget relief for the colleges that hired the refugee scholars.[7] But that does not detract from the humanitarian accomplishment. In a racist society, these hires were noteworthy exceptions to the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism within American society.[8]

Once the refugee crisis had passed, administrators at colleges that had hired Jewish refugees initially remained open to hiring Jewish faculty. Some of these later placements were scholars who had come to the United States as children. George Iggers, the noted historian, arrived as a 12-year-old just before Kristallnacht. He completed his academic training in the late 1940’s and began his academic career at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1950.

Other Jewish scholars finding a temporary or permanent home at HBCUs had arrived as adults but had at first been unable to find work in the academic setting. The economist Fritz Pappenheim, who made it to the USA, with great difficulty, in 1941, did settlement work with youths in Cleveland, Ohio, prior to attaining his first college position at Talladega College in 1945. The sociologist Ernst Borinski, trained in the law, had worked as a lawyer and magistrate in Kelbra, in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, prior to fleeing the Nazis. He turned to academic teaching in America only after the completion of his army service in World War II. Unlike some of the other refugee scholars, who ultimately moved on to other and more prestigious institutions, Borinski remained committed to his students at Tougaloo for the rest of his career. He continued teaching as an emeritus, albeit at a reduced level, until his death in 1983.


  1. Assessing the Significance of the Phenomenon

How should the importance of this phenomenon be assessed?

The significance of the presence of Jewish teachers and scholars in African American colleges was not a matter of large numbers. It should be remembered that a small fraction of the refugee population was involved in this endeavor. Statistics reveal the limited scope of this phenomenon: Of the nearly three quarters of a million Jews in Germany and Austria during the early years of the Third Reich, 282,000 succeeded in leaving Germany, and 117,000 from annexed Austria, by 1939. Of this number, 95,000 emigrated to the United States. Within that group were approximately 2,000 scholars from European academic institutions. Just over 50 scholars found employment in HBCUs. Again, looking at the phenomenon from the perspective of humanitarian agencies assisting scholars to relocate to the United States and secure employment, the role of HBCU’s does not stand out if judged by numbers alone. As noted, The Rockefeller Foundation was one of the principal donor organizations tapped by The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars to underwrite the costs of assisting these scholars. The Rockefeller Foundation gave grants to approximately 300 social scientists and scholars within this category. The 53 scholars who found work in the Historically Black college network—not all of whom were Rockefeller Foundation grant recipients—were clearly only a modest fraction of the total number of scholars who received assistance. Most found employment elsewhere. Elite scholars and public intellectuals achieved placement in more prestigious schools of higher learning. Others were unable to continue their careers in higher education after migration.

This analysis makes it clear that the ultimate importance of the hiring of that cohort goes beyond that number of careers salvaged.[9] Rather, the importance of the humanitarian work of the HBCUs, hiring Jewish refugees as faculty, and of the scholars themselves, interacting with African American students, lay in three domains:

First, the action was exemplary. When the placement of Jewish scholars in faculty positions at HBCUs began in the 1930’s, offering them employment advanced the frontiers of the conceivable. That is always a key early step in the general advance of a humanitarian ideal. The ideal advanced in 1930’s America was that anti-Semitism could not be tolerated within the mainstream of civil society.

Bringing in Jewish refugees to fill jobs was deeply unpopular at that time. Public opinion surveys in the 1930’s and 1940’s disclosed anti-Semitic attitudes common to high percentages of American respondents. In 1940, 63% said that, as a group, Jews had “objectionable traits.” In fourteen polls conducted, 1938-1946, between one third and one half of respondents opined that American Jews were too powerful for the good of the country. Most germane to the question of bringing Jewish refugees to this country and having them fill jobs, in 1938, 83% opposed opening the country to more European refugees than had already been admitted. This opposition was a function of bigotry, not of the presence of large numbers of refugees in the country, since the era of unrestricted immigration to America from Europe had been curtailed in the 1920’s by the Johnson Immigration Bill.[10]

Up through the 1930’s, in the mainstream American university, as within the larger American context, anti-Semitism was well within the spectrum of accepted opinions. Quite a few schools had quotas, not for the purposes of affirmative action, but rather, for the reverse: to limit the number of Jewish students. This was true both in the prestigious Ivy League schools of the Northeast and in many public state universities across the nation. Graduate, professional schools such as medical schools were notorious for their Jewish quotas. [11]Hiring Jewish scholars to teach non-Jewish students was an act of moral courage on the part of the leaders of the HBCUs. Moral courage is the necessary precursor to testing and transcending discrimination.

Second, the fortuitous “marriage of convenience” of Jewish scholars and teachers with their African American students created mentor-disciple relationships that raised the sights of the students and helped them to fulfill their dreams of entering positions of leadership within the cultural, professional and academic sectors of American society.

A striking example of this was the mentor-disciple relationship of Viktor Lowenfeld and John Biggers. They met each other in the right place, at the right time, for their combination of talents and interests to achieve fruitful results:

As noted, Lowenfeld found work teaching industrial arts at Hampton Institute. Despite its small size, that school already played an outsize role in the transmission of African art to American audiences. One of its early alumni, William Sheppard, was the first African American to collect African art. He had amassed a respectable collection during his tenure as a Christian missionary in Africa. In 1911, Sheppard donated a considerable assemblage of art from the central African Kuba Kingdom to his alma mater.[12] Lowenfeld assumed the collateral responsibility of curating the collection at Hampton’s art musuem.

Lowenfeld taught at Hampton until he began teaching at Pennsylvania State University in 1945, where he remained until his death in 1960. But during his tenure at Hampton, he mentored the rising Black artist John Biggers. Biggers had come to Hampton intending to study plumbing. Lowenfeld inspired him to devote his energies to art. In 1943, Biggers’ work was featured in the exhibit, “Young Negro Art”, presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Biggers was then drafted into the U.S. Navy, but after his discharge, he followed Lowenfeld to Penn State and accomplished his advanced training there. While completing his dissertation in 1954, he took up a position at Texas State College for Negroes, later Texas Southern University, and remained there for three decades until his retirement, while also earning accolades as one of the leading African American artists of the generation.

One of the remarkable examples of mentor-disciple bonds was the connection forged at Talladega College between the economist Fritz Pappenheim and his students. After five years of teaching at Talladega, he became eligible for tenure in 1950. While supported by many of the faculty, Pappenheim was denied tenure at Talladega because, in the Cold-War atmosphere of the times, the trustees of the college were unwilling to support his openly Marxist orientation. The debate continued for two years. When Pappenheim’s bid was finally rejected, in 1952, his admiring students assembled outside the building where the trustees were meeting and protested vociferously until the president of the college was dismissed.[13]


Illustration: Students and one of their five Jewish professors at Talladega College.[14]  

Credit: Amistad Research Center in association with Tulane University


Third, the interaction of Jewish faculty and African American students promoted the development of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Jewish professors, themselves the victims of racism, were, as a group, more willing than the generational norm to challenge the anti-Black racism of mid-twentieth-century America.

The Jewish scholars assisted in developing the Civil Rights movement in two ways: first, they modeled integration and inter-group respect. Second, they advised their students in areas related to civil rights activism. Drawing upon his legal experience, Borinski counseled his students in the legal aspects of their civil rights activities.

Sometimes working behind the scenes, at other times the Jewish scholars were willing to defy the anger of Southern, White racists by taking higher-profile actions. Examples of these kinds are pioneer efforts on behalf of civil rights are found in the lives of Lore Rasumussen, Borinski and Georg Iggers.

Lore May Rasmussen, a German-Jewish refugee, and Donald Rasmussen, her American-born husband, began their academic careers at Talladega College in Alabama, teaching there from 1942-1956. They then moved to the Philadelphia area, where Lore devoted her energies to mathematics instruction in the Philadelphia public schools. While in Alabama, the Rasmussens defied the local segregation laws by dining, with an African American friend, in a black-owned restaurant. They spent a night in a Birmingham jail for their defiance.[15]

Borinski enlisted his African American students in a stratagem to challenge segregated seating patterns in education. Giving social science presentations that were open to the general public in the late 1950’s, he would direct his students to arrive early and occupy alternate seats, so as to compel the Whites to sit together with the Blacks.[16] He also encouraged White students at nearby colleges to attend integrated events at Tougaloo: “Borinski encouraged numerous events—meetings, lectures, and German language classes—that cut across racial lines, and his social science lab was an oasis of journals, newspapers, and other related publications that ultimately led to an African study group that included students from nearby Millsaps College despite the dangers faced by participants in integrated activities.”[17]

Georg Iggers and his wife, Wilma, likewise a Jewish refugee (from Czechoslovakia) were leaders and activists in the civil rights movement in the 1950’s. During that decade, they served two historically Black colleges and universities, Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Dillard University in New Orleans. Later, they moved to the University of Buffalo, where Georg completed a fruitful career. While in Little Rock, they organized the successful effort to desegregate the city’s public library system. George compiled a report for the NAACP detailing the differences between the city’s two high schools, one for White and one for Black students. That report became part of Little Rock’s historic desegregation lawsuit.[18]

The encomium offered by Iggers’ colleague at the University of Buffalo, Andreas Daum is apt: “His and Wilma’s joint autobiography, Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the Twentieth Century as Scholars and Citizens (2006), provides a lasting testament to the multiple identities Iggers lived as a German Jew, scholar, civil rights activist, and intercultural mediator.”[19] This tribute could apply to many in that remarkable cohort: Jews who fled oppression, and, in a land of greater—but still partial—freedom, worked to make their adopted country more tolerant.

The symbiosis encompassing HBCUs, Jewish faculty members and African American students may or may not ultimately be a counterweight to the tribalism that threatens the American ideal of e pluribus unum. But if this symbiosis is to have an impact on the evolving story of America, it needs to be remembered and celebrated that two minorities, Jewish Americans and African Americans, have been siblings in suffering., and that they have helped each other in meaningful ways.

From the vantage point of 2020, the candidacy of Kamala Harris provides a grace note to the melody of the historical episode presented in these pages. A practicing Baptist, with Hinduism in her background and Jewish tradition in her blended family, she may be seen as a symbol of the multi-cultural synthesis made possible by the American experiment.[20] Whatever may be the outcome of her candidacy in the coming presidential election, her ascent within American politics suggests that the bridge builders of the past three quarters of a century have successfully spanned at least some of the chasms in American society.


Michael Panitz

Old Dominion University

Temple Israel of Norfolk, Va.




[1] Emily Schrader, “Antisemitism from unexpected source: The African American Community”, The Jerusalem Post, July 20, 2020.

[2] Marcy Oster,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jemele Hill call out anti-Semitism in the Black community” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 15, 2020; L.Z. Granderson, “My first brush with Black anti-Semitism came early. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now”, Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2020.

[3] Anti-Defamation League, Anti-Semitism and Prejudice in America: Highlights from an ADL Survey”, November 1998. In that survey, 34% of African Americans, as compared with 9% of White Americans, were in the most anti-Semitic category. The 1998 survey confirmed the findings of three earlier surveys with respect to the level of anti-Semitism in African American circles, whereas the percentage of Whites with comparable levels of anti-Semitic prejudice declined over time.

[4] The principal scholarly treatment of the outreach by HBCUs to Jewish refugee scholars, and of the contributions of those scholars to the schools that had rescued them, is Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1993).

[5] https://www.historynet.com/joined-together-by-empathy-historically-black-colleges-and-jewish-refugees-in-wwii.htm

[6] These words of tribute are quoted in John. H. Herz’s obituary, Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2006.

[7] “Rockefeller Foundation,” Transatlantic Perspectives, 2020, 11 Jul 2020 http://www.transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=96.

[8] Charles Herbert Stember, Jews in the Mind of America (N.Y.: American Jewish Congress/Basic Books, 1966), p. 8.

[9] U.S. Holocaust Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/german-jewish-refugees-1933-1939; Miriam Intrator, “Jewish Refugee Scholars in America”, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-refugee-scholars-in-america.

[10]  Stember, pp. 110-115.

[11] This did not immediately end with the Second World War. Many more Americans attended college after 1945, thanks to the G.I. Bill, and Jews among them. But quotas persisted. Two examples of this emerge from within the synagogue in Norfolk, Va., where I serve as rabbi: A 1953 graduate of the Medical College of Virginia dental school told me that of the 200 students in the four years of his cohort, eight were Jewish. A still older colleague, now deceased, who went to the same school in the 1930’s, changed his family name to one that was not obviously “Jewish-sounding” to enhance his chances of being accepted into dental school.

[12] Hampton University museum website.

[13] Heather Gilligan, “After Fleeing Nazis, many Jewish refugee professors found homes at historically black colleges,” https://timeline.com/jewish-professors-black-colleges-9a61d4603771; Dirk Struik, “Fritz Pappenheim 1902-1964”, http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/alienation_pappenheim.html#struik

[14] Brenda Flora, “50 Years/50 Collections: Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb and the Refugee Scholars of the HBCU”, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, 2016.

[15] Ruth Ellen Gruber, Lore Rasmussen obituary, Feb. 1, 2009, https://www.jta.org/2009/02/01/united-states/lore-rasmussen-refugee-and-civil-rights-activist-dies/.

[16] Rahel Masleah, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-refugee-scholars-at-black-colleges/.

[17] Annie Payton, “Ernst Borinski”, Mississippi Encyclopedia, http://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/ernst-borinski/.

[18] William H. Pruden III, “Georg Iggers (1926-2017)”, Encyclopedia of Arkansas https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/georg-iggers-13641/

[19] Andreas Daum, “Memorial: Georg G. Iggers 1926-2017”, in Central European History 51 (2018), pp. 335-353.

[20] Elana Schor, “Harris brings Baptist, interfaith roots to Democratic ticket”, Washington Post, August 12, 2020.

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