John Biggers intended to become a plumber. But when he took a drawing class in 1941 at Hampton Institute, a black college in West Virginia, Biggers’ life changed. He went on to become a renowned artist as well as chair of the art department at Texas State University. Biggers’ art teacher at Hampton, Viktor Lowenfeld, was one of hundreds of Jewish scholars who fled Germany and Austria with the rise of Nazism, and found refuge in the United States. Lowenfeld left Vienna in 1939, and was hired as a psychology professor at Hampton. He also offered art classes there, and these classes elicited such enthusiastic responses that Lowenfeld eventually founded the college’s art department and educated a generation of artists at Hampton and later, at Penn State University.
The unlikely and inspiring encounters between African-American students like Biggers and Jewish refugee professors like Lowenfeld recalls a chapter in black-Jewish relations that is not often told. Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Krieger, 1993) records the story, as did a PBS documentary of the same name (2000) and, in 2009, an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Edgcomb’s book counts 53 European Jews who taught at many of the 114 historically black colleges in the American South. The scholars included prominent sociologist Ernst Borinski (Tougaloo College, Mississippi) and political scientist John Herz (Howard University, Washington, DC), both of whom were refugees from Germany. Ten of the scholars were funded by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, but younger and lesser-known academics found jobs on their own.
During their teaching careers, the Jewish refugee professors enhanced the reputations of the colleges and introduced new ideas and influential methodologies that have enriched many fields of study. For example, Lore Rasmussen, a refugee from Germany who became associate professor of elementary education at Talladega College, developed the “Miquon Math” series, a hands-on approach to elementary mathematics based on the belief that mathematical insight grows out of observation, investigation, and the discovery of patterns and relationships. Her method is still widely used and available from Key Press.
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