Solidarity in the American south in "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow" | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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Solidarity in the American south in "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow"

A new exhibit at the DuSable Museum looks at young African-American scholars in the Jim Crow era—and the German Jewish refugees who became their teachers.


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"One of the things I got from [Ernst] Borinski was that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I was a student comparable to any other student anywhere."

—Donald Cunnigen

"I shared my life, my insights, and my knowledge with students and guided them toward independence. It made my life joyful and meaningful."

—Ernst Borinski

While Jim Crow laws were forcing segregation upon African-Americans in the southern United States, Nazi Germany produced more than 400 pieces of legislation severely limiting the public and private lives of its Jewish populations. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of their citizenship; two years before that, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service ousted 2,000 German and Austrian academics, mostly Jews, from their teaching positions.

Some of these intellectuals found employment at historically black colleges and universities in the American south. "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow," a traveling exhibition inspired by a 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb and a later PBS documentary, tells the story of "the unlikely coming together of these two groups, each the object of exclusion and hatred, and examines the ongoing encounter between them as they navigated the challenges of life in the segregated South."

The exhibit, which opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, details the kinship between the budding African-American scholars and their Jewish professors and mentors—notably Ernst Borinski, who spent more than three decades teaching at Mississippi's Tougaloo College. In one black-and-white photograph, he's shown with ten African-American students at the Social Science Laboratory, a forum he established to encourage them to push their intellectual boundaries. There's also a "class picture" wall of alumni that includes Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist, and Donald Cunnigen, an author and specialist on race relations and social movements, who both studied with Borinski at Tougaloo; and Joycelyn Elders, the former U.S. surgeon general, who graduated from Philander Smith College, in Little Rock.

Perhaps most striking is the way the personal correspondence and academic texts displayed here reveal the beginnings of the civil rights movement. During a time of de jure segregation and anti-Semitism at its peak, these scholars came together to fight oppression—to move beyond swastika and Jim Crow.

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