“Our constitution keeps the South from passing many of the laws Hitler has invoked against the Jews, but by indirection, by force and terrorism, the south and Nazi Germany are mental brothers.”
–From an editorial in the Afro-American, February 22, 1936
One of the first pieces of Nazi legislation, passed on April 7, 1933, excluded “non-Aryans” from civil service, which included academic positions. Some were prominent scholars with world-wide reputations, like Albert Einstein, while others were just beginning their careers. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars was formed in New York in 1933. Working in an atmosphere of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment, the committee, funded primarily by Jewish philanthropists, gave grants to universities to subsidize the salaries of scholars, usually for a period of one year. More often than not, scholars with established reputations were chosen.
Younger and lesser known educators had to find jobs on their own. Some found their way to the traditionally black colleges of the American South, where they were welcomed as colleagues who would enhance the academic standings of these institutions.
These scholars, coming from an environment where they were persecuted and discriminated against, were now arriving in the land of “Jim Crow.” The derogatory term Jim Crow for blacks, taken from a minstrel routine, designated segregated life in the American South. Jim Crow laws, rules, and customs, together with the use of intimidation and terror by whites, isolated blacks physically and culturally, kept many poor, subdued protest, and blocked change. Furthermore, segregated schools for blacks were underfunded and poorly equipped.
Despite this atmosphere of fear and intimidation, education was seen as a means of advancement and a way out of poverty. Parents made great sacrifices to send their children to college, even when this meant the loss of income of another wage earner. Students came from diverse backgrounds, and had varying expectations of the college experience. Some took vocational courses, like dry cleaning or plumbing, while others were encouraged to prepare themselves for professional careers.
While refugee scholars were welcomed at the black colleges, professors and students initially knew very little about each other. Interaction soon dispelled any preconceptions. The professors felt that their Jewish status, which led to their treatment as pariahs under the Nazis, gave them insight into the experience of prejudice in the Jim Crow South. Students felt this empathy and appreciated the guidance they received. In some cases, professors and students established life-long relationships of respect and affection.