The Civil Rights Movement in America is taught in most every history class. We grow up with knowledge about segregation, sit-ins, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, there are still important aspects of the time period that don't get as much focus. That void is about to be filled by the upcoming art exhibit "Beyond Swastika to Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," where some of those untold stories will finally come to light.
The exhibit is based on the book From Swastika to Jim Crow by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, which tells the stories of German scholars who were exiled from Nazi Germany, and who found careers at historically black colleges during America's dark and violent Jim Crow period. The book eventually became the basis for an ITVS documentary, and later, an exhibit created and circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
The exhibit, which has traveled around the country, is arriving in Miami thanks to a collaboration between the Coral Gables Museum and FIU faculty Dr. Asher Milbauer, director of FIU's exile studies program; Dr. Michael Gillespie, director of humanities in an urban environment; and Dr. James Sutton, associate professor and English department chair.
To support the exhibit, FIU has created a series of panels, screenings, lectures, and other events, including a staged reading of The Hampton Years, a play by Jacqueline E. Lawton, which focuses on the relationship Austrian refugee painter and educator Viktor Lowenfeld had with African-American artists Samella Lewis and John Biggers. The professors came to learn about these hidden stories after Milbauer came across Edgcomb's book.
"As a professor of literature, among other things, I also taught Holocaust literature and exile literature, literature of immigration and so on, and I was aware of the difficulties many intellectuals faced when they were confronted with...discrimination and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and that many of them were dismissed from their posts," Milbauer said. "Not everyone was an Einstein," he said, referencing how Albert Einstein was able to secure a position with New Jersey's Institute for Advanced Study after he left Nazi Germany.
"Most of them were very fine scholars, but there were many obstacles for them to be able to get out of Germany, and, as a result, many perished. But some did find a way to the United States in spite of the roadblocks."
However, America was not always hospitable to Jewish immigrants due to the country's own anti-Semitism and racism. The search for job security led these scholars to historically black colleges in the South, where they'd have to balance the white community's unease and the black community's struggle toward gaining equality.
"I was... dumbstruck by how unaware people were of this particular moment in America with so many universal implications," Milbauer said. This, along with the support of fellow colleagues including English associate professor Joan Baker, inspired Milbauer, Sutton and Gillespie to bring "From Swastika to Jim Crow" to Miami in order to educate the public on this time in history.
The list of events FIU has created to enhance the exhibit aim to engage locals in the lessons inherent in the exhibit's featured stories.
"We've been very intentional in how we can bring this story to the Miami community, to a community that needs to hear this, both because of our civil rights history and because of our history of Jewish immigration here as well," Sutton said.
There will also be a workshop prepared for teachers who want to learn how they can relate the themes found in the exhibit to their young students. The organizers selected those involved in the exhibit based on experience, like Donald Cunnigen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Rhode Island. Cunnigen was taught as an undergrad by well-known sociologist Ernst Borinski at Mississippi's Tougaloo University.
"We want to compliment the exhibit," Gillespie said. "The exhibit is always the most important [aspect], but it's such a rich opportunity...People get excited and we want to use that excitement as...a teaching moment, something that takes us beyond the exhibit and makes us aware of what more can be done and what more there is to think about."
Miami will be integrated into many of the events surrounding the exhibit, such as an interfaith panel, which incorporates local clergyman and asks them to address the issues raised in the exhibit.
"If you talk specifically about Miami, Miami is, in many ways, a suitable place for it because Miami is a gathering of exiles," he said. "It's a collage of different people...and people who have gone through very similar experiences. It also has a very distinct population in terms of ethnic diversity...Miami is a city that breathes exile, in a way."
The professors say Coral Gables Museum has been extremely supportive of the exhibit, so much so that they have secured scholarship money to fund school buses for field trips.
"I see the Coral Gables Museum and the people who direct the museum as real heroes in this whole story," Milbauer said. "It's a municipal museum. They don't usually put up exhibits that will basically take up all of their space...They have to also invest in it. They had to learn about it, too. And, why they are kind of heroic to me in a way...is that they see the value in it."
The support from other colleagues in various fields also served as a testament to the importance of the exhibit's message. "We spoke to ten different colleagues over the summer and the conversations were delightful," said Sutton. "When we told them of the exhibit, they immediately understood its importance to their own discipline, to their faculty, and most importantly, for their own students."
The outpouring of interest and excitement were a welcome surprise to Sutton, Milbauer and Gillespie, who are very enthusiastic about the effect the exhibit is already having on Miami.
"There is a small exhibit [at the Coral Gables Museum] put up by Temple Judea, which is a major Jewish congregation, and if you consider what's happening there, the temple wants to be a part of this moment," Sutton said. "It wants to tell its own story as being a congregation that struggled to find a foothold in Coral Gables, now has a very strong foothold and wants to share their tradition with everyone who's walking in the door. So there's a real symbiosis...of interests, a real coming together of interests I never expected."
"It's too easy to see problems that we have in South Florida and to sneer at things, but there's a lot to be proud of," said Gillespie. "[A]n exhibit like this, I think, brings out the best in all of us."
"Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges" kicks off its stay in Miami on Sunday, October 5, at the Coral Gables Museum (285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables). The exhibit will be in town until January 11, 2015. A full schedule of events can be viewed at english.fiu.edu.
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