In Germany in the 1930s, many scholars had to make a difficult choice. As the political climate in Europe soured when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came in to power in 1933, academics of Jewish decent began to be forced out of their faculty positions at universities. What were these Jewish scholars, and others opposed to Hitler’s regime, to do? The answer for many was to leave Europe and start a new life teaching at historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs] in the United States. The Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb oral history collection at Amistad chronicles their stories.
Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb was only fifteen when her mother made the decision to move her family from Berlin to the United States in 1936. In her 1993 book From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, she recalls the German schools and social institutions becoming segregated when the Nazis took power. She was separated from many of her friends, and much of her Jewish family emigrated. Luckily, her mother was wise enough to see the tide turning, and remove her family from danger. Edgcomb credits her mother with “[giving] me life twice by bringing us out of Nazi Germany in time.” She completed her education in the U.S. and eventually settled in Washington D.C., where she worked as a poet and writer. Inspired by a Smithsonian colloquia, “The Muses Flee Hitler,” organized to mark the occasion of what would have been Albert Einstein’s hundredth birthday in 1980, Edgcomb became interested in researching the stories of the refugee scholars who did not share Einstein’s fame. Knowing that many of these academics worked for Black colleges, she combed the archives of HBCUs across the country to determine how many employed European refugees. In a letter to Amistad’s director Dr. Clifton Johnson dated 1987 she writes, “I have done, and continue to do, bibliographic surveys of the copious and growing exile literature, none of which mentions the episode at issue, an omission I find both significant and regrettable. My work will correct this.” Ultimately, she identified 51 scholars at 19 historically Black colleges and universities. She was able to interview 21 of these individuals, who taught at Tougaloo College, Hampton University, Howard University, and Talladega College, and discuss with them their thoughts and feelings about their experience. She made audio recordings of these interviews, donating a total of 18 audiocassettes to the Amistad Research Center.
What the displaced academics found upon arriving in the United States was that, unfortunately, relocation did not mean that they were immune to persecution. Though American academics may have been opposed to Nazi political meddling in education in Germany, they feared for the security of their own jobs as Germans and Austrians flooded into the U.S. looking for work. Anti-Semitism and xenophobia manifested themselves at many academic institutions, and many refugees found it difficult to establish new careers in their new country. The Rockefeller Foundation and other organizations which assisted in placing some refugees in academic appointments focused on the elite, “distinguished scholars of established reputations,” leaving many lesser known academics to fend for themselves. The United States, in the meantime, was already deeply entrenched in other prejudices and its own version of segregation, as Edgcomb soon discovered. While at school in New York, she was rebuked by her White classmates when she tried to befriend a group of Black students. “I identified with these segregated second-class citizens out of my experience and upbringing,” she says. “It took a long time to learn of the enormous gulf separating a middle-class European from African Americans of the period and the limitations for an individual to swim against the stream, especially for a newcomer to the peculiar American contradiction between egalitarian rhetoric and unequal reality.”
This “unequal reality” had been in place in the U.S. since the era of slavery. With the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896, segregation was cemented into law, and the education system was deeply affected. During U.S. Reconstruction the need for quality education for Black students had given rise to the HBCUs – colleges and universities focused on providing an education for African Americans. The displaced academics soon found that, where many White institutions had rejected their applications, the HBCUs were often more welcoming. Although their circumstances were different, there are also many parallels to be drawn between the two disenfranchised communities. Edgcomb points to the 1941 master’s dissertation of Lunabelle Wedlock, supervised by Ralph Bunche and entitled “The Reaction of Negro Publications and Organizations to German Anti-Semitism,” to help understand the African American perspective on Nazi persecution of Jews: “The fascist governments of the world view American indignation over racial oppression with wonder and bewilderment. They cannot understand why America should be so concerned with racial persecution in Europe and yet defend it with such vigor within its own borders… It is a long story – perhaps no good will come from the telling. But this much is certain: the voice of America would carry far gre