When Thelma Gibson began her career as a registered nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1947, she was turned away from a position in the operating room and sent to the “colored wards” instead.
“I was born colored. It wasn’t until the ’70s that I became black and in the ’80s, I was African American,” said Gibson, who grew up in segregated Coconut Grove. “There was colored town and there was white town.”
While Jim Crow laws on the state and local levels dictated these racially segregated prohibitions from the 1880s to mid-1960s, it was during the 1930s and ’40s that a parallel wave of anti-Semitism aligned Jews and blacks. Jews in academia, escaping from Nazi Europe, couldn’t always land jobs at white colleges and universities and found new careers teaching at historically black colleges in the United States.
An exhibit opening Sunday at the Coral Gables Museum tells the story of Jewish professors from Germany and Austria who were dismissed from their positions in the 1930s and fled to the United States. The traveling exhibit from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York is based on a book written by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges and a subsequent PBS documentary with the same name. The Coral Gables Museum worked with Florida International University faculty to bring the exhibit to South Florida and coordinate a series of educational events around it.
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Asher Milbauer, director of the exile studies program at FIU, took a special interest in the story. He teaches about the literature of the Holocaust and exile in general.
“The exhibit is an exchange of stories between Jewish professors who escaped certain death and African-American students who faced terrible limitations and racism in the country of their birth,” he said.
The six professors featured in the documentary and museum exhibit found jobs teaching at historically black colleges and universities in Mississippi, Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. They taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi; Howard University in Washington; Hampton Institute in Virginia; North Carolina Central University in Durham; and Talladega College in Alabama.
While most of the professors have died, their stories have lived on with their students.
Ernst Borinski, for example, escaped Nazi Germany and found a job teaching sociology at Tougaloo College. He taught there for 36 years until he died in 1983. He was buried on campus and had a building named after him.
One of his former students, Donald Cunnigen, who became a professor, tells a story about talking to his peers from other black colleges who were mentored by professors and college presidents who were black. He had a different situation.
“My mentor was not a black man, it was a white, Jewish émigré,” said Cunnigen, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Rhode Island. “I was thinking, ‘So what does this mean for me in terms of how I view the world and the things I want to do?’”
FIU created extensive academic programming around the exhibit — guided tours, film screenings, stage readings and panel discussions. These events will be at the museum, at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, next to the museum.
Cunnigen will give a lecture at the university about his experience and help conduct an educational workshop for Miami-Dade County teachers so they can incorporate the lessons into their curricula.
“Whether you’re a third-grader or a Holocaust survivor or someone who lived through Jim Crow — this is a teaching moment; there’s a story here for everyone,” said James Sutton, chairman of FIU’s English department.
Exhibition designer Christopher Colt studied how other museums had set up the exhibition and turned 35 crates into a display of bookcases, furniture, photographs and other memorabilia. The display, with the PBS documentary playing in the gallery, will highlight a segment of American history that is not well known.
“It is this kind of cooperation between these disenfranchised groups that gives rise to success stories,” Milbauer said.
The museum chose to honor four members of the South Florida community who can relate to the story, either by their own experience with discrimination or by the obstacles surpassed by generations before them.
Gibson, one of the honorees, founded Miami-Dade County's first women’s chamber of commerce in 1984, and sponsors many health programs in the community, including the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, which provides free testing for AIDS and HIV patients.
When she studied at the University of Miami, she said she couldn’t set foot on the campus in broad daylight — so she took night classes. Despite these obstacles, Gibson has served on many community boards, including serving as a senior member of the UM Board of Trustees.
“Jim Crow was not easy, but we survived,” she said.
David Evensky, also honored, received the key to the city of Miami Beach in 2004 for his philanthropic work in the community. He founded the Motivate Youth Program along with a partner in his finance firm, Evensky & Katz.
“It’s a great story that a lot of people don’t really know,” he said. “These people that fled discrimination and found themselves back in segregation.”
H.T. Smith, the county’s first African-American assistant public defender and then first assistant county attorney, grew up in the Miami segregated school system. Later on, he went to law school at UM and has been practicing law for 41 years, specializing in civil rights, personal injury and criminal defense.
“It is extremely important that blacks and Jews continue to remember,” Smith said. “We shared our miseries and successes together.”
Judith Weissel, founding member of the Coral Gables Business Improvement District, is from one of the first Jewish families to come to Miami in the 1930s. She is heir to several retail properties on Miracle Mile.
“We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go in our community,” Weissel said. “We still see hate crimes against Jews.”
If You Go
“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges’’ opens Sunday at the Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave. The exhibit runs through Jan. 11. For information, call 305-603-8067 or visit coralgablesmuseum.org.