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Hidden Figures: Jewish Refugees Fighting for Civil Rights

March 2, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Many Jewish academics who fled Nazi Europe mentored African American students in the United States.

Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African American mathematicians (“computers” as they were called) who were part of NASA’s race to launch the American space program in the 1960s.

One of the movie’s most powerful scenes depicts the Mary Jackson expressing her desire to become an engineer – and her frustration at that goal’s seeming impossibility in Jim Crow-era Virginia. “I’m a negro woman,” she explains to her white supervisor. “I’m not going to entertain the impossible.”

Her supervisor, a kindly man with a Polish accent, counters, “And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a space ship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. Let me ask you – if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?”

Mary petitioned for permission to take classes at a local segregated school, earned a graduate degree in engineering, and became NASA’s first African American female engineer. The Polish Jew who encourages her in the movie is fictional, but real life NASA engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki did encourage her to pursue advanced training and became her longtime mentor.

Yet the movie was faithful to reality in one sense: many Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Europe did find refuge in the United States and worked at NASA and other institutions, helping to promote civil rights and battle discrimination.

In the book Hidden Figures, on which the film is based, author Margot Shetterly notes that NASA’s Jewish scientists were often its most liberal, treating their African American colleagues with dignity and respect.

Albert Einstein was one of the most outspoken in challenging racial barriers.

George Low, an aeronautical engineer, was Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program. Born in Vienna, Low fled Europe with his family. At NASA, Low worked not only to launch America’s first manned space flights, he also worked on launching the engineering careers for promising African Americans. Under his guidance, William McIver became one of the first African American scientists to reach upper management in NASA.

George Low

After McIver was rebuffed by other departments at NASA, Low hired him straight out of college, then encouraged McIver to go onto graduate school (an unusual step for African American engineers in those days), and rearranged McIver’s work schedule to accommodate the many years of study it took him to earn a Masters and then a Ph.D.

Albert Einstein was the most famous Jewish scientist who fled to the U.S. after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and he was also one of the most outspoken in challenging racial barriers. Einstein became fast friends with the famous black actor and singer Paul Robeson, united in their opposition to fascism. After World War II, when returning black soldiers faced a surge in racial violence, Einstein and Robeson worked together on the American Crusade to End Lynching.

In 1937, Einstein became close friends with Marian Anderson, another African American performer. When Princeton’s Nassau Inn refused to rent a room to the famous opera singer, the Einsteins invited Ms. Anderson to stay with their family. Ms. Anderson returned to the Einstein home whenever she visited Princeton. Albert Einstein also championed the Black civil rights campaigner W.E.B. Du Bois and supported the NAACP. In 1946, Einstein, by then a world-renown physicist, visited the historically Black school Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first school in the U.S. to grant college degrees to African Americans. There, he lectured on relativity and addressed racism directly, calling it a “disease” and adding, “I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

“There are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious…. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me.” – Albert Einstein

That same year Einstein wrote a strongly worded attack on segregation, in which he lamented that in the United States “there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious…. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”

Many Jewish refugees took academic positions in the United States’ historically black colleges; scores of professors helped educate and inspire African American students who were ignored and rejected by much of academia.

John Biggers

Viktor Lowenfeld, an art professor, fled Vienna and took up a professorship at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a historically black university near the NASA facility featured in Hidden Figures. His son, John Lowenfeld, recalled, “My father was very sensitive to irrational persecution” and felt passionate about his work encouraging African American students. Prof. Lowenfeld eventually became one of the world’s foremost scholars in art education. One of his best known students was John Biggers, the renowned African American muralist.

Ernst Borinski was a judge in Germany before he fled to the United States and took up a position teaching sociology at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Prof. Borinski defied segregation laws by setting up “Social Science Forums” that brought black students together with progressive white community members. Many of the white people who participated in his forums were also Jewish. Prof. Borinski also worked tirelessly to place his students in prestigious graduate programs across the country, often challenging firmly held beliefs in the process.

Isaac Byrd, who went on to have a legal career in Jackson Mississippi, was one of the thousands of students Prof. Borinski encouraged. He recalled what the American South was like at the time: “It was one of America's most oppressive states at the time,” Byrd explains. "But Professor Borinski dedicated his life to making ours better, so you could say that both sides benefited from this relationship. He pushed me into law school, he gave me books to read, and he had a tremendous impact on my life. "

Hidden Figures has shone a light on a little-known chapter of the American space race. Thanks to the book and the movie, the role of African American women in space exploration is more widely known. The important role that Jewish scientists and other academics played in challenging segregation and encouraging African Americans deserves to be more widely known, as well.


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