About six months ago, Al Brophy posted an interesting short piece on African Americans’ difficulties in finding accommodations during the Jim Crow era. In the article, he included a link to the Green Book, a publication from the era that listed where success could be had.
Al’s piece and the Green Book itself made me wonder about the similar issues that supposedly occurred for Jews as they traveled around the U.S. in the early 1900s. During my upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, I was often told stories, particularly by my grandparents, of how difficult travel was as so many facilities had signs that stated that they were for “Christians only” or other similar verbiage. Similarly, the Green Book stated that “[the] Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted ...” Well, after an unexpected months-long search, maybe not so much.
Without a doubt, there are some examples of travel establishments refusing to serve someone because they were Jewish. The most widely known of these events would be the Hilton-Seligman controversy of the 1870s surrounding the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, NY. Mr. Seligman, a well-established member of the New York City business community and a Jew, was denied a room in the hotel specifically because of his religion. To assert that this was commonplace, however, cannot be sustained, at least based on the records I have been able to find.
First, I examined the reference in the Green Book to comparable publications from the Jewish press. I found numerous travel books published during the early to mid-1900s with a Jewish audience in mind. All of these, however, were not oriented towards where Jews could find facilities that would be willing to serve them despite their religion; rather, they were oriented towards where synagogues and Kosher restaurants could be found. Unlike the Green Book, therefore, these travel guides were not to help Jews avoid discrimination, they were designed to help them find religiously compliant facilities.
Second, although there are examples of antisemitism being practiced by travel facilities from the 1800 and 1900s (and even from the 2000s), these examples appear to be just that—individual decisions by a particular facility to discriminate based on religion. No state adopted laws designed to create a Jim Crow-like system of discrimination against Jews as was done against African Americans just as there were no “Jewish divisions” in the miliary of the 1940s as was required of African-Americans. My relatives have served in the Army, Navy and Marines without any limitations because of their religion.
Since I found nothing, you may be wondering about why I have bothered to post anything on the Lounge. Again, there are two reasons. As I did the research, numerous people and organizations unselfishly gave of their time to assist me. This openness stands in stark contrast to a country where discrimination is acceptable and should be noted. More importantly, however, was the broader reminder that my research gave me. All too often we tend to compare our histories of discrimination. Comparison here means nothing—all group-based discrimination achieves nothing.
This was recently reinforced in several episodes of Henry Louis Gates’s PBS show, Finding Your Roots. It became explicit as Tony Kushner’s roots were explored. The trail of his family ended with the information from the time his family immigrated to the United States as all of the records before that were destroyed by the Nazis. Only one Jewish guest’s roots could be extended back (Carol King) as there were some Russian records that had survived. Similarly, for all of the African Americans who have been on the show, the family roots ended with slavery. Here, however, DNA has allowed some jump across the ocean as it gives some indication of what areas of Africa are represented within each person’s family. Of course, knowing your country of origin is not the same as knowing your family. Kushner and Gates discussed this in the episode. Kushner said:
Genocide is a specific thing. Slavery is a specific thing. [Slavery is] a kind of soul murder that is unlike other forms of oppression. The holocaust is a near successful attempt to obliterate ... [i]n less than a decade an entire civilization. This is beyond human comprehension. And you don’t repress the fact that it happened, but you allow a ring of unknowing to surround it because you can’t… you know what was it like on a slave ship… what was it like in Auschwitz. Our great good fortune in a way is to not actually know directly.
The full transcript can be found here.
I wish I knew more about my family before we came to the U.S. beyond knowing that my Father’s family came from Roumania and my Mother’s family came from Ukraine and Austria. Similarly, I am sure that many African-Americans would love to know their familial background and, for many, their country of origin within Africa. The reality is that none of us will ever know this. So the end of the long search left me knowing, more surely than ever, that there is a great loss when you are cut off from your personal history. At times, to recover from this, we generate a myth that there was a pattern of discrimination. Whether these myths heal or whether they just hide the wounds does not, in the long-term, matter.