What black history means to the Jews

Today may be the last day of Black History Month, but it can also be the first day that you consider looking into the historical connections of black people and Jews.
There is a strong relationship, if you are willing to examine the facts.
Both black people and Jews have faced death from the hands of their oppressors: Jews faced the death of their first-born sons in Egypt, followed in our time by the gas chambers and crematoriums of the Nazis.
Black Americans, as slaves, experienced the possibility of death or horrible punishment by the whims of their overseers.
Lynching of black people in the South and elsewhere occurred after the Civil War, as part of an informal, repressive system to keep them “in their place.” It may not seem so today, but it was not that long ago, historically speaking, that America’s Jews experienced prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives.
For example, during the 1950s in Chicago, Jews and black people were equally baited. “Jewtown” became a section of Chicago where Jewish and black musicians, as well as tradesmen, could intermingle freely, separate from mainstream Chicagoans.
In many ways, the civil rights struggle was also a Jewish struggle, first in Eastern Europe against the Czarist-supported pogroms which terrorized every Jewish shtetl. Then fleeing to America, seeking safe, new lives in a strange new land, Jews were forced to struggle again to adapt and be accepted, without giving up their heritage.
As Jews, we should embrace our rich multicultural history, which includes people of color.
Here are just a few of the many black Jews who rank high as achievers in their respective field:
Darrin Bell , cartoonist; David Blu, basketball player; Lisa Bonet, actress; Sammy Davis, Jr., dancer and singer; Ada Fisher, physician and politician; Aaron Freeman, comedian; Capers C. Funnye Jr., rabbi; Lewis Gordon, philosopher; Reuben Greenberg, criminologist; Lenny Kravitz, musician; Sandra Lawson, rabbi; Adah Menken, actress and poet; Alysa Stanton, rabbi; and Andre Tippett, football player.
Here are some interesting achievements among black Americans.
Jack Johnson, a black longshoreman working the docks of Galveston, developed into a boxer, eventually becoming the first black man to win the title of the Heavyweight Boxer of the World in 1908. While his boxing title was impressive, it was not the achievement I had in mind. I have a tool in my garage that you probably have as well, which Jack Johnson invented. It is called a “wrench.”
Another black inventor was Elijah McCoy, whose parents were runaway slaves that fled north to Canada, before returning to the United States after the Civil War. As a teen, Elijah journeyed to Scotland to study engineering, but, upon returning to the United States, could only find a job as a railroad fireman.
Part of his duties was to lubricate moving parts every time the train stopped. He invented a device that lubricated the train’s parts while it traveled, saving much time and eventually increasing the company’s profits. Though other copycat inventors tried to duplicate McCoy’s patented model, their products were inferior. When railroad engineers wanted the patented device for their trains and didn’t want the fake copycats, they asked for “the real McCoy.”
One of the most important inventions of World War II was developed by Dr. Charles Drew, while he was a medical student at McGill University in Canada, during the 1930s. Drew invented a process for preserving blood plasma, which allowed quantities to be stored and transported over a period of time. Before the United States officially entered the war, Drew helped supply Great Britain with needed blood plasma in its struggle against Hitler’s onslaught. Once the U.S. entered the war, Drew was put in charge of the blood collection program for America’s troops.
Against Drew’s objections, the plasma collection was segregated, dividing white from black donors. Drew spoke out against this racist policy, but the Army refused to change their policy, so he resigned in protest.
America’s modern blood bank storage system owes a huge debt of gratitude to the work of Charles Drew and his assistants.
Many thousands of America’s soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen survived the war because of the process he developed in helping to maintain an adequate blood supply wherever it was needed.
As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s a good idea for us, as Jews, to seek out similarities and successes in our backgrounds, rather than dwelling on the differences.

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