“The student groups were powerless, but together they accomplished a great deal”: Interview with Professor Riv-Ellen Prell on the ‘A Campus Divided’ Exhibit

Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies is the co-curator of the exhibit A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism and Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942.” The exhibit is open to the public until November 30, Monday-Friday, at Andersen Library. The digital exhibit is live.

Riv-Ellen Prell 1a 2014.jpg
Professor Riv-Ellen Prell

How did the idea of this exhibit originate?

A number of years ago I read an article by Hyman Berman, now deceased, who was a long time member of the U of M Department of History, on political antisemitism. His focus was the 1938 Gubernatorial election in Minnesota between Farmer Labor governor Elmer Benson and Republican, Harold Stassen. Berman looked at the “whisper campaign” run by a Republican operative Ray P Chase, who had been state auditor, a congress person, and candidate for governor. Berman wrote that Chase received information from the Dean of Student Affairs of the period Edward Nicholson about students and faculty, their political beliefs and activities. In Chase’s dossiers about these people, he labeled many “Jew communist.” I was especially interested in that because the Center for Jewish Studies is in Nicholson Hall, and I have taught there. I was curious to know more about Nicholson and this secretive relationship of two anticommunist, antisemitic men.

Ray P. Chases’ papers are at the Minnesota Historical Society, where Berman worked with them. In 2016 I was able, with research funding, to hire Sarah Atwood, an advanced graduate student in American Studies, to spend a summer doing research. She worked first with the Chase files, and then in the University archives with the papers of the presidents, dean of student affairs and others. We also looked at the African American and the Jewish press. Patrick Wiltz, a graduate student in History, worked extensively with the Minnesota Daily.

I had the idea for the exhibition quite a while ago. At that point, Brown University was the first to begin a process to address its history of founders and trustees who were slave holders. Some of those issues were of interest to me about Dean Edward Nicholson. But the project grew in scope as we learned so much about the University’s history of racial segregation in housing, and found a dissertation by Mark Soderstrom on the 1930s at the U of M.

This exhibit is as much about political surveillance on campus as it is about racism and antisemitism, all in the 1930s. The project began with understanding surveillance, and yes, the current political climate was crucial. The intense period of research and curation all took place throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and its relevance actually grew.

 

What was the most surprising finding in your research for the exhibit? 

There were many, many surprises. Remember, the idea began with learning there was collusion between the Dean of Student Affairs and a Republican politician for more than half of the 1930s. Then, the revelation that from 1931-1942 there was segregated, taxpayer funded student housing. President Guy Stanton Ford forbade that as soon as he became president in 1937, but it began again as soon as he retired. Jewish students could be excluded from boarding houses, with the consent of the U of M from the 1920s until the 1950s.

But there were positive surprises too, and that included how powerful activism was on the campus, and how deeply involved students were with segregation, anti-war activism, and student rights.

 

What lessons does this exhibit teach for the present?

“A Campus Divided” is both a deeply disturbing story and a truly uplifting one for me. I would like visitors to understand how effective student activists were in almost all of the issues that they addressed, which included segregated housing, required military drills for male students, and opening campus life to competing ideas.

They succeeded when they forged alliances. The issue of segregated housing was led by African American students, but they partnered with white activists. The antiwar groups created umbrella organizations that included a variety of perspectives on whether the US should enter the war in Europe. Students also formed alliances with the NAACP. The American Jewish World and the Spokesman, an African American newspaper, were both involved in campus issues, which were communicated to their communities. Some students worked with the Farmer-Labor Party as well. All of these groups were powerless, but together they accomplished a great deal.

 

The exhibit shows that in the 30s there were alliances forged across political, religious, and racial lines, specifically between Jewish and Black student groups. How much of such alliances do you see happening today?

Your question is not precisely accurate. The Menorah Society existed during this period, but there were not many specifically political Jewish groups. Individual Jews were very active in all of the struggles I have described. Our most recent politics in the United States have now put white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the forefront of activism. Those groups most threatened and targeted by these groups are working together in productive ways. Neither Jews nor African Americans are monolithic groups. There is great variability within each community. In the progressive groups of American Jewish life there is tremendous support for and commitment to issues around immigration, including of course, DACA and deportations, and racial justice.

 

Should the UMN consider renaming Nicholson Hall and other spaces named after figures whose worldview and actions this exhibit critiques?

On September 13 President Kaler announced that he was appointing “The President’s and Provost’s Advisory Committee on University History” to guide our thinking about appropriate modern responses to historical issues on our campuses. Its membership will be drawn from students, administrators, faculty, alumni, and the University of Minnesota Foundation. I believe that this process is ideal for considering how to address the history of the University of Minnesota and the legacy it will bring into the 21st century. I hope that the members of this commission that will be headed by Dean John Coleman will be good listeners and will take their responsibility seriously.

 

How will UMN students and the community engage with the content of this exhibit (classes, visits, etc.)?

A course is being offered in the 2018 spring semester in the history department on historical memory that will look at the events in Charlottesville as well as the materials from the exhibit. Students in a number of classes in the Departments of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, History, and Journalism thus far, during the 2017 fall semester will be seeing the exhibit as part of their courses. Additionally, student leaders in the Student Senate, in Coffman Union and other programs are viewing the exhibit.

 

Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist, is Professor Emerita of the Department of American Studies. She is the author of many books and articles about American Jewish culture, and the ways in which gender, class and race have shaped it. Her books include: Prayer and Community: the Havurah in American Judaism (winner of a National Jewish Book Award), Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation, and Women Remaking American Judaism. She was awarded the Marshal Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry for her contributions to scholarship in the field.

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