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The Beginning of "Black-Jewish Relations"? The Howard University “Minority Groups” Conference of 1935 and the Emergence of a New Scholarly Subfield

Sun, December 16, 12:30 to 2:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 1 Ballroom

Abstract

Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), the famed African American philosopher and man of letters, is best known as the dean of the Black Arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He is also famous for being the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship, and to have helped develop the term cultural pluralism, the precursor to modern multiculturalism, along with his Jewish friend and fellow pragmatist philosopher, Horace Meyer Kallen. With all these accomplishments, it is sometimes forgotten that he taught philosophy at Howard University for nearly four decades. His endeavors as an academic dovetailed with and advanced his ideology of cultural pluralism, particularly in regards to Jews.

This paper focuses on a conference Alain Locke organized at Howard in April of 1935. This conference, on “Problems, Programs, and Philosophies of Minority Groups,” featured participants who were mostly either Black or Jewish. Jews who participated included Kallen, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, Marvin Lowenthal, Otto Klineberg, Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, as well as several Communists of Jewish origin. African Americans who participated included W.E.B. Du Bois, Mordecai Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche. White gentiles like Robert Park also gave papers. This conference was significant for Locke on a personal level, as it sparked the rekindling of his friendship with Kallen. More important, it furthered the goal of the Harlem Renaissance, that is, to situate African American culture and experience as equal to that of other ethnic groups in the United States. By comparing Blacks to Jews, African Americans at the conference could further understand themselves as an ethnic and cultural group, rather than a racial one.

Most interestingly—though more research is needed on the subject—this conference may have been the first scholarly setting where Blacks and Jews were compared and examined together in an academic manner. This 1935 Howard University conference, then, may serve as a point of origin for the topic and academic subfield today knows as Black-Jewish relations. The year 1935 is a crucial one, in the midst of the Great Depression and the Jim Crow Era, but also at the dawn of Nazism in Europe, Blacks and Jews had particular reasons to see each other as equals and allies, and a particular desire to learn from one another.

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