The Reconstruction period presented a vision of a multiracial democracy, allowing formerly enslaved African Americans in the South to vote, obtain land and hold elected office.
What’s interesting is that while most white Jews sided with the white majority, a handful joined the Republican Party and supported the Reconstruction-era government, the lawyer said. Robert Rosen, who helped found the South Carolina Jewish Historical Society.
The Jewish connection to the Age of Reconstruction is among many other topics explored in a new web series launched by the group during the pandemic.
The online series explores many topics, including Jewish history, South Carolina Jews and reconstruction, Jewish merchants, and the role of the Jewish community in the Civil War. The events take place at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
People can register for sessions or check specific program dates online at jhssc.org.
Rosen and U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel began the online conversations in July 2020. This was after it became clear that the historical society would not be able to hold its two annual meetings. The online effort was designed to keep people engaged with the association throughout the year, exploring interesting topics with experts.
Gergel was expecting about fifty guests. They saw hundreds of them in one sitting.
“We had people from all over the country,” Gergel said. “It was an interesting trip.”
Charleston has a deep Jewish history. At the start of the Republic, the city had the largest Jewish population in America, Gergel said.
Charleston is also home to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, which contains the oldest shrine permanently used for Jewish worship in America.
Jews fought for fair treatment in local educational institutions. At the College of Charleston, Jewish students had been forced to take compulsory courses on Christianity as part of the school’s curriculum until Jewish student Solomon Cohen asked the board of trustees in 1855 for an exemption.
Digital conversations have highlighted some of these struggles in education. One Sunday Conversation discussed the use of Jewish quotas in medical and dental schools from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The historical society also led a session on the role Jews played in the Civil War, noting that the Jewish community served in armies on both sides of the conflict and that some Jews owned slaves.
Nationally renowned historians and scholars have been featured on the series, including Yale professor David Blight.
Blight, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”, called the reconstruction a “political revolution” that saw 1,500 black southerners elected.
People of Jewish descent have also ascended to local and national political offices throughout South Carolina.
Francis Lewis Cardozo, the biracial son of a Jewish merchant, was elected Secretary of State for South Carolina in 1868. He was the first African American elected to a statewide office in the country.
There was also Abraham Solomon, who served as an auditor in Richland County, and Melvin J. Hirsch from Williamsburg County.
In addition, the Darlington region “has exceeded its weight in terms of Jewish Republicans,” said reconstruction historian Hyman Rubin III.
The progress of African Americans met with backlash from whites in the South who imposed political terror and violence to regain power, thus ending Reconstruction.
Historians who have studied the era over the following years have widely viewed the Reconstruction as a “terrible mistake,” especially since it allowed black people to vote, Blight said.
This view began to change in light of Jewish suffering in Europe.
New consideration was given to the reconstruction period in the context of the United States’ struggle against Nazism in World War II, Blight said.
The racial violence imposed against Jews in Europe, along with the subsequent rise in America of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, led new scholars to examine the gains made by reconstruction, Blight said.
“There was a whole new group of younger historians asking very different questions,” Blight said.
The Sunday Conversations series saw Gergel and Rosen receive the Order of the Jewish Palmetto from JHSSC, the company announced on September 27.
The award has been presented six times previously and is given to those who have given way beyond expectations, the company said.
“(Gergel and Rosen) each represent the best of us, and we are very grateful for their willingness to provide their expertise and energy over the past 18 months to create the program (Sunday conversations),” said the president of the company, Lilly Stern Filler.
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