The Trump administration is resurrecting this prewar framework — a racist, exclusionary system that shut out nearly all nonwhite, non-Western European refugees. Once again, desperate people who turn to the United States for help are being forced to return to the deadly circumstances of their home countries.
During World War II, even as the government sought to keep people out, some Americans, including key administrators at historically black colleges and universities, worked to bring people to safety — and their example offers lessons for us today.
As the Nazis took power in Germany, Jews faced immediate danger. Despite the pogroms and concentration camps, however, Jews fleeing Nazi rule couldn’t just come to the United States. For one thing, they had to prove they would not be a “public charge” — i.e., that they could support themselves financially — before they would be eligible for a visa to the United States. Since the refugees were required to leave almost all of their money in Germany, they had little hope of supporting themselves upon arrival in the United States and were forced to secure affidavits from U.S. citizens, typically relatives, who pledged to support them — a lengthy process.
The public charge rule was an onerous obstacle but not the only one. Jewish refugees needed travel visas from each country they might cross in their journey to the United States and needed to prove they would not pose a security risk. Would-be immigrants also faced years-long waiting lists for visas that were essentially a death sentence, a point made by Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) on the House floor in 1943. “It takes months and months to grant the visas,” Celler said, “and then it usually applies to a corpse.”
The U.S. government was well aware of Nazi atrocities as early as the 1930s, yet that knowledge did not spur federal action.
“One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated,” Treasury official Josiah E. DuBois Jr. wrote in a scathing 1944 memo. He warned that “this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination” and backed up his assertion with pages of documentation showing that State Department officials, driven by anti-Semitism, actively blocked the rescue of Jews desperately trying to escape Europe. A few weeks after the memo was written, President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally formed the War Refugee Board, which is credited with saving as many as 200,000 Jewish refugees.
Private organizations and individuals had long before stepped up to help refugees circumvent barriers erected by U.S. immigration policy. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American Friends Service Committee drew on its networks to find strangers who would pledge to support refugees as a way to sidestep the public charge rule. The Rockefeller Foundation formed the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars to place academics expelled from German universities at U.S. universities, where they would be eligible for work visas.
Finding jobs was not a simple task, even when placing highly qualified professors with degrees from distinguished institutions. The same anti-Semitism that fueled efforts to keep Jews out of the United States also pervaded academia. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, American faculty members who had seen their salaries slashed resented the idea of refugee scholars who might add to the strain on already limited university resources.
In that atmosphere, salvation at times came down to the actions of a single college administrator, horrified by the loss of life, who intervened with the offer of a job and a visa. That was the case at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where administrators saved the lives of 50 German Jewish scholars, who were hired at such institutions as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
German philosopher Ernst Manasse was one of the scholars rescued by an HBCU. He was taken on by North Carolina Central University (NCCU), largely thanks to James Shepard, the university’s president and founder. Manasse reached the United States after years of searching for safety. He left Germany for good in 1935, when Nazis blocked his father’s funeral procession because it included Jews and non-Jews. He settled in Italy until Mussolini announced that all non-Italian Jews would be expelled. Manasse and his wife, Marianne, left Italy in 1938 but were unable to secure travel visas to the same place. She and their infant son went to Brazil, and he went to Oxford University for a semester.
From England, Manasse successfully applied for a tourist visa to the United States, after collecting an affidavit supplied reluctantly by an American uncle he hardly knew. As soon as he arrived, he set about finding an academic position. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars declined to help Manasse because he had completed his PhD just as Jews were expelled from German universities and, therefore, had never held a professorship. After a year of searching, a month before his visa expired, Shepard offered him a position at NCCU that paid just enough for the Manasses to survive and qualified Manasse for a work visa.
“If I had not found a refuge at that time,” Manasse later reflected, “I would have been arrested, deported to a Nazi concentration camp, tortured and eventually killed.” Instead, he remained on the NCCU faculty until he retired in 1973 and lived the rest of his life in Durham.
Shepard eventually hired three more German scholars. He was motivated by humanitarianism but also recognized an unprecedented opportunity to bring world-class scholars to NCCU. Shepard’s foresight was a boon to students for generations to come.
“These teachers cared for us, they demonstrated a recognition of the barriers we had to confront and committed themselves to arming us with what we needed to survive it all,” recalled Manasse’s former student Eugene Eaves, who was later a professor of linguistics and provost at NCCU.
Other German Jewish scholars left a similar legacy. Sociologist and civil rights leader Joyce Ladner, former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders and artist John T. Biggers are just a few HBCU graduates who were mentored by refugee scholars.
Today, few Americans on the right or left would deny that the anti-Semitism that left Jews to die during the war is an indelible stain on the nation. Concern about whether German Jews would be public charges in no way justified the fact that the United States could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives but didn’t. While ordinary Americans had less power to welcome refugees than the state did, many worked to counter official gatekeeping by facilitating sponsorships, jobs and visas — and, in doing so, saved lives.
The actions of HBCU administrators remain instructive today, not only because they made humane and ethical choices, but also because racism and anti-Semitism didn’t blind their foresight. Shepard and others in his position were capable of seeing that refugees had much to offer their institutions and deserved humanitarian protection. That’s a lesson we would do well to remember today, as the Trump administration seeks to expand the public charge rule and embraces other methods of exclusion. Refugees may arrive without money or possessions, yet still have much to contribute toward making the United States a better nation.