BY JERRY STERNBERG
I grew up in Asheville, where segregation at all levels was just a way of life. In retrospect, I think that in many ways, the Jim Crow laws were almost as cruel as slavery had been. Yet at the time, I heard little or no concern from either the white or Black community about the obvious indignity of these laws.
But we were mired in a brutal Depression, and I assume that open public defiance could have meant the loss of precious jobs, physical violence or worse. Besides, in those days it did not seem strange that, in the South, Blacks were segregated from whites. Everyone on both sides seemed to accept this situation as normal.
Mixing it up
One of the most popular radio series back then was the Amos ’n’ Andy show. Written, produced and acted by two white men, it humorously portrayed a pair of all-too-human African Americans. Everyone — including, I assume, many Blacks — found this comedy entertaining and just yukked it up. There were few complaints until, decades later, the NAACP protested that the newly launched TV version, which debuted in 1951 and featured Black actors, reinforced stereotypes that probably helped delay the repeal of Jim Crow.
A complex equation
It might seem incongruous that, sometime in the late 1940s, our local Jewish youths group staged one or more minstrel shows as fundraisers at the Jewish Community Center. For the most part, however, the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities during this period was comfortable. Jews did not share the level of hatred for Blacks that was prevalent in the general population.
I think there were several reasons for this.
The first was that both Jews and Blacks suffered due to white Christian bigotry, and this led to a certain amount of bonding. Once Southern whites regained control after Reconstruction ended, they displayed a vengeful hatred toward the Black population that persists to this day. Many whites felt threatened by the possibility that Blacks would take their jobs — and God forbid that a Black man might sexually accost their women. Being better educated, however, the Jewish families who settled in this area weren’t worried about economic competition from Blacks.
And finally, most of the Jews who moved here in the ’30s and ’40s were either immigrants or first-generation Americans. At that time, in Europe and particularly the Slavic nations, Blacks were scarce and thus something of a novelty, which made them seem less threatening.
Growing up, we were never allowed to disrespect Black people. Quite often the Black maid was the most respected person in the house. In addition to handling the cooking, cleaning and laundry, she ministered to the sick, disciplined the children and broke up family arguments.
We were never allowed to use the N-word. Interestingly, many Jews did use the term “schvartze,” a Yiddish/German word meaning Black person; some also might say “colored” or “darky.” But while these were certainly less-than-affirming appellations, I never sensed that they expressed the same level of hatred and venom associated with the N-word. I did not hear or see racial slurs or disparagement from other Jews I met, nor ever in a synagogue or at the Jewish Community Center. This was also true when I traveled to other Southern communities to take part in events sponsored by Jewish organizations.
Over many years, Jews were denied the right to work in a wide variety of businesses and industries. It is therefore not surprising that many Jews became scavengers. Although the work was often hard, dirty and considered undesirable, it required great skill to efficiently collect and process many discarded items for reuse. Jews developed entrepreneurial and innovative expertise in order to become highly successful in this trade, which is now known as “recycling.” It was interesting that when I accompanied my dad to conventions for dealers in scrap metals as well as paper and textile waste, it was with some good-natured amusement that the gentile dealers often found themselves to be a very small minority.
Many of the Jews who came to Asheville went into the recycling business, and in the ’40s and ’50s, this area became a major player in processing textile and synthetic waste. Accelerating the trend, American Enka, which had been producing rayon in Enka-Candler since the 1920s, built a nylon plant here in 1953. Soon after, the huge company moved its headquarters from New York to Asheville.
In addition to our abundant water supply, textile manufacturers such as Beacon Manufacturing Co., Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries and the Asheville Cotton Mill came here to avoid having to pay union wages. And since cotton was mainly grown in the South, textile companies that moved here were also closer to their primary raw material.
Because the recycling business required large numbers of unskilled laborers, Jews in Asheville were among the largest local employers of Black men and women. The men liked the stability of a steady paycheck. Most of the women liked the fact that it was an 8-to-5 job with weekends off, which meant more time to be with their children compared with the much longer hours and low pay that domestic jobs entailed.
A bitter legacy
When my peers and I reached our teenage years, socializing became quite challenging. While we all had non-Jewish friends, we were discouraged from dating people who didn’t share our faith. The great fear among our parents and community leaders was that we would just be absorbed into other cultures, thereby losing our identity and the political leverage that enabled us to survive. The next time some pharaoh, king or dictator decided to scapegoat and marginalize our bloodline, Jews could once again be expelled, enslaved or murdered outright in order to destroy our religion and our culture.
I remember an Orthodox family in town whose son married out of the faith. Following an ancient Jewish tradition, they sat shiva (the traditional period of mourning) as if their son were dead. And when the tables were turned and a non-Jewish young person brought home a Jewish bride or groom, there was no great enthusiasm either.
Our Jewish Community Center was a big help, not only by bringing local teenagers together but also by pulling in Jewish youngsters who lived in the outlying counties to the west. In addition, we attended programs for Jewish teens sponsored by the B’nai B’rith organization in many Southern cities. Those were wonderful weekends, and decades later, I still know Jewish people or family members of folks I met at such gatherings.
Final note: As in the previous pieces in this series, I want to stress that I am simply trying to report the historical facts of my life as a Jew growing up and living here. In that spirit, I am deliberately refraining from editorializing or making philosophical judgments. I encourage readers to share their own observations in the online comments section, for all of us to read and consider.
Look for “The Moshe Cohen Laws,” the next installment in this series, in an upcoming issue of Xpress.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.