Stephen Stern
Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

My Mentor Descended From America’s largest Jewish Slave Owning Family

Senator Chuck Schumer is the most successful American Jewish politician, if we absent Judah Benjamin. Louisiana elected Judah Benjamin to the Senate in 1852. He was one of Slavery’s most eloquent supporters and became Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State of the Confederate States. Benjamin was an American traitor who fled the U.S. for Great Britain at the end of the civil war. We also know him for being the largest Jewish slave owner in American history. I wish we could excommunicate him. (Poor Baruch Spinoza, right? He gets kicked out of the tribe for helping people see while Benjamin remains.) Forget him. I want to talk about the largest Jewish slave owning family before Benjamin took the title, whose ancestors helped civil rights activist John Lewis get to congress.

Remember, Leo Frank? The Georgian Jewish factory foreperson lynched for a murder he didn’t commit? Atlanta attorney Henry Alexander defended him. Alexander is a peripheral descendant of what was the largest American Jewish Slave owning family before Benjamin grabbed the title. I first heard of Attorney Alexander representing Frank in Moment magazine. What I didn’t know is that Alexander’s son was one of my mentors in graduate school, Henry Alexander Jr.

Henry and I met every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for two to three hours. On Tuesday, we read Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption, line by line. It took us five years. On Thursday, we read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and his Philosophical Investigations over the same five years. (Henry was the man for this: he was the student of famed Wittgenstinian Princeton Philosopher Norman Malcolm and had been very close friends with another Wittgenstinian super star, Oxford Philosopher, John Wisdom, not to mention Henry’s best pal, the Wittgenstinian UCSD Professor Avrum Stroll.) We were both convinced the later Wittgenstein was coming out of Rosenzweig. When Harvard Philosopher Hilary Putnam suggested this in 1998, we were over the moon. Like both these thinkers, Rosenzweig and Wittengenstein, Henry explained philosophy as a dead end with little social value for the world. In this spirit, he never published, while being one of the most engaged Professors I have encountered.

At one such meeting I asked Henry if he was related to Frank’s attorney, Henry Alexander. This embarrassed Henry, for he was very private and didn’t enjoy being the focus of any subject. He was, and he let me know he was also a descendant from what was once the largest American Jewish slave owning family. I asked what they said at Seder when reading freedom passages from the Haggadah. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” he said. (It’s important to note there were few Jewish slave owners in the States. See Eli Faber’s book: Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight.)

Henry was committed to serving the vulnerable. He gave a great deal of money to help fund conflict resolution programs at major universities. Speaking of Henry, Oxford philosopher and a good friend of Henry’s before he passed, Cheyney Ryan speculated that the Alexander family played a financial and a Jewish political role in helping American civil rights icon John Lewis become a congressional representative.

Cheyney had just read Lewis’s autobiography and had called to tell me to read it (Cheyney was amazed by the role of Jews in Lewis’s life) and teach it in my class, God Wrestling. I plan to do that next fall. Cheyney also told me that Henry’s life is a blessing, telling me his spirit not only lives on in those conflict resolution university programs, Henry’s spirit is manifest in the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights, which is a program made up of Oxford and American academics hosting undergraduate consortiums on Human Rights today. Cheyney Ryan with Oxford Professor Hugo Slim co-direct it.

Soon after talking to Cheyney, I found Henry’s daughter, Ruth, commenting on one of Cheyney’s Facebook posts. They chatted about Leo Frank and her grandfather. I direct messaged Ruth and asked if her family had anything to do with John Lewis getting to Congress. Ruth wrote back: “I think he first founded/co chaired the Black/Jewish Coalition with John Lewis, also co-chaired his first run for Congress, Judith Augustine & Doug Alexander, Cecil’s [Alexander] daughter and son would know more than myself though.” I haven’t gotten in touch with Judith or Doug, nor have I further engaged Ruth. I plan on it. I’d like to ask them what they think Henry’s slave owning ancestors would have thought of Henry’s Seder and his life.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College