In February 1956 I received my Masters Degree and two months later I was invited to teach Hebrew and to act as assistant to the rabbi at a prominent Conservative synagogue in Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederate States and the birthplace of racial segregation. Upon arriving at the Richmond railway terminal I had my first bitter taste of segregation. Water-fountain signs read “Whites Only” or “Coloreds Only”. The same signs were posted on the bathroom doors.
I was distraught when entering a café or restaurant for a meal to notice the signs in the windows, “Whites Only”. It reminded me of the years prior to the Holocaust when German signs were posted everywhere…Juden Verboten…Jews are forbidden to enter this park, Jews are forbidden in this hotel, Jews may not sit in the front seats of university lecture halls but are restricted to the back three rows, etc. We were forbidden because of our religion. In Virginia, people were forbidden because of their color.
Having lived in the north, I was not accustomed to segregation. Colored children and white children played together, walked to school together, and very often lived on the same street. We did not have racial restrictions nor harbored any resentment to non-whites. We lived in harmony and often in true friendship.
My first few months in Richmond were painful. On one occasion I took a local bus from my home to Thalhimers Department Store, a major shopping center in downtown Richmond. The bus was crowded and I had an aisle seat towards the rear of the bus. At one stop, several colored passengers boarded the bus and next to me an elderly colored woman, holding a heavy bag, was standing. I got up to offer her my seat when the driver stopped the bus, turned around and shouted “Sit down, mister. She knows where she has to sit”.
Once when I suffered from a heavy cough I went to visit a doctor who was a member of the synagogue. I had not been in his office before and I entered a waiting room and sat down. I noticed that I was the only white person in the room. A gentleman politely told me, Mister, you are in the wrong room. This waiting room is only for coloreds”.
Moving to the white waiting room I could not help but vent my anger. White blood and colored blood are both red. White people have illnesses and so do colored people. Why must they be in separate waiting rooms?
Several weeks later, the rabbi called me into his office and introduced me to two very distinguished-looking colored men. The first was introduced as Dr. Samuel Proctor, President of the local black Virginia Union University, and the second was Dr. Thomas Henderson, Dean of the university. The rabbi briefly explained to me the nature of their visit and then turned the meeting to Dr. Proctor.
He wanted to know if I would be interested in accepting a position on his faculty. I could barely refrain from showing my excitement and after Dr. Proctor explained what I would teach and the protocols to be observed, I stood up and shook the hands of both of these gentlemen and gladly accepted the offered position. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made.
My first visit to the impressive campus must have shocked the students passing by from building to building. What is a white man doing here? Maybe he is lost.
The chairperson of the English department to which I was assigned was a very gentle and loving woman named Mary-Elizabeth Johnson. She told me she would be pleased if I could teach a class in literature, in particular, biblical literature which was my specialty.
I shall never forget the looks of astonished students when I first entered the classroom and introduced myself. I was the only white member of the faculty and there was a Japanese professor of New Testament in the Theology department. But I was the first white teacher these young students had ever had.
They treated me with great respect and during the course of the first semester we had bonded with one another. They were bright young men and women, eager to learn, and they asked many questions. They wanted to know why a white man would teach in a black university. And I replied, “because I am color-blind. I don’t look at one’s color. All I see is a group of students with a desire to learn and I am honored to share my knowledge with them”.
As time passed, I shared with them my pain of experiencing racial segregation for the first time in my life. One day I invited a small group of students, six of them, to come to my home the following evening for cake and coffee. And four of the six arrived. We shared good conversation while munching on cookies and cake and sipping hot instant coffee. When they left, they shook my hand and thanked me politely.
Later that same night, my land-lady, a grand-daughter of a Confederate soldier in America’s civil war, knocked at my door. When she came in, her first words were “:Look here, Mister Ben-Sorek. You cannot bring those people into this house. They don’t belong here and if you bring them here again I will evict you. Is that clear to you?”
I replied, “Ms. Hughes, “those” people happen to be my students. They are bright young people and I wanted to invite them for an evening of social conversation”. And Ms. Hughes replied, “I don’t give a damn who they are. I don’t want n—–s (using a terrible word) in my house”.
The next day someone threw a rock into my window with a note attached by a rubber band. The note said “we don’t want white n—–s living in our neighborhood”.
Some weeks later I asked Ms. Hughes if I could use her cleaning-lady to clean my rooms. Some days later the woman arrived and at once she began mopping the floors, dusting the furniture, vacuuming the carpet and making everything look spic-and-span. I prepared a lunch for her… a bowl of hot tomato soup, a cheese sandwich and a small green salad. And I sat at the table opposite her eating the same lunch.
KNOCK..KNOCK…KNOCK… Ms, Hughes was at the door. She was astounded and angry to see me sitting at the table and eating with a colored cleaning woman. Her only remark was “she can eat by herself and you should eat by yourself. Mister Ben-Sorek , how long have you been here in Richmond? You haven’t learned much about life in the south, have you?”
Oh yes, I had. And I hated it.
One Friday, the rabbi fell ill and telephoned me to conduct the evening Sabbath service and to preach the sermon. In my sermon I spoke of my experiences at Virginia Union University. I reminded the congregants that our Torah teaches us to remember that we were slaves for 430 years in Egypt. We were oppressed and beaten and we cried unto our God to deliver us from bondage. And God heard our cries and saw our affliction and He sent Moses to lead us from slavery to freedom. How then, can we as Jews, tolerate segregation and racial intolerance?
At the end of the religious service, the chairman of the board of trustees of the synagogue pulled me aside and told me in no uncertain terms, “Do you like your job here? Do you want to keep it? Then don’t you ever dare to discuss here what you preached tonight. You came up here from the north. We in the south have been living our separate lives for hundreds of years and we like living the way we do. You made it seems like we harm them negroes. No we don’t. We just don’t want them where they don’t belong”.
I was heartsick to hear those words from a Jew. I had been accustomed to hearing hate words from ignorant non-Jews who would say “we don’t want the Christ-killers, dirty Jews, living here”.
How I survived two years in Virginia is beyond me. I suffered intensely from verbal abuse because of my disdain for segregation and racial laws. My years on the faculty of Virginia Union University were happy ones for me. I left at the end of my second year to go to France where I studied for my Doctorate in Comparative Literature and then was appointed to the faculty of religion and foreign languages at Boston University. There I founded the Hebrew department and taught literature of the Old Testament for many years .
Sixty years have passed since my days in Richmond. Some weeks ago I took it upon myself to write a letter to the President of Virginia Union University, whose name I did not know, and in my letter I shared with him my memories of two happy years on his campus.
A few days later I received a surprise telephone call from Dr. Joseph Johnson, President of Virginia Union University. He thanked me warmly for my letter and we chatted together about shared memories. Dr. Johnson has invited me to be a guest of the university in a Founders Day celebration in February.
The university was founded in 1865 at the close of the civil war. Its first classes were held in a shack which had been a jail where negro men and women were kept imprisoned, tortured, and sold as slaves.
The purpose of Virginia Union University was to offer freed slaves the opportunity of an education in dignity. And for the past 152 years, the university has provided quality education in arts, sciences, humanities, theology and medicine to thousands of young men and women.
With a happy heart I am eagerly looking forward to my re-union with Union in February. It is now a free campus on which brotherhood and tolerance walk together holding heads high. “Free at last. Thank God Almighty we’re free at last”. The words of the late Martin Luther King Jr. resound with pride.