Jews of the South - In the Land of Firsts

In spite of the terror and repression of the Old South, Jews managed to survive and even thrive in the Land of Firsts.

Southern Jews wearing the Confederate gray (photo credit: Courtesy)
Southern Jews wearing the Confederate gray
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On March 3, 1801 – 220 years ago – the State of Georgia chose its first Jewish governor, David Emanuel. Contrary to popular belief, a Southern state became the first to choose a Jew to lead its government.
Emanuel was not a practicing Jew, and historians have debated his Jewishness. He served for only eight months and completed his predecessor’s term of office. That short duration may have accounted for his popularity and in 1812, Georgia founded Emanuel County in the eastern part of the state.
The next prominent Jewish politician from the South was David Yulee. The Florida State Legislature elected him as a US Senator in 1845 (state legislatures elected U.S. Senators until 1913) and Yulee became the first Jew in the Senate Chamber. Though Yulee converted to Christianity, he could not escape his heritage and ran into antisemitism during his career. Yulee proved to be a strong supporter of Southern interests and supported slavery and the secession of Florida from the Union in 1860. He also aided the escape of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in 1865 and was imprisoned by federal authorities for nine months.
The first openly Jewish US senator came from Louisiana. The Louisiana State Legislature elected Judah Benjamin in 1853 and sent him to Washington. A highly successful attorney, he argued US Supreme Court cases while serving in the Senate.
Like Yulee, he too supported secession. In 1861, Benjamin resigned his seat and joined the Confederate government. He went on to serve as the Confederacy’s attorney-general, secretary of war and its secretary of state.
Through four years of service to the Confederate cause, Benjamin earned the loyalty of Davis.
In January of 1865, the Union Army stood only 21 miles from Richmond, Virginia, the Southern capital. Realizing that drastic steps needed to be taken to prevent defeat, Benjamin gave a speech to advance a controversial proposal that would increase the supply of recruits to the Confederate Army: emancipation of black slaves in exchange for military service.
The shock wave of disapproval grew so deafening that Benjamin offered his resignation to Davis nine days later. The Confederate president refused to accept it and Benjamin continued in his post until the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Benjamin fled the capital with Davis during the president’s flight from Richmond. They later parted and Benjamin made his way into exile in Britain, where he launched a successful career as a London barrister.  
Unfortunately, Benjamin and his fellow Jews adopted the ways of much of Southern society and owned slaves. He purchased a Louisiana plantation called Bellechasse with 300 slaves. 75% of the Jewish families in Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia, also owned slaves. Since these cities contained small Jewish populations, the number of slaves owned by them was low. Though Jews such as Isaac DaCosta of Charleston participated in the international slave trade, the role of Jews in the trafficking was negligible.
When secession and the American Civil War came, Southern Jews enthusiastically joined the Confederate cause. On April 26, 1862, the Confederacy passed America’s first conscription law, which required white men between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve for three year terms in the Confederate armed forces. Southern Jews, many of them immigrants, volunteered to serve in the Southern military prior to the passing of the Confederate draft. Many of these volunteers came from European states with conscription laws which they had come to America to escape. They now volunteered to fight for the South. In total, 3,000 Jews fought on the Southern side during the American Civil War.
With the advent of Reconstruction, the South ceased to be a Land of Firsts. Slavery gave way to segregation, which ultimately led to the Civil Rights Era. The majority of Southern Jews abstained from civil rights activism. The Jews involved in the movement came mostly from Northern and Western states, with certain notable exceptions.
Jacob Rothschild, the rabbi of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation from 1946 to 1973, known as the Temple, called attention to racial injustice in his sermons. For these and other actions, extremists bombed the Temple on October 12, 1958. Neither Rothschild nor any of his congregants were injured. He continued his advocacy despite the intimidation and became a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King.
In spite of the terror and repression of the Old South, Jews managed to survive and even thrive in the Land of Firsts.
The writer is an attorney and author of crime and thriller fiction, based in New York