By RONDA ROBINSON ATLANTAExtract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
An exhibit in Atlanta reconstructs the social conditions that led to the only lynching of a Jew in the United States
Her head is cocked to the side. Two big bows frame her dark hair and eyes. In this copy of a sepia photo from 1913, she appears to be wearing a locket. Mary Phagan is a young teenager whose life will soon be cut short. Her death will lead to the only lynching of a Jew in the history of America.
The case has had a long-lasting effect on Georgia Jews. A prominent Jewish woman of that era reported in a letter to a friend that 100 of Atlanta's Jewish leaders had met after the lynching and talked about what they could do without aggravating conditions. Nothing, they decided. They asked The New York Times to stop publicizing the case. They wanted to lie low. After earnest deliberation, the men felt that "for the safety and good of our people they had better not try to rouse the anger of the mob, for any attempt to bring the mob to justice would be disastrous to ourselves."
Not until a hate-bombing at The Temple in 1958 - after which Jews received a welcome outpouring of support from the city's gentiles - did many feel they could put the lynching case to rest in their hearts.
In 1909, at the age of 10, Mary Phagan began working part-time at an Atlanta textile mill. Having rebuilt itself from the ashes of the Civil War, the city exemplified the promise of the New South, according to Dr. Andy Ambrose, author of two books on Atlanta history. During the early 20th century, thousands of persons, many from rural areas, crowded into Atlanta seeking employment in factories and businesses. Women and children had been joining the labor pool and changing the makeup of the workforce in the New South.
By 1911, Mary Phagan had landed a full-time job with a paper manufacturer. Then in 1912, the 13-year-old signed on at the National Pencil Company and earned 10 cents an hour. Her boss was Leo Frank, factory superintendent and a prominent member of Atlanta's German Jewish community. Tragedy would befall both and keep their names linked throughout history.
Most recently, the two were featured in a moving exhibit at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. "Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited," opened in February 2008 and is scheduled to close on February 22, 2009. It will reopen at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - a Living Memorial to the Holocaust on March 30, 2009.
Breman Executive Director Jane Leavey and archivist Sandy Berman spent more than 20 years building the collection that explores the Leo Frank case. Both have been with the Atlanta Jewish heritage museum since its opening in 1985.
"It was so much a part of the Atlanta and Southern Jewish history story," Berman says of the Frank case. "The more we delved into it, the more we realized it was a national story as well. â€¦ It really had an impact on the national news, on the Jewish community nationally. A lot of folks compare it to the [Alfred] Dreyfus case."
She explains that there was a rush to judgment in both cases. "Even when new evidence started to emerge, prosecution and police didn't really investigate it."
The "Seeking Justice" exhibit sets the stage and then tells the tale of the Frank case. "The Civil War left the South's economy in ruins, its male population diminished by death and injury, and its social order forever changed by the abolition of slavery. Many Southerners were forced to leave behind their agrarian way of life for job opportunities in newly industrialized cities like Atlanta," reads the catalog and text at the exhibit prepared by Berman and Leavey.
"Through the late 1870s and into the 1900s, local Atlanta and regional leaders began to herald a vision of a 'New South' to redefine and rejuvenate the region after the Civil War and Reconstruction. The vision imagined a new industrial age that would bring increased economic opportunities for families, including women and children, who would happily join the workforce to bolster family incomes. It promised a society in which blacks and whites would live together in harmony and divisive issues related to immigration would not prevail in the region."
But in 1906, the race for governor erupted into a campaign of hatred. On September 22, a race riot claimed dozens of lives.
"Seeking Justice" shows how "nativism," the fear and distrust of immigrants, was festering in Atlanta society. "Jews of all backgrounds increasingly became associated with the 'evils' of industrialization," according to the exhibit. "It was against this backdrop of anti-immigration sentiment that the case against Leo Frank was made."
Northern "foreign" factory bosses were viewed as dangerous and even predatory toward Southern white women and children, who had worked alongside their men in agriculture and now were finding jobs in industry on their own.
"Children were paid far less than adult workers for work that was dangerous and exhausting. Few found the time or energy for education. In 1910, less than one-half of white school-age children in Atlanta were enrolled in the city's public schools," reads the catalog and text at the exhibit.
Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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