A Surprisingly Unsurprising Look at Southern Jewish Life in the Age of Leo Frank

Art Remillard

Despite the request, I have nothing interesting to say about the Leo Frank lynching. Kelly Baker's insights (here and here) are far more interesting than mine--trust me. But wait, my un-impressiveness doesn't end here. I also have nothing new to say about Southern Jewish life in the Frank era. So why am I writing this? Because of Samuel Farkas.

When I began researching the post-Reconstruction South's civil religious discourses, I was determined include a Jewish voice. Based on my limited knowledge of the Frank lynching, I assumed that Jews were surrounded by open hostility. Yet, during one archive visit, I met with relatives of Samuel Farkas, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who arrived in Albany, Georgia after the Civil War. With limited resources, Farkas launched a mule-trading business and, within ten years, rose to become a distinguished businessman and property owner. By the time he died in 1914, he collected rent from approximately 400 people. He also left behind glorious legends, to include a classic circus-act-gone-wrong story. When a circus lion refused to release its trainer's head, the ringmaster begged anyone with a gun to shoot the lion. Sitting in the crowd, Farkas didn’t have a gun. But he did carry a cane, which he reportedly jammed down the lion’s throat to save the day.

As I talked more with his relatives, it became clear that Farkas was a noteworthy public figure in Albany who commanded attention and respect. They never indicated that his Jewishness was a major problem. So I continued touring the Gulf South, sleeping in my tent, visiting archives, and talking with locals. And I found more Farkas-esque figures. There were thriving Jewish politicians, businesspeople, sheriffs, mayors, philanthropists, “joiners,” and social climbers. Moreover, they did all of this before, during, and after the Frank lynching. What about anti-Semitism? It was there. And it was clear that for some Southern white Protestants, Jews were held with a degree of suspicion. But it wasn't as bad as I had expected, and I was eager to begin writing. Then I dug in to the historiography. Talk about a downer. As Louis Schmier summarized, the Frank affair “hovered like a foreboding raven about the heads of Jews, evoking fear and insecurity.” But at the end of the day, Southern white Protestants tended to respect Jews for their charitable deeds, business acumen, and commitment to the Old Testament. Other historians have agreed, to include Leonard Rogoff. (If you haven't already, take the time to read his provocatively entitled article “Is the Jew White?: The Racial Place of the Southern Jew.")

So my chapter on Jewish civil religious discourse wasn't as sexy as I had hoped. But that might not be a bad thing. In conversation after conversation, I find scholar-friends surprised by my findings, particularly in light of the region's noted anti-Catholicism. In Florida, for example, Sidney Catts won the governorship in 1916, even though he ran as a member of the Prohibition Party and had no real political experience. But he did preach the gospel of anti-Catholicism. Catts was a close ally of Leo Frank’s principal agitator, Tom Watson. On matters of religious prejudice, however, the two had their differences. When rumors of Catts’s anti-Semitism circulated during the governor’s tenure, Catts moved quickly to reject the accusation. For Catts, Jews were presumably “true Southerners”—Catholics, on the other hand, were anything but.

Why the difference? I can only speculate. For now, I'll continue telling this surprisingly unsurprising story.


Kelly Baker said…
I had a student tell me a story about her Jewish relatives in Jacksonville, FL who were offered Klan membership. The local Klan either didn't realize their Jewishness or didn't care. Either way it makes an interesting complement to your "surprisingly unsurprising look."

Now, we have to figure another common topic to blog together about.
Kendall said…
On the Leo Frank case, I recommend checking out a recently PBS docudrama, The People v. Leo Frank, by Ben Loeterman:

Kelly Baker said…

One of my posts for the blog is a review of the docudrama.