Home May 2024 The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County

The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County

A poster in the exhibit showing Albert Einstein’s commitment to racial justice.
Photo by Debra Rubin

Exhibit Tells the Little-Known Story of Albert Einstein’s

Albert Einstein and some of the great Black innovators and inventors shared many things in common, including having to overcome discrimination.
    Einstein narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis in his native Germany and found refuge and employment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Because of his own history of being the target of antisemitism he became outraged at the racism directed toward Blacks in this country and became active in the fight for their civil rights.
    “He wanted to help no matter what race, religion, ethnicity or economic class,” said Jessica Solomon, executive director of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, which is currently displaying an exhibit, “Albert Einstein: Champion of Racial Justice and Equality,” through June 30.  
    She made her remarks during the April 14 grand opening of the exhibit, which is on loan from the Princeton Einstein Museum of Science. It showcases Einstein’s advocacy for Black Americans, including pushing an anti-lynching initiative, instructing Black students denied equal educational opportunities  and befriending many Black celebrities and civil rights leaders of the last century.  Solomon said the Einstein museum is touring the exhibit around the state and had offered it to the Monmouth museum.
 

Keynote speakers and leaders of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County at the grand opening of an exhibit showcasing Albert Einstein’s efforts to seek social justice for Black Americans. From left are: board member and exhibit director Alice Berman; James Howard, executive director of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame Museum; Jakora Thompson, director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Rutgers University; Executive Director Jessica Solomon and Board President Larry Gurman.
Photo by Debra Rubin

  The grand opening featured James Howard, executive director of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame Museum and Jakora Thompson, director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Rutgers University. Howard talked about the many inventors whose ideas benefited society, but  often went unrecognized because of the racism Einstein detested.
    Thompson, whose center is dedicated to the “robust history, heritage  and diversity of the African American diaspora” is named after the university’s 1919 valedictorian. She spoke of the lasting legacy Robeson left as an internationally renowned singer and actor, lawyer, athlete and civil rights leader for students at the center, who she said refer to him affectionately as “Uncle Paul.”  Five dollars from every grand opening admission charge was donated to the center.
    Robeson was among those with whom Einstein developed a strong friendship. Einstein, who called prejudice toward Blacks America’s  “worst disease”  often lamented Princeton’s racism as he walked his segregated neighborhood. He began seeking out friendships with Black residents and made a point of strolling through Black neighborhoods handing out candy to children and often joining residents on their porches to talk.
    In one of the displays in the exhibit Blacks who grew up in Princeton recalled their memories of how, despite being a Nobel Prize winner, he never looked down on them.        
    Those connections resulted in Einstein joining the NAACP and becoming active in the American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL), founded by Robeson. Einstein became co-chair of ACAL and used his position and prominence to lobby President Harry Truman.  In 1946 he joined the  National Committee for Justice led by Eleanor Roosevelt. 
    In 1937 when Black opera star Marion Anderson performed at a concert in Princeton and couldn’t get housing at a local segregated hotel, Einstein invited her to stay at his nearby home. The two became good friends and she would often stay at house when she was in the area.

Albert Einstein in 1946 accepted an honorary degree, gave the commencement address and taught a class on his famous theory of relativity at the all-Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County

    However, Einstein also developed close relationships to other Black luminaries of the time, including  the journalist  and social activist  W.E.B Du Bois.
    Museum Board President Larry Gurman noted that Einstein realized “the commonality we all have.”
    “Einstein walked the streets of Princeton and talked to children,” said Gurman and the scientist’s “sense of social justice and civil rights” allowed him to see the brilliance of people beyond their skin color.
    “He recognized the  commonality of people, whether they were great like Marion Anderson, Du Bois or Robeson or whether they were a little child,” he said. “They all have value.”       
    Howard’s presentation highlighted the importance of Einstein’s support of the Black community whose innovations and inventions were downplayed or stolen. His museum, which is now virtual, is in the process of building an 80,000-square foot facility in West Orange, a short distance from Thomas Edison’s  laboratory.
    Among the dozens of Black inventors he spoke of who rarely got credit for their groundbreaking ideas were: Onesimus, who invented the smallpox vaccine in 1721; Thomas L Jennings, who invented dry cleaning in 1821 and
    Elijah Mcoy, who invented the locomotive lubricating cup in 1872 that helped to revolutionize the railroad industry but was widely copied by others leading people to ask for “the real McCoy,” 
    Museum board member and exhibits chair Alice Berman said she was left speechless by the achievements and persistence “of our Black brothers and sisters.”
    Reflecting on Einstein and the others who fought for civil rights for Blacks or defied racial stereotypes she added, “It makes me feel like I haven’t done enough. I think we are generally soft and not willing to suffer the consequences or step out of our comfort zone and safe spaces. I think our efforts here and this exhibit is a way to push that.”  

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly  daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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