Back Then

In its final edition of the spring 1944 semester, The Collegian published a letter from a 17-year-old UR senior indignant about what he called an “attack against democratic principles.” The target of his anger? A student organization called the S.C. Mitchell Literary Society, which had recently amended its constitution in a way that “restrict[ed] any discussion of the racial problem at future meetings,” he wrote.

An equally indignant defense of the amendment appeared in the first issue of the fall semester. The change was necessary, the society’s president wrote, because “a small minority” of members “was obsessed with the idea of racial equality and was so intent upon spreading its principles that the [s]ociety had little time for anything else.”

Georg Iggers, R’44, the author of the first letter, had deeply personal knowledge of the menace of discrimination. He was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926 and began his schooling just as the Nazis rose to power. His family fled to the United States in 1938, five weeks before Kristallnacht, the pogrom that marked the beginning of the Holocaust. Throughout his life, Iggers often said that the Jim Crow society he encountered in Virginia reminded him of what he experienced in Germany.

Iggers’ advocacy for justice and equality guided the choices he made throughout his life. After earning a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, he taught at Philander Smith College, a historically black college in Little Rock, Arkansas. There, he was chair of the education committee of the local NAACP branch and helped organize the lawsuit that led to the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, a watershed victory in the fight for the integration of public schools.

From there, he and his wife, Wilma — a Holocaust refugee from Czechoslovakia who was also active in the civil rights movement — moved to Louisiana to teach at another HBCU, Dillard University in New Orleans, where the couple remained active in the NAACP and lived alongside institutional colleagues near the university.

Iggers reached across divides in his scholarly work, too. At SUNY-Buffalo, where he taught from 1965 until his retirement, he hosted conferences that brought together East German, West German, and American historians and arranged graduate student exchanges among universities in the three countries. He also frequently traveled to Europe to support projects focused on reconciliation and was honored for his work throughout his life. Germany’s president pre-sented him with the Order of Merit in 2007, and Richmond conferred to him an honorary doctorate in 2001. He died in 2017.

During his time in New Orleans, Iggers again voiced the need for equal opportunity directly to his fellow Spiders. He replied to a 1963 annual fund request from a classmate with a handwritten note that read, “I have felt for many years that I could not contribute to an institution which at this late stage does not admit qualified students regardless of race.”

The classmate forwarded the note to a university official and suggested it be passed along to President George Modlin’s office, adding, “[T]here are no doubt many others who feel the same way. Sooner or later we are going to have to face this issue.”