The broad wooden trunk with floral engravings looks impossibly heavy. But in the early 1900s, Rachmiel “Robert” Shapiro carried it with him as he sneaked out of Russia and made his way to the United States. He was one of thousands of Jews who arrived here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The familiar Jewish American story is a journey from Central or Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, then onward to New York or a large urban center in the North. But Shapiro’s journey was different: he landed in Texas, foreshadowing a journey thousands more would make as part of the Galveston Movement or Galveston Plan, meant to draw Jewish immigrants to Texas and the interior of the country.
Shapiro’s trunk, which today greets visitors at the recently opened Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans, is part of a lesser-known history of Jews in America, one in which Texas plays a central role. Despite its lower visibility, the story of how Texas became a destination for Jewish immigrants—and, more important, how those immigrants navigated the society around them—is one laden with the politics of immigration, religion, and race. It’s a trunk that needs unpacking, and the museum and the Texan historical scholarship that inform it are useful guides for parsing its contents.
Many Jews today in Texas and the South can trace their family stories journey through Galveston in the early twentieth century, but there were Jews in Texas even before it was Texas. Many rose to prominent positions: Nicholas Adolphus Sterne, a German Jewish immigrant, was a close friend of Sam Houston’s and a key financial supporter of Texas independence; Henri Castro, of Portuguese Jewish descent, recruited European colonists to settle Texas and founded Castroville, a town about thirty miles west of San Antonio, in 1844. And there’s Jacob de Cordova, a British Jew of Spanish descent, who at one point in the mid-1800s held some one million acres of Texas land, which he promoted and sold to settlers. He’s also credited with planning the city of Waco, and he served as a representative in the Texas Legislature.
Between 1880 and 1924, roughly 2.5 million Jews came to the United States. Most of them came from Eastern Europe; in many cases, they were fleeing pogroms and escalating regional conflict. Ellis Island was the primary port of entry, and most who entered there settled in New York City. But as their numbers grew, so too did anti-immigrant sentiment. Jewish aid organizations became overwhelmed. Established Jewish families on the East Coast who claimed German heritage saw the Eastern European newcomers as a threat to their social position. “The more assimilated leaders of the Jewish American community worried that [New York’s] Lower East Side, with its poverty and overcrowding and sweatshops, was feeding into the xenophobic narrative,” explains Josh Furman, associate director of Jewish Studies at Rice University and a key researcher for the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.
Leaders of Jewish community and aid organizations were caught between keeping America’s doors open to refugees and keeping nativist resentments at bay. Leaders like New York’s Jacob Schiff, a banker and philanthropist, devised a plan to redirect the flow of Jewish immigrants to a different part of the country, both to ease overburdened receiving communities and to subtly force new arrivals to assimilate instead of crowd themselves into impoverished enclaves. Several ports were considered, but ultimately Schiff and others selected Galveston, in part because of its small size and limited resources. There was a Jewish community there that was established enough to welcome and assist arrivals, but small enough to encourage them to move on to other towns to find housing and work.
Between 1907 and 1914, some ten thousand Jewish immigrants, following the example of Rachmiel Shapiro and his heavy wooden trunk, came to Galveston. Many were personally greeted by local rabbi Henry Cohen, whose compassion and tireless advocacy is “[perhaps] the reason [that] thousands of Jews live today in the South, Southwest and Midwest rather than [in] New York City and the East,” writes the Texan Jewish historian Natalie Ornish in her 1989 book Pioneer Jewish Texans. In a black-and-white photograph reproduced in the museum, Cohen is seen standing among a group of recently arrived immigrants, luggage at their feet, gazes directed firmly at the camera. According to lore, he translated the mayor’s words of welcome into Yiddish for the new arrivals.
“Texas [was] sold as the next New York,” says Furman. “Texas was the next frontier for opportunity; lots of big open land, the people are friendly, no one is going to harass you.” Few stayed long, just as the organizers had hoped, opting instead for the rails or waterways to find their new home. Shapiro, for example, quickly made his way to Kansas City by rail and found work in the meatpacking industry there.
The financiers and community members behind the Galveston Plan had envisioned something far grander. A number of factors limited the quantity of Jewish immigrants coming to Galveston, including stricter screenings, World War I, and increasingly restrictive federal immigration laws. Still, their presence was felt across the South and Midwest, and many Jewish families in Texas trace their journeys back to the port. Today, annual kosher chili cook-offs speak to the ways those Jewish families made a new community and home here in Texas.
The Jews who arrived in Galveston would experience different trajectories from their Northern counterparts. Many made homes in small towns and forged identities that blended their heritage with that of their new social environs. In the post-Reconstruction era, Texas was also the land of Jim Crow, and newly arrived Jews had to find their place amid increasing racial and social regulation.
“The experience of being Jewish in the South—I think it is distinctive,” says Furman. “Because of the racial dynamic, because of the pervasiveness of a certain flavor of Christianity, and because Jews were more of a minority here [than in northern cities],” he says.
Part of making a home in Texas and the South, then, meant finding a place within a punishing racial hierarchy. Most Jews in Texas were of white European descent, though historians point out that societal conceptions of race evolve over time. While scholars debate the extent to which white Jews may have been “white on arrival,” to borrow a phrase from historian Thomas Guglielmo, there is no doubt that they benefited from that status, whether it was imposed, constructed, or embraced. Nonetheless, their religion marked them as different. For some white Christian communities, Jews were a threat. Other Christians conferred a begrudging respect on their Jewish neighbors because of the belief among literalist Christians that Jews are necessary and chosen, per biblical prophecies. In response, some white Jewish communities played up this narrative, according to Collin College professor Michael Phillips, who argues in White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas that some Jews accentuated the “good” version of their religion by using Hebrew in their organizational titles and using “minister” to refer to rabbis.
“[S]ocial acceptability,” writes Phillips, “depended on moving closer to the white ideal.” This sometimes resulted in dissonant decisions, as when three prominent Jewish Texans, including businessman Charles Sanger, one of the brothers behind Sanger Brothers department stores, sat on the board of a bank in Dallas that advertised itself as a “KKK Business Firm 100%.” But Phillips notes that moves like these were often still interpreted through an anti-Jewish lens. In this case, Jews’ positions on the board of a white supremacist bank were still read as evidence of a broader Jewish business conspiracy.
Despite this vulnerability, some white Jewish people were also involved in the fights for labor rights, civil rights, prison reforms, and more. As Furman helped research the museum’s exhibits, he wanted to reflect this full spectrum.
“Many of them were outspoken,” says Tucker of Jews in the civil rights era in particular. “Far more were silent for a variety of reasons.” Part of the hesitation may have been that challenging the racial hierarchy carried social, and often physical, risks. Even as Jewish people made their way into nearly every corner of society, the ever-present threat of violence reminded white Jews that their social position was a tenuous one. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the twenties found sympathy among the Dallas and Houston elites, according to Phillips. The Klan even had its own day at the state fair. Boycotts, cross burnings, and beatings were part of Jewish life in Texas, extensions of the violence used against Black and Hispanic Texans.
Still, the Jewish community in Texas grew, doubling from roughly 50,000 to about 100,000 between 1945 and 1989, according to Ruthe Winegarten and Cathy Schechter, authors of Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews, with the vast majority of Texas Jews settling in the Houston and Dallas areas. And while the smaller towns that characterized early Southern Jewish life may have experienced a twilight, other cities are in the midst of a renaissance, according to Furman. “Places like Houston and Dallas and Atlanta are booming, absolutely booming,” he says. A 2016 report from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston estimated that Dallas had some 71,000 Jews while the Houston area had 51,000. That same report found that 90 percent of Houston-area Jewish households were active in some way, whether through home observances, synagogue memberships, or some other form of involvement.
Shapiro arrived in Galveston two years before the start of the Galveston Plan. No one greeted him and he spent only a few hours there, waiting for a train north to stay with family who had already made the journey. Had the Galveston Plan come to full fruition, the number of Texas Jews could be many multiples of what it is today. It’s possible that such numbers would have engendered an entirely different set of cultural negotiations. What the history of white Texas Jews makes clear is that these identities are social processes.
Beyond Shapiro’s trunk, in the far corner of the first room of the museum, there is a map of the South, covered in stars. Each star represents a town or city that elected a Jewish mayor sometime from the mid-nineteenth century onward, with more than two dozen stars across Texas alone. To its right is another display with a black-and-white photograph showing an effigy of a Jew. With each new anti-Jewish incident here in Texas, the Jewish community finds itself between these two symbols. For white Jews in particular, the options that confronted our ancestors remain: do we uphold the status quo, seeking an acceptance we may never fully have, while also supporting a system that oppresses so many of our communities—or do we challenge it?
For Furman, these questions inevitably lead back to the histories of Texas Jews themselves, including those who challenged the way things are. “You can’t change the past,” he says, “but you can start by learning about it.”