Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens

By Bukey, Evan Burr | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens


Bukey, Evan Burr, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Two Lives in Uncertain Times: Facing the Challenges of the 20th Century as Scholars and Citizens. By Wilma and Georg Iggers. (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. Pp viii, 222. Preface, introduction, illustrations, index. $29.95.)

Most students of the civil rights movement in Arkansas are aware of the role played in the Little Rock NAACP by Wilma and Georg Iggers on the eve of the Central High crisis. The couple's time in the Arkansas capital, however, constituted but a small part of their rich and productive lives as revealed in this recent dual autobiography.

Wilma Abeles and Georg Iggers fled Hitler's Europe in 1938 as adolescents. Wilma came from a prosperous farming family in western Czechoslovakia near the German border, Georg from a business family in Hamburg. Both were of Jewish origin, although neither Wilma nor her parents considered themselves religious; Georg, in contrast, grew up in an Orthodox household. After arriving in North America, Wilma's father leased a farm in Hamilton, Ontario, where Wilma completed high school and attended McMaster University. Georg's family was not as fortunate. Although his father found a job as a salesman in Richmond, Virginia, he had to travel frequently and barely made ends meet. Nevertheless, Georg entered Richmond College and managed to graduate at age fifteen in 1942. From there, he moved to the University of Chicago to pursue a graduate degree. It was here that he and Wilma met, married, and in 1950 accepted teaching positions at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Seven tumultuous years later, the Iggers and their children moved to New Orleans, where both parents taught courses in history, philosophy, and literature at Dillard and Tulane. In 1965, the couple accepted professorships in Buffalo, Georg at the State University of New York (SUNY), Wilma at Canisius College. Since then, both have made their mark as world-class scholars, although their publications are probably better known today in Europe than in the United States.

In these fascinating memoirs, Georg and Wilma recount their life stories in tandem, each providing separate accounts of their careers as parents, scholars, and social activists. For readers of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, the most intriguing and insightful chapters are those covering their experiences in the American South. Upon moving to Richmond, for example, young Georg was struck by the similarities of Jim Crow and Nazism, not least "the glorification of Robert E. Lee, hailed as a Christian gentleman and Southern patriot, whose picture hung in every classroom-like Hitler's in every German classroom." As an outsider himself, Georg identified with the plight of African Americans, concluding that "Lee was a traitor to his country who fought to preserve slavery" (p. 37). From this moment, Georg writes, he resolved to contribute to the struggle against segregation and social injustice. It was for this reason that he and Wilma jumped at the chance to teach at Philander Smith.

Both moved to Little Rock, however, without any clear idea of how to proceed. Wilma found the heat unbearable, Georg the hard-pressed students and faculty of Philander Smith disinterested. What the couple did do was to join the local Unitarian fellowship and the local chapter of the NAACP. Although Woody Allen would later quip that reformers think they can change the world by writing a letter to the New York Times, the Iggers actually persuaded the public library to open its doors to students and patrons of color by publishing a letter in the Arkansas Gazette. They also succeeded in desegregating public wading pools and drinking fountains in department stores. Those familiar with the Little Rock upheaval of 1957 might know that the Iggers worked closely with Daisy Bates in preparing a study of the inequalities between the two public high schools. They also are probably aware that the Little Rock School Board considered an integration plan Iggers drew up two years before the Brown decision.

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