Beneath the Oglethorpe University campus sits the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule welded shut on May 25, 1940, with instructions that it remain sealed until May 28, 8113.
Whatever life form opens the crypt may be puzzled by the artifacts from 1930s America and curious about its creator, Thornwell Jacobs, whose attitudes about Jews, and other minorities, unfortunately can be heard in some quarters today.
Jacobs (1877-1956) was Oglethorpe’s president from 1913, when the school was re-chartered, until he was forced out in 1943.
Dubbed the “father of the modern time capsule,” Jacobs determined the 8113 date by adding to 1936, when the crypt project began, the 6,177 years that had passed since the first Egyptian calendar in 4241 B.C.E.
The 2,000-square foot crypt was built into a former swimming pool in the basement of Phoebe Hearst Hall; airtight, enamel-lined and protected by the surrounding bedrock.
Its contents include a machine that teaches English (just in case); household items common in the 1930s; recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Josef Stalin, along with Popeye the Sailor and a champion hog caller; the music of Artie Shaw, Lincoln Logs and the film script of “Gone With The Wind;” and 640,000 pages of microfilm preserving religious texts, including the Bible and Koran, and hundreds of books on other subjects.
Also, a bottle of Budweiser and a dry martini (one olive). And much more.
Several months ago, I wrote about the Cairo genizah, a time capsule of a different sort. And after introducing the film “From Cairo to the Cloud” at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival last month, I was curious whether the crypt contained any Jewish content. That led me to Jacobs.
Oglethorpe officials were unhappy with an article titled “The Racism Behind Oglethorpe’s Crypt of Civilization,” published in October in The Atlantic magazine, and may be dismayed by this column, as they discourage any association of Jacobs’ attitudes with their modern-day institution.
Jacobs’ 1,094-page autobiography, titled “Step Down, Dr. Jacobs: The Autobiography of an Autocrat,” includes his “Greetings To The Inhabitants Of The World In The Year A.D. 8113 Recorded And Placed In The Crypt.”
Jacobs’ missive included: “It is almost a sure bet that, if nothing is done about it, the United States will, in a few centuries, become a nation of quadroons ruled by an upper class of Jewish blood. At present we are a conglomerate of whites from northern Europe, brown whites from Southern Europe, yellows from Asia, indigenous reds, blacks from Africa, with our movies, radios, and newspapers either owned or operated by Jews.”
J. Todd Bennett, Oglethorpe’s vice president for marketing and communications, called the comments “indefensible,” adding, “I don’t think we would have anyone at the university attempt to defend it.”
Certainly not Oglethorpe’s current president and provost, both of whom are Jewish.
The day the crypt closed, the Atlanta Constitution quoted Jacobs as saying, “The war in Europe will mark the end of the world we were born into. Truly, our civilization is dying. This may end the supremacy of the white race. At a time like this, it seems fitting that we preserve for the future all that was good of the civilization which has been built up during recorded history.”
In his autobiography, published in 1945, Jacobs cited a column he wrote for a publication called the Georgian. “The Jewish people, speaking broadly, are a brilliant, efficient and aggressive group,” he wrote, blaming pressure from Jewish advertisers when that column was taken away from him.
“Until the Jews are amalgamated with the inhabitants of the lands in which they live, they are certain to face such unhappy injustices as they have faced for two thousand years, unless human nature changes. The only other solution is for them to possess their own country as do other relatively homogenous peoples,” he said.
Jacobs compared the “modern inquisition” suffered by Germany’s Jews in the early 1940s to, among other events, “what the South suffered under carpet bag Yankees,” suggesting that “The fines and restrictions placed upon the Jews in Germany today are as nothing compared with the tribute and punishment levied upon the South from 1865 to 1877.”
He decried Jews and others whose “fundamental assumption is that no racial ‘prejudices’ should exist in a democracy, that for a Southern white man to be proud of his race, to hold himself and his family ‘above’ a negro man and his family is undemocratic, un-American and unchristian.”
Paul S. Hudson, a historian of Oglethorpe University and the crypt, termed Jacobs’ “strong anti-Semitic streak … a reflection of the white power structure in the South.”
“If you put it in historical context, it’s not unusual,” said Hudson, who now teaches at Georgia Perimeter College. “I think he wrote what other people were thinking. They were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, he and his friends. It’s shocking to read it, but this was in the 1940s. It was a different era.”
Perhaps by 8113, those attitudes will have been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. Perhaps.