International Black Peoples Unity
American Ethiopian Connection
Numerous references to Ethiopia in the Bible, such as (Psalm 68:31) “…Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God,” provided refuge and salvation for Negro slaves in America and the Caribbean. During the American Revolutionary War, one African-American regiment proudly wears the appellation of “Allen’s Ethiopians,” named after Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
Although physically separated from their ancestral homeland and amidst the opprobrious shackles of slavery, African American poets, writers, abolitionists, and politicians persisted in forging a collective identity; calling themselves Ethiopians seeking to link them figuratively if not literally to the African continent.
First Abyssinians travel to America
As African Americans fixed their gaze on Ethiopia, Abyssinians also travelled to the ‘New World’ and learned of the African presence in the Americas. In 1808 merchants from Abyssinia arrived at New York’s famous Wall Street. While attempting to attend church services at the First Baptist Church of New York, the Abyssinian merchants, along with their African American colleagues, experienced the on-going routine of racial discrimination. As an act of defiance against segregation in a house of worship, African Americans and Abyssinians organized their own church on Worth Street in Lower Manhattan and named it Abyssinia Baptist Church.
Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. served as the first preacher, and new building was later purchased on Waverly Place in the West Village before the church was moved to its current location in Harlem. Scholar Fikru Negash Gebrekidan likewise notes that, along with such literal acts of rebellion, anti-slavery leaders Robert Alexander Young and David Walker published pamphlets entitled Ethiopian Manifesto and Appeal in 1829 in an effort to galvanize blacks to rise against their slave masters.
When Italian colonialists encroached on Abyssinian territory and were soundly defeated in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, it became the first African victory over a European colonial power, and the victories resounded loud and clear among compatriots of the black diaspora. “For the oppressed masses Adwa…would become a cause célèbre,” writes Gebrekidan, “a metaphor for racial pride and anti-colonial defiance, living proof that skin colour or hair texture bore no significance on intellect and character.” Soon, African Americans and blacks from the Caribbean Islands began to make their way to Abyssinia. In 1903, accompanied by Haitian poet and traveller Benito Sylvain, an affluent African American business magnate by the name of William Henry Ellis arrived in Abyssinia to greet and make acquaintances with Emperor Menelik. A Treaty of Amity (Friendship) and Commerce between Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia and Robert P. Skinner for the United States was signed. Ellis recounts to the Emperor the great Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln and America’s interest in trade as opposed to colonization. The Treaty is duly proclaimed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
A prominent physician from the West Indies, Dr. Joseph Vitalien, also journeyed to Abyssinia and eventually became the Emperor’ trusted personal physician. In 1909 Daniel Robert Alexander, who was born in Missouri and lived in Chicago, becomes the first African-American settler from the United States on record in Abyssinia. In 1919 the first official Abyssinian delegation to the United States visits New York City, Washington, DC and Chicago.
At the time Woodrow Wilson was serving as the 28th President of the United States. In Abyssinia, Empress Zawditu, the eldest daughter of Emperor Menelik, was the reigning monarch. The main purpose of their trip was to renew the 1904 Treaty of Amity (Friendship) between the United States and Abyssinia (brokered when President Theodore Roosevelt authorized 37-year-old Robert P. Skinner to negotiate a commercial treaty with Emperor Menelik). The treaty had expired in 1917. This four-man delegation to the United States became known as the Abyssinian mission. The distinguished delegation headed to the White House in Washington D.C. after staying at the elegant Waldorf-Astoria in Chicago.
The group visited the U.S. at a time when blacks were by law second-class citizens and the most common crime against American blacks was lynching. Before leaving Chicago, a reporter for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, asked the delegation what they thought about lynching in the U.S. The representatives responded “We dislike brutality… lynching of any nature, and other outrages heaped upon your people.”
African-Americans were inspired to see a proud African delegation being treated with so much respect by U.S. officials. Newspapers reported that in honour of the delegation’s visit “the flag of Abyssinia, which is of green, yellow, and red horizontal stripes, flew over the national capitol.”
The Mission, under authority of Ras Taffari, extends the first invitation to Africans in America to repatriate to Abyssinia. African-Americans are astonished at how well respected the Abyssinian delegation is treated in that “Jim Crow” era.
In 1920 Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, Harlem’s African-American Jewish leader and musical director of the United Negro Improvement Association, composes the song “Ethiopia Awaken” that becomes the anthem for the Ethiopian World Federation.
The announced coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 as the first black ruler of an African nation in modern times raised the hopes of black people all over the world and led Rabbi Ford to believe that the timing of his Abyssinian colony was providential. The Abyssinia government had been encouraging black people with skills and education to immigrate to Abyssinia for almost a decade, Ford took up this invitation and arrived in Abyssinia with a small musical contingent in time to perform during the coronation festivities.
Mignon Innis arrived with a second delegation in 1931 to work as Ford’s private secretary. She soon became Ford’s wife, and they had two children in Abyssinia.
Ford’s wife, Mignon T. Ford would later found Princess Zennebe Worq High School, which was the first secondary school for girls in Abyssinia.
In November 1930, Ras Taffari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Abyssinia. The event blared on radios, and Harlemites heard and marvelled at the ceremonies of a black king. The emperor’s face glossed the cover of Time Magazine, which remarked on “negro news organs” in America hailing the king “as their own.” African American pilot Hubert Julian, dubbed “The Black Eagle of Harlem,” had visited Abyssinia and attended the coronation. Describing the momentous occasion to Time Magazine, Hubert rhapsodized:
“When I arrived in Ethiopia the King was glad to see me… I took off with a French pilot… We climbed to 5,000 ft. as 50,000 people cheered, and then I jumped out and tugged open my parachute… I floated down to within 40 ft. of the King, who incidentally is the greatest of all modern rulers… He rushed up and pinned the highest medal given in that country on my breast, made me a colonel and the leader of his air force — and here I am!”
The fever of the Black King of Kings; spread speedily across enslaved and Colonized Black communities across the USA; Jamaica the Caribbean and the African continent.
Emperor Haile Selassie began an aggressive programme of modernization and centralization of the structure of the state. He ordered the drafting of the first written constitution for the Empire, which was completed and promulgated in 1931. The First Imperial Constitution, which borrowed heavily from the Meiji Constitution of Japan, provided for a Parliament for the first time in Abyssinian History. It is in this first constitution that the Emperor officially renamed the name of his country from Abyssinia to Ethiopia, after recognising the political significance of the name Ethiopia and especially its historical and Biblical connections. The name of Ethiopia represents the Greek word for its native inhabitants. This was “aithiops” (= “burnt appearance”), from “aitho” (I burn) and “opsis” (aspect, appearance). It was also now possible for all black peoples living abroad to associate themselves as, being Ethiopians abroad.
Melaku Beyan was a member of the primary batch of students sent to America in the 1930s. He attended Ohio State University and later received his medical degree at Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C. During his schooling years at Howard, he forged lasting friendships with members of the black community and, at Emperor Haile Selassie’s request; he endeavoured to enlist African American professionals to work in Ethiopia (Abyssinia). Beyan was successful in recruiting several individuals, including teachers Joseph Hall and William Jackson, as well as physicians Dr. John West and Dr. Reuben S. Young, the latter of whom began a private practice in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, prior to his official assignment as a municipal health officer in Dire Dawa, Harar.
By the mid-1930s the Emperor had sent a second diplomatic mission to the U.S. Vexed at Italy’s consistently aggressive behaviour towards his nation, Haile Selassie attempted to forge stronger ties with America. Despite being a member of the League of Nations, Italy disregarded international law and invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Melaku Beyan left the United States and travelled to Britain where he became the personal physician of Haile Selassie I who had taken up residence in exile at Fairfield House in Bath.
Notwithstanding the tepid response of the League of Nations to the fascist invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia); Italian imperialism in Ethiopia provoked an outburst of international concern, sympathy and outright protest from the general public. Private Citizens the world over condemned and denounced Italy’s violation of Ethiopian sovereignty. Although universal in scope, public condemnation of the Italian invasion was particularly sharp amongst the blacks in the United States, who had long drawn inspiration from classical and modern Ethiopia as a symbol of black power and pride. As an distinguished black historian indicated, “When Italy invaded Ethiopia,
They (Afro-Americans) protested with all the means at their command. Almost overnight even the most provincial among the American Blacks became internationally minded. Ethiopia was (regarded as) a Black nation and its destruction would symbolize the final victory of the white man over the Blackman.” Many organisations sprung up in Harlem the main area where efforts were concentrated; one example being the Menilek Club formed by public-spirited black citizens in 1936. This very small but spirited group desired to integrate all of the existing Ethiopian Aid societies into one organisation officially recognised by the Ethiopian Authorities. The efforts of the group culminated with a delegation being sent to England in the summer of 1936 to confer directly with Haile Selassie I, who received them at his residence Fairfield House in Bath.
The mission consisted of three prominent Harlem figures, all leaders of the black organisation known as the United Aid for Ethiopia: Reverend William Lloyd Imes, pastor of the prestigious St. James Presbyterian, Philip M. Savoy, chairman of the Victory Insurance Company and co-owner of the New York Amsterdam News, and Mr Cyril M Philp, secretary of the United Aid. The delegation stressed to the monarch the necessity of sending a special emissary to America to direct the collection of all contributions and to help awaken flagging Afro-American support for the Ethiopian cause. Impressed Haile Selassie decided to despatch an envoy to the United States. He selected his personal physician, Dr. Malaku Emanuel Bayen, for the new position. Later events were to prove that the emperor could not have made a better choice.
Melaku Beyan was a young, charismatic speaker. Beyan had married an African American activist, Dorothy Hadley, and together they created a newspaper called Voice of Ethiopia to simultaneously denounce Jim Crow in America and fascist invasion in Ethiopia. Joel Rogers, the correspondent who had previously attended the Emperor’s coronation, returned to Ethiopia as a war correspondent for The Pittsburgh Courier, then America’s most widely-circulated black newspaper. Upon returning to the United States a year later, he published a pamphlet entitled The Real Facts about Ethiopia, a scathing and uncompromising report on the destruction caused by Italian troops in Ethiopia. Melaku Beyan used the pamphlet in his speaking tours, while his wife Dorothy designed and passed out pins that read “Save Ethiopia.”
Dr. Bayen had been working in conjunction with the United Aid for Ethiopia, which was the most active of the few remaining Ethiopian aid associations. During much of this period and even prior to Bayen’s involvement, the organization, under the leadership of Reverend William Imes, seems to have been performing well. In fact, one glowing report maintained that it had “functioned perfectly well for a while. “The situation began to change, however as members of the American Communist Party took sharp interest in the United Aid and attempted to transform it into a Communist front.
Wanting to be free of any entanglement with the “Reds,” whether black or white, Bayen and others decided to form an entirely new organization to be known as the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated. Consequently, the United Aid was dissolved, a number of similar groups were combined, and a new more substantial organization with Malaku Bayen as its executive head was formally created on August 25, 1937. Dr. Lorenzo H. King, pastor of St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Harlem, was elected the Federation’s first president.
Its Preamble being;
“We, the Black Peoples of the World, in order to effect Unity, Solidarity, Liberty, Freedom and Self-determination, to secure Justice and maintain the Integrity of Ethiopia, which is our divine heritage, do hereby establish and ordain this Constitution for the Ethiopian World Federation, Incorporated.”