African American Participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War- Blog Post #1

In the week or so that I’ve been doing my research on African-American participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War, I’ve discovered a very important fact about historical research: it’s messy. It doesn’t always go the way that you’ve planned.


When I began this blog in April, I explained that the objective of my study was to determine whether African influences such as Emperor Haile Sellassie’s public appeal and enlistment efforts of the Ethiopian Consulate or American influences such as nationalism and the philosophy of Marcus Garvey were more influential in the conflict. Furthermore, I wished to clarify the role that African-Americans actually played in the conflict. However, as soon as I finished reading the two most authoritative secondary sources on my topic–Joseph Harris’s African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia, 1936-1941 and William S. Scott’s The Sons of Sheba’s Race–I realized my research questions in their current forms were unworkable. As I quickly discovered (and will explain more thoroughly later), African influences such as Ethiopian recruitment efforts were negligible–in fact, some argue that the Ethiopians sought to distance themselves from blacks in America. My second question–the role that African Americans actually played in the conflict–can be very simply answered, according to all of my sources, as insignificant.


With the realization that I would be unable to transform my current questions into a viable project, I began perusing the secondary sources I had already, looking for aspects of the conflict that I wanted to learn more about. Scott’s description of one African-American newspaper, the Norfolk (VA) Guide and Journal, as “moderate,” caught my eye. The secondary sources I had read stressed that African-American support of Ethiopia was centered in the Northern states, where blacks were more free to express their views. Considering the restrictions of Jim Crow segregation laws, I wondered if African-American newspapers in the South would use the same language as Northern newspapers reporting on the conflict. Furthermore, I wondered whether Southern newspapers were as likely as Northern newspapers to suggest that blacks enlist in the Ethiopian military, or if they advocated other methods of aid such as medical relief. If the Southern rhetoric was more tempered and advocated less for blacks to actually enlist or donate to the various charities that were set up to  help Ethiopians, this might explain why, in addition to the restrictions of Jim Crow South, activism was almost entirely centered in the North. Finally, I’m interested to see if Southern newspapers would have handled the rumors/debate over whether Ethiopians, especially Haile Selassie, identified as blacks or were opposed to black participation in the conflict.


To answer these questions, I plan on spending the remaining 5 weeks that I am in Williamsburg using Swem internet resources to examine accounts regarding major events in the Italo-Ethiopian crisis in two major Northern African-American newspapers (probably the Pittsburg Courier and New York’s Amsterdam News) and two major Southern African-American newspapers (the Norfolk Journal and Guide and the Savannah Tribune). I will then contrast the coverage events in both of these papers with a standardized Northern mainstream paper, the New York Times. 


Now that I’ve finally got my research question settled, onto what I’ve learned from my preliminary research. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be organizing this into a second blog post, coming soon!