African-American Participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War, Blog Post #4


An Overview of African-American Reactions and Contributions to the Italo-Ethiopian War

In my final paper, I’ve presented this information a little different than I did in my blog posts, so bear with me for a second. If you’ve been following my (very long) posts, you’ll see that I first talked about the military and diplomatic history of the war, then focused on an analysis of Ethiopia-related memoirs. In my actual paper, I first talk about the military and diplomatic history of the war, then I provide some background on African-American reactions. After this background, I provide analysis on two subjects: memoirs of individuals who were in Ethiopia during the war (this is the subject of my previous blog post) and then a comparison between two Northern and Southern African-American newspapers. Basically, even though this is my third content-related blog post, this actually chronologically comes second in the way I present my paper.

Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, here is my second disclaimer. This is pretty much lifted directly from my paper, including in-text citations (I will later convert those to endnotes in proper Chicago bibliographic style). I apologize for the length, I really went overboard on this project!

Although African-American awareness of modern Ethiopia and its fight against colonialism can be traced to the 1896 Battle of Adwa, use of the term “Ethiopia” as a synonym for all of Africa and the subsequent movement of American Ethiopianism dates to America’s colonial days. As the historian William R. Scott notes, the term “Ethiopia” was commonly used to designate non-Caucasians, especially in British domain. Therefore, even African slaves, who were primarily brought from the West Coast of Africa, thought of themselves as Ethiopians (Scott 13). African American identification with Ethiopia stemmed from Biblical references to the Nubian kingdom, especially the prophecy in the Book of Psalms that “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God” (Scott 14). This Ethiopianist tradition, which worked its way into the language of both antebellum abolitionists such as David Walker and Frederick Douglass and post-war activists like Marcus Garvey, was strengthened by the Ethiopians’ Christian beliefs (Scott 19-21). This religious connection was solidified through the Emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed to be descended from the Biblical King Soloman and Queen of Sheba (Joel Rogers, Norfolk Journal and Guide, January 14 1933).

African-American interest in modern-day Ethiopia, kindled by the Italian defeat at Adwa, was strengthened by the two coronations of Ras Tafari Makonnen, first as negus (king) and then as Negus Nagast (King of Kings) Haile Selassie, in 1928 and 1930 respectively. The lavish coronation of November 1930 was especially well-covered, appearing in movie theater newsreels and dominating the headlines of African-American newspapers for weeks (Scott 179-80). Building on the previous sense of camaraderie with the Ethiopians kindled by the coverage of the coronation, the African-American press–weeklies published in most major cities by and for the black population–was instrumental in shaping African-American sympathies after the conflict of 1935 erupted.  This influence was seen early on in the conflict, as the Associated Negro Press (ANP), a Chicago-based news service that distributed releases to black papers, began to carry dispatches from Europe regarding the conflict (Scott 45). The press, which was considered a major force in generating African-American support for Ethiopia, helped cultivate solidarity with Ethiopia’s diplomatic position, criticism of the Vatican’s acquiescence to Mussolini as well as American neutrality, and overall advising African-Americans to support Ethiopia (Bekerie 125). Between the reach of black publications, which were popular in both the North and South, as well as the spread of news by word of mouth, African-Americans even in the most remote Southern states were aware of Ethiopia’s flight. Nevertheless, awareness of the situation did not always indicate sophistication of knowledge; a columnist for the Harlem paper, the Amsterdam News, observed that, regarding Ethiopia, “Most Negroes know nothing about the points at issue” (Theophilius Lewis, “Harlem Sketchbook: Riots and Aftermath,” March 30 1935, pg 8).

The first outpourings of support for Ethiopia, immediately after the skirmishes at WalWal, were led primarily by black intellectuals. A group of Africans and African-Americans in Washington, DC organized the purely academic Ethiopian Research Council (ERC), while the leading Harlem historian Dr. Willis N. Huggins began the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia (Harris 20, Scott 51). While the ERC was mainly involved in disseminating information about Ethiopia in response to inquiries, Huggins’ organization became one of many groups that campaigned for both supply donations and military volunteers throughout the summer of 1935 (Harris 40). As Scott observed, though many academics were concerned with the crisis, “The principal participants in the Abyssinian support movement tended to be mature, grassroots community leaders” (Scott 53). In Harlem, which soon became the center of the movement and the home of the headquarters of most Ethiopian-support groups, information was spread in an even more ubiquitous manner–impassioned orators who would stand on soapboxes on street-corners, encouraging boycotts against Italian-Americans or the recruitment of military volunteers.


In the summer of 1935, as the diplomatic situation in Geneva declined and war became more inevitable, more and more African-Americans expressed interest in volunteering to fight for Ethiopia. These volunteers demonstrated their interest through various methods, including sending inquiries to the ERC, the black papers and even the White House itself (Harris 38, 41). Additionally, many urban blacks formed recruiting groups or attended mass recruitment meetings led by local leaders in cities ranging from Fort Worth, Texas to Okmulgee, Oklahoma and Franklin North Carolina (Scott 43). Some groups, such as the Pacific Movement in Newark, New Jersey, even held military drills ( July 27, 2935, New York Amsterdam News, pg 16).

While Scott recognizes that unemployment may have pushed blacks into seeking opportunities abroad, arguing that “There was a probable connection between Ethiopian voluntarism and bad times in America” (Scott 63), conversations with recruits in the black press revolved around the moral pull of Ethiopia. Most potential recruits acknowledged a racial or nationalistic solidarity with Ethiopia; a woman from Jamaica described how her two sons “recently answered the call of the Fatherland” (Amsterdam News, July 20 1935, pg 12). These expressions of racial solidarity demonstrate that elements of black nationalism–the movement of the 1920s, led by Marcus Garvey and characterized by “racial pride and patriotism”–remained prevalent in black life (Scott JSTOR 119). However, there was an element of support for the underdog in their motivations as well, as expressed by Richmond’s Richard Roane, who, according to the Norfolk Journal and Guide, “left the public under the impression that he was anxious to battle against the Italians because he had an inborn hatred against the ‘bully’ who insisted on suppressing the little man” (Wants Job and Experience of Trip to Ethiopia but No Fighting, August 10 1935, pg 17).

However, African-Americans who wished to fight for Ethiopia faced three major obstacles. The first was cost; especially in the era of the Great Depression, travel to Africa was cost-prohibitive, and with Ethiopia so poor that it could not afford military supplies, any recruits would have to finance their own travel to the country (Harris 69). Secondly, although many American blacks had no other resources to help Ethiopia besides their time and volunteerism, many Ethiopian sympathizers pointed out that the country suffered most acutely from a lack of weapons and supplies. Introducing more volunteers, they insisted, would only exacerbate this problem (Scott 203). Most detrimental to the recruitment of African-American volunteers, however, was a reminder by the US State Department, reprinted throughout the African-American press, that according to an 1818 law, Americans who enlisted in a foreign army would face fines, imprisonment or even a loss of US citizenship (Journal and Guide, July 27 1935, pg 8). Reactions to this statement varied–some African-Americans argued that since they were treated as second-class citizens anyway, it was a poor deterrent anyway–but subsequent denials of visas to Ethiopia prevented even those willing to give up citizenship from enlisting. (Scott 64).

The only two African-Americans who actually reached Ethiopia, the Mississippi-born Chicagoan John C. Robinson and the West Indies-born Hubert Julian, were both aviators with their own means of getting to Africa that made arrangements far before the call for recruits reached fever pitch or neutrality laws were cited. There, the similarities ended. The quiet and “closemouthed, dependable Johnny Robinson” (“Fights off 2 Planes in Adowa Tilt, NJ&G, July 13 1935, pg 1), was considered a hero by the African-American press while the loudmouthed Julian was villified, accused of bragging and abandoning his post. The difference between these two men culminated in a dramatic fistfight that led to Julian’s removal from the Ethiopian airforce (Scott 90).

Raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, Robinson trained to become an auto mechanic at the Tuskegee Institute and moved to Chicago after his graduation in 1924. Although he was initially denied admission in Chicago’s Custiss-Wright Aeronautics University, Robinson took a janitorial job and distinguished himself with his advice in the mechanic shop, eventually gaining admission to the school in 1931 (“Ethiopia’s Black Condor: The Story of John Robinson, Who Set His Heart on Becoming an Aviator- By A Man Who Knows Him,” PL Prattis, NYAM, October 26 1935, pg 1A). At the outbreak of hostilities in December 1934, Robinson immediately contacted representatives of the African-American press offering his assistance to Ethiopia; the director of the Associated Negro Press, Claude Barnett, placed him in contact with Malaku Bayen, who recommended him to Emperor Haile Selassie. In spring of 1935, Robinson arrived in Ethiopia, serving as Haile Selassie’s special courier until the end of the war in May 1936. (Scott 74). Although Robinson was instructed to not engage directly with the Italian planes, he remained a target for the Fascist troops, who believed his defeat would be a massive blow to the morale of anti-Fascist American agitators. Consequently, he fought in several dogfights and was even reportedly wounded in the head and gassed (“Hero Returns”, NJ&G, May 30 1936, pg 1). Decorated as a colonel and nicknamed “The Brown Condor” by the African-American press, Robinson returned home to a hero’s welcome; he returned to Ethiopia to assist with its postwar reconstruction, dying there in a plane crash in 1954 (Scott 79).

In contrast to Robinson, who only became involved with Ethiopia after he read about the WalWal attack, the Jamaican-born aviator Hubert Julian, who had already made a name for himself with a series of unsuccessful flying stunts, first became acquainted with the country at the 1930 coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor Haile Selassie. Despite the fact Julian had not received a flying license (and would not receive one until 1935), he was recruited as part of an outreach to African Americans and served briefly as a pilot during the coronation (Harris 54). Julian initially impressed the emperor with a daring parachute jump, but was later expelled from the country after smashing the emperor’s personal airplane, the finest craft in the country, into an eucalyptus tree (Shaftel 1).

Despite Julian’s banishment from Ethiopia, he set out for the country in February of 1935 (Abyssinian Emperor and HIs Court, March 9 1935, Norfolk Journal and Guide pg 20). It took him three months to convince the Ethiopian authorities to recomission him into the Air Corps, reportedly as its commander (Scott 89). In a dramatic twist, Julian was soon stripped of his command after his confronted John Robinson over a disparaging article he had written for the African-American press under the penname Wilson James; somehow, a fight broke out, and Julian was promptly reassigned to serve as a civil administrator in the outlying town of Ambo (Scott 90). Although many historians, including Scott, attest that Julian threw the first punch, it is worthwhile to note that Robinson was known for his temper and, decades later, appeared in Ethiopian court over charges of brawling with a Swedish pilot (Harris 147-8).  At any rate, Julian fled from Ethiopia in November, a little more than a month after the fighting began. After his return home, he denounced Ethiopia to the African-American press and soon sailed to Italy, announcing that he had become “Huberto Faunteroyana Juliano,” an Italian citizen. While Julian later claimed his embracement of the Italians was actually part of an unsuccessful conspiracy to assassinate Mussolini, this remains unconfirmed (Harris 60).

Despite the enormous amount of publicity that the two African-Americans who actually reached Ethiopia received, neither one was prosecuted under the neutrality laws. As the Norfolk Journal and Guide’s Frank Davis reported, Robinson “has lost neither caste nor citizenship;” he reentered America with no troubles and only moved to Ethiopia later in life of his own accord (“Behind the Headlines,” November 9, 1935, NJ&G, pg 9). Likewise, although Julian–who renounced his British citizenship to gain Ethiopian citizenship–had difficulty bypassing officials at Ellis Island, he was ultimately allowed to return to America and was later proclaimed an American citizen at the outbreak of World War II (“Cross Currents: Jottings,” Arthur Davis, NJ&G, February 8, 1936, pg 8) (Julian, 135). Although both aviators received much publicity, neither had a concrete role in the Ethiopian military efforts; their contributions were primarily towards boosting morale, especially in America. Even Robinson’s admirer, the historian William R. Scott, admittted that though Robinson’s missions may have helped communications, “they never appreciably affected any aspect of the war’s conduct or outcome” (Scott 80). Nevertheless, Robinson’s overall contributions, especially his postwar work, demonstrated how African-Americans could help Africans in the face of imperialism as well as how American blacks could reconcile with their African roots. In the words of the Ethiopian-born historian Ayele Bekerie, Robinson “truly built a bridge of pan-African unity” (Bekerie Tadias). Interestingly, Julian may have also contributed to African-American morale; Joseph Harris asserted that Julian’s statements “may have fortified black resolve regarding the Ethiopian cause” (Harris 60).


Besides the occasional reports of Robinson or Julian’s antics, the majority of articles in the black press focused on fundraising efforts. Several groups, such as the Commercial Trading COmpany of New York attempted to secure loans to finance Ethiopia’s war effort, but none were able to recruit the help of financial authorities (Gramby-Sobukwe 790). Most of the fundraising efforts, however, focused on raising money for medical relief.  In the early days of the pro-Ethiopia fervor, there was a movement to recruit African-American personnel; the New York Amsterdam News ran a front page article advertising that Ethiopia would welcome “the services of Negro doctors, nurses, technicians, engineers and chemists.” The piece emphasized that all the  open positions were noncombatant. (New York Amsterdam News July 20 1935, pg 1). However, an enormous amount of money was required to send any personnel to Ethiopia–the Ethiopian consul to America, John Shaw, warned that each person would need $350, the equivalent of well over $5,000 in today’s dollars. (New York Amsterdam News United Aid for Ethiopia Asked, October 5 1935, pg 11). Unlike the at least nominally successful military recruitment effort, mo medical volunteers ever reached Ethiopia.  Given the sheer amount of African-Americans that expressed interest in serving as medical or civilian volunteers, the lack of concrete action is most likely linked to the economic and diplomatic restrains–the same reasons that hampered recruitment efforts.

Efforts to raise money to send medical supplies to Ethiopia were slightly more successful.   Even before the Italian invasion of October 1935, individuals in America recognized the Ethiopian army’s need for medical supplies; the Harlem historian Dr. Willis Huggins, founder of the Friends of Ethiopia, addressed the black press on September 14, 1935, proclaiming that “Medical supplies are needed” (Norfolk Journal and Guide Journal and Guide, September 14 1935, 17). Various groups were subsequently formed to raise money for Ethiopia, often donating the funds either to the Ethiopian consulate in New York or the American Red Cross. Some efforts were at least partially successful. For example, the Medical Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia (Medcom) produced a 1450-pound shipment of supplies, including sterilized bandages, antiseptics and germicides, in early October 1935 (Harris 72). Likewise, a young Ethiopian and supposed representative of the consulate in London, Tasfaye Zaphiro, raised at least some funds–although he fell far short of his goal of $500,000–under the auspices of the United Aid for Ethiopia in early 1936. Zaphiro had just begun a twenty-eight city speaking tour and raised $350 from cash-strapped blacks in Chicago when he was abruptly recalled to London due to uncertainties regarding his credentials (Scott 119). On the whole, however, medical fundraising efforts were hampered by the same problems of economics and neutrality that had faced the military and medical recruits. Most blacks had limited resources to donate to fundraising efforts, and, many groups, such as the Medcom, had trouble purchasing supplies from manufacturers in the US and Canada as both countries had expressed their neutrality (Harris 76).

Debate Over Ethiopian Racial Formation

African American support for Ethiopia was hampered, however, by reports in the mainstream media that Ethiopians and African-Americans did not share the same origins. Citing little more than visual clues, anthropologists such as Carlton C. Coon and journalists such as Arthur Brisbane claimed that the Ethiopians were actually of Hamitic and Semitic origin–descendants of Noah’s sons Ham and Shem–and therefore white (Scott 192). Even more damaging were reports that Haile Selassie had rejected African-American volunteers and refused to refer to himself as black. The African-American press, led by the scholar and journalist Joel Rogers of the Pittsburgh Courier and Amsterdam News, who had travelled extensively in Ethiopia, claimed almost unequivocally that this was not so.  Rather, the press asserted, the Ethiopians simply refused to identify with the term “Negro” or “Negroid” (an outdated anthropological term for Black African ancestry), equating the terms with “slavery” (Scott 202). In his pamphlet “The Real Facts about Ethiopia,” Rogers addressed the question of race immediately and asserted that while some North Africans appeared Caucasian or Arabic, “the sentiment of the white, or near-white, North African is anti-white and distinctively African” (Rogers 2).

Furthermore, in response to claims that the Ethiopian elite had rejected its ties to African-Americans, the press beckoned to the case of Haile Selassie’s nephew Malaku Bayen. Sent to America to finish his education in the 1920s, Bayen graduated from Muskinghum College in Ohio then began medical school at Ohio State University. However, building on the relationships with African-Americans that he developed as an undergraduate, he soon transferred to Howard University, explaining later that his choice was motivated by his “belief in Race Solidarity” (Bayen 5). As further proof of his racial identification with African-Americans, Bayen married Dorothy Hadley, a black woman he had met while at Howard; Dorothy later accompanied him to Ethiopia and served as a war correspondent for the African-American press under the title “Princess Malaku Bayen” (Bekerie Tadias). Bayen’s attempts at creating solidarity between Ethiopians and African-Americans extended beyond his academic and personal life, however. Directed to reach out to African-Americans in preparations for Haile Selassie’s coronation, Bayen invited Hubert Julian to the country; later, John Robinson contacted him to offer his contributions (Harris 54, Scott 72).  Furthermore, although he returned to Ethiopia to serve as the Emperor’s physician after receiving his degree in 1935, he was soon sent back to Africa as a special imperial representative (Scott 172). Despite diminishing African-American enthusiasm for the cause, he continued to campaign for donations–now for refugee relief–but contracted a fatal case of pneumonia as a result of his exertions in May 1940 (Bekerie Tadias).

Despite the journalistic influence of Joel Rogers and the compelling example of Malaku Bayen, African-American doubts about their racial solidarity with the Ethiopians grew as more white critics voiced their opposition. Furthermore, the historian Willis Huggins and outspoken activist Marcus Garvey retracted their pro-Ethiopia positions, claiming that the ruling elite catered almost exclusively to the demands of white Europeans (Scott 203). Garvey’s dissatisfaction can be traced to a more personal affront–the Emperor refused to meet with him in London during his exile. While Garvey interpreted this as a rejection of his Pan-African ideals, it is possibly that Haile Selassie may have simply wanted to avoid a sure-to-be publicized encounter with a perceived radical (Scott 174). Regardless of the Emperor’s motivations, however, his snub towards Garvey, combined with past insecurities over the race of the Ethiopians, contributed to the decline in fervor for Ethiopia among African-Americans (Scott 207). Though Malaku Bayen continued to campaign for support in America after the Ethiopian defeat, founding the Ethiopian World Foundation (EWF) in 1937, the movement never reached the same intensity; Haile Selassie’s triumphant reentry in 1941 did not attract nearly as much attention as the invasion of 1936 (Harris 127, 140, Scott 216)

Significance of African-American Participation

The African-American response to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia was a significant event in both African and African-American history. As William Scott noted, African-Americans, especially in the press, wrote and spoke about the conflict with “strongly nationalistic rhetoric,” demonstrating that they considered themselves members of the same race and culture as the Ethiopians (Scott JSTOR 121). This nationalistic rhetoric was in line with the ideals of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism that peaked under Marcus Garvey in the 1920s; the Ethiopian fervor demonstrated that black nationalism prevailed through the tough conditions of the Great Depression (Scott JSTOR 119). Furthermore, the Italo-Ethiopian War marked the first time that a large constituent of African-Americans participated in an international conflict. This international exposure would prepare a few African-Americans to travel to Spain to fight against the Fascist troops of Gen. Franco and countless more–some ambivalently and some fervently–to make their stance against Fascism during World War II (Scott 214). Furthermore, the symbolism of Ethiopia as a rallying point for blacks in and out of Africa continued, with the red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian flag gracing the flags of many African and Caribbean nations and making cameo appearances in works such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (Bekerie 130). Overall, the fervor over Ethiopia contributed greatly in bolstering African-American awareness of the triumphs and tragedies of Africa and the larger world of the African Diaspora.

The African-American reaction to the crisis also reverberated in Africa. Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe asserted that the African-American reaction sparked a rare example of early African democratic leadership, as demonstrated through Malaku Bayen and his formation of the Ethiopian World Federation, which later became important in the Rastafarian movement (Gramby-Sobukwe 792). Given that Bayen died prior to the Ethiopian liberation, it is unlikely that Bayen’s contributions as “Ethiopia’s first major pan-Africanist” significantly altered the course of the war; his legacy lies in his role in arranging the passage of John Robinson, who later helped establish Ethiopia’s modern air force (Scott 177). Despite these efforts of Bayen, Robinson and many others, African-American contributions–both in military and supply–had little effect on the actual outcome of the war (Scott 210).


Sources Consulted:

Bekerie, Ayele. “African-Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War.” In Revisioning Italy: National Identity and Global Culture, edited by Beverly Allen and Mary J. Russo. 116-134. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Bekerie, Ayele. “Ethiopian & African American Relations: The Case of Malaku E. Bayen and John Robinson.” Tadias Magazine, April 18, 2007. Accessed March 13, 2012.

Gramby-Sobukwe, Sharon. “Africa and U.S. Foreign Policy: Contributions of the Diaspora to Democratic African Leadership.” Journal of Black Studies 35, no 6 (2005): 779-801. JSTOR. URL:

Harris, Joseph E. African American Reactions to the War in Europe, 1936-1941. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1994.

New York Amsterdam News. Available online through Proquest.

Norfolk New Journal and Guide. Available online through Proquest.

Shaftel, David. “The Black Eagle of Harlem: the truth behind the tall tales of Hubert Fauntleroy Julian”. Air and Space. January 2009. Accessed June 2012.

Scott, William R. “Black Nationalism and the Italo-Ethiopian Conflict.” The Journal of Negro History 63, no. 2 (1978): 118-134. JSTOR. URL:

Scott, William R. The Sons of Sheba’s Race: African Americans and the Italo-American War 1935-1941. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.