African-American Participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War: Blog Post #5

THE BLACK PRESS ON ETHIOPIA: A COMPARISON OF THE NORFOLK JOURNAL AND GUIDE AND THE NEW YORK AMSTERDAM NEWS

Disclaimer: I actually compiled this post a few weeks ago, but wanted to present this information after my previous post to not confuse the reader too much. I definitely did not write two 3,000 word blog posts in one night!

While I put together a basic summary of African-American participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War and analyzed the memoirs of several participants, the bulk of my research focused on comparing the coverage of the crisis in a representative paper from the South (the Norfolk Journal and Guide) with a similarly representative paper from the North (the New York Amsterdam News). To make this comparison, I embarked on a very time-consuming process of using the computer database Proquest to call up all the articles on Ethiopia published between December of 1934 and June of 1936, when Haile Selassie made his address to the League of Nations. I took notes and annotated most of the articles. Since I was initially unsure of what differences I would encounter between the papers at first, I ended up with over 100 pages of single-spaced notes (which I have learned is definitely not the most efficient way to do a project such as this!) The following is a watered-down version of the 18-page chapter I wrote about the differences in coverage between the two papers. Again, this is a very abbreviated version of my paper, so I’ve omitted quite a few details and also most quotes and citations.

Though the papers retained a very similar, pro-Ethiopia tone throughout the crisis, occasionally reprinting the same articles through the Associated Negro Press (a press service for black publications similar to today’s Associated Press), I observed in five areas: coverage of prioritizing American concerns above Ethiopia, discussion of slavery in Ethiopia, attitudes towards recruitment, coverage of Ethiopia-related riots and analysis of Ethiopian racial identities.

 

Prioritizing American Concerns Above Ethiopia

A key difference between the Northern and Southern papers involved the views of the minority of African-Americans that believed that problems at home in America should be solved before tackling Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. In the Norfolk Journal and Guide, this issue was mainly discussed in letters to the editor. The letters varied in the suggestions they offered. One writer, Anna Julia Cooper, who was president of a small (and now defunct) college in Washington DC, advocated that “Our best gamble then is to stay right here and behave ourselves,” while another writer, Lorenzo Macklin of Sheppards, VA, asked readers to instead donate $1.00 to the NAACP, which mounted legal cases against segregation at home. In contrast, although the Amsterdam News also published several references advocating attention be paid to problems at home rather than Ethiopia, only one is a letter reflecting an opinion of a reader. The other items–a bitingly sarcastic column, a cartoon and a reminder from noted Ethiopian scholar and journalist Joel Rogers–are a bit more nuanced, providing more veiled criticism that suggested that African-Americans should focus on labor disputes at home. The only reader-submitted letter asking for a focus on domestic issues was written by Harlem’s fourteen-year old Rudy Bondy. Calling attention to the increasing amount of lynchings in the South, Bondy asserted that “Ethiopia doesn’t need our money. We need it for ourselves.”

Most of the opposition to African-American aid based on problems at home were complaints of a few well-read individuals; the Journal and Guide letter-writer Cooper held a PhD. from the Sorbonne, the journalist Joel Rogers was an accomplished writer, the young writer to the Amsterdam News professed to “read quite a number of books”. Both papers also demonstrate a preoccupation with the problems of the South; Bondy discussed lynchings, and as a Virginia resident, Macklin understood first hand the cruelties of segregation. However, Amsterdam News’ use of sarcasm and a cartoon to refocus attention on problems at home demonstrates the grip of Ethiopia fervor in New York. By using a more sophisticated medium, the humor only appealed to more critically-thinking readers, reflecting a minor concern of a quiet minority. Furthermore, despite the direction of a leading figure such as Rogers, few Amsterdam News readers seemed to prioritize homefront issues over Ethiopia, with only one letter published at the crisis’ end. In contrast, by publishing Cooper and Mackin’s letters in the heat of the crisis under pointed headlines such as “Stay Home and Behave,” the Journal and Guide took a greater role in demonstrating public opinion towards other issues. The greater amount of direct letters to the Guide also shows that African-Americans in the South may have been slightly less likely to embrace support for Ethiopia in lieu of their own difficulties at home.

 

Coverage of Ethiopian Slave Holding

Although both the Norfolk Journal and Guide and Amsterdam News devote the same amount of coverage to the existence of contemporary slavery in Ethiopia–mentioning it four times respectively in the period between WalWal and Haile Selassie’s address to the League of Nations–they take a decidedly different stance on the issue. While the Southern paper responds to accusations that the Ethiopians held slaves in a variety of ways, including paining Haile Selassie as a liberator and highlighting the problems of Fascism, the Northern paper countered the claims with a comparison to the indignities that blacks suffered in the United States. Not surprisingly, it was only in the South that the paper published an article opposing independent Ethiopia because of Ethiopian slavery.

The Journal and Guide first breached the subject of Ethiopians who held slaves in a series of articles by Mary Hines Hall published in late 1930 after the coronation of Haile Selassie. It carried only one other article–coverage of the views of a minister named Rev. O.C. Jones of Portsmouth, VA–that expressed opposition to supporting independent Ethiopia based on its tradition of slave-holding.

These articles somehow managed to turn Ethiopian slaveholding in a positive; for example, one article claimed that Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in the process of dismantling the slave trade, had freed “just one million more (slaves) than Abraham Lincoln freed.” Furthermore, columnist Thomas Young presented an even more contrived spin on Ethiopian slaveholding, explaining that physical slavery in Ethiopia was less damaging than the situation in Italy where, “Italian youths…have been made chattel in a far vicious system of mental slavery,” essentially brainwashing them into imperialism. A final article, which described a letter from Italian propagandist Dr. Valentino Piccoli to Roy Wilkins, editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, ignored the issue of Ethiopian slavery by instead pointing out Italy’s flaws and hypocrisy.

The Amsterdam News creates a similar hierarchy regarding Ethiopian slavery, minimizing the horrors of Ethiopian slavery with comparisons to systems that its editors regard as more devastating. Unlike their more oppressed compatriots in the South, however, the writers of the Amsterdam News were more likely to compare Ethiopian slavery to the injustices of discrimination within the United States.  Furthermore, the paper oscillated between admissions that slavery in Ethiopia still existed to flat-out denials, as demonstrated by the work of Joel Rogers, a historian-analysis who was the only African-American correspondent to travel to Ethiopia. While Rogers was mentioned in the Journal and Guide several times and was even interviewed in the April 18th edition, none of his writings on Ethiopia were reprinted. In contrast, his “Ruminations” column appeared weekly in the Amsterdam News, frequently discussing Ethiopia, and he heavily advertised his pamphlet “The Real Facts About Ethiopia.” Rogers’ stance on Ethiopian slavery is revealed to the greatest extent in this pamphlet. In the words of historian William R. Scott, Rogers “tried to make short shift of the slavery issue,” (Scott 200) stressing the social mobility of Ethiopian slaves. Furthermore, he contested that slavery continued in the United States in the form of the peonage, or sharecropping system. While he does not mention specifically the location of these injustices, his references to the American South are clear.

The Amsterdam News followed Rogers’ lead, comparing Ethiopian slavery almost exclusively to the contemporary situation in the United States on the rare occasion it was mentioned. The Northern paper offered extensive discussion over the views of African-American dancer Josephine Baker, who condemned the cause of Ethiopia because of reports of continued slavery. In a rebuttal to her comments, Romeo L. Dougherty, author of the “Things Theatrical” column, made a veiled reference to the problems blacks faced outside of New York and the North, nothing that “…in certain parts of the United States, slavery still obtains.” Likewise, the paper later published an account of Dr. B. M. Heald, a white lecturer who worked in central Africa. Although Heald did not compare Ethiopian slavery to contemporary conditions, he did mention the American slave system as far more brutal than “so called slavery in Ethiopia”

The unwillingness of the Southern papers to compare Ethiopian slavery to modern-day sharecropping or Jim Crow, focusing instead on comparisons to injustices in faraway Italy, can be explained most readily by a fear of arousing white opposition. However, given the impeccable coverage of Ethiopia–nearly entirely supportive of the African monarchy–and the enormous individual attention given to individual recruits in the Southern paper, it seems unlikely that the paper would have a fear of a devastating white backlash. Perhaps the idea of a comparison to the contemporary American South occurred only in the North, where the descendants and movers of the Great Migration were experiencing a taste of freedom and a chance to truly reflect on their lives in the South. The response of Rev. O. C. Jones demonstrates that not all Southerners missed the echoes of American slavery in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the comparison of Ethiopian debtor-chaining to the chain gangs of the Deep South proves that Southerners at least saw some grounds for comparison.  However, even neither Jones nor the anonymous writer of the chain-gang article made the greater step that the Joel Rogers and the Northern papers jumped upon, comparing Ethiopian slavery to modern wage slavery and declaring the latter more intolerable.

 

Attitude Towards Recruitment and Newspaper-Led Organizing

Both the southern Guide and Journal and northern Amsterdam News professed to oppose the recruitment of African-Americans. Likewise–along with the rest of the African-American press–they were united in praising Chicago-based aviator John Robinson while condemning the West-Indies born Hubert Julian (Scott 93). However, while the Norfolk paper extensively covered the case of a graduate of Richmond’s Armstrong High School seeking service in Ethiopia, the New York paper gave no such individual attention to recruits. Unique from the Southern paper, however, it presented potential recruits for Ethiopia with a way to gain more information.

Although the Journal presented no opinion with its first mention of potential African-American recruits, by the time of the heat of the crisis, it took a definite stance against recruitment. In the July 27th issue, which contained at least eighteen separate articles about Ethiopia, the front page contained several warnings against recruitment, including a statement by the New York-based Committee of Ethiopia explaining “The committee is opposed to the ‘recruiting’ of volunteers.” This article appeared alongside Ethiopian consul John Shaw was pleas to “put an end to all recruiting of volunteers for the Ethiopian army” and followed up several pages later with a general article explaining that Americans serving in the Ethiopian or Italian armies would be guilty of a misdemeanor and prosecuted. Similar to the rest of the African-American press, the Journal and Guide did laud the qualified recruit John Robinson, frequently printing his photograph. However, the paper was far less kind to the showy Hubert Julian; “hapless but colorful” was one of the paper’s kinder descriptions of the pilot.

Despite the Journal and Guide’s vocal opposition to recruitment, the editors included detailed coverage of local recruits who expressed interest in fighting for Ethiopia. On July 27th–the same day that the paper admonished black recruiting on the front page–the ninth page featured a story about two Richmond recruits. Although the second recruit, LeRoy Williams, is further lost to history, the first–an Armstrong High School graduate identified alternatively as Richard Roarne, Frank Roane and Richard Roane–figured prominently in several articles in the following weeks.

Roane’s interest in serving demonstrates that, just like their Northern counterparts, Southern blacks were profoundly interested in actually taking up arms for Ethiopia. The stress on the individual account of Roane, as opposed to the more generalized articles in the Northern paper, is probably due to the sheer difference in numbers of recruits. While the movement in Harlem was characterized by vocal recruits, mass meetings and soapbox orators, the South had no such fervor (Scott 106). Additionally, readers in the South may have felt the need to rally around an individual figure–in this case, the local hero of Roane–as they faced discrimination and tough economic times.

The Amsterdam News displayed a similar reiteration of articles against military recruitment, praise for Robinson and disdain for Hubert Julian. However, instead of focusing on the recruitment of individual soldiers, as well as medics, technicians, and other professionals, the News carried articles describing mass meetings. While the paper does mention that Allan Parker, a 25-year old resident of Jamaica, passed through Kearny, NJ on his way to Ethiopia, the only references to a local individual is purely humorous. The only local “recruit” mentioned by name in the paper was eleven-year old Wyatt McCrow, an adventurous youngster who set out with a cap pistol, ten cents and “an idea that Ethiopia might be just a little beyond Jersey City.”

Unlike the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Amsterdam News played a role in organizing one well-publicized yet ultimately unsuccessful class of volunteers. The paper carried a banner headline explaining that the Ethiopian government would welcome “the services of Negro doctors, nurses, technicians, engineers and chemists,” stressing their role as non-combatants. Rather than simply providing the address of an existing organization for interested readers to write to, however, the article included a note that individuals seeking more information could contact the “editor of the Amsterdam News at 2293 Seventh ave.” This superiority in editor-led organization is most likely unique even among Northern African-American papers and rooted in that fact that most pro-Ethiopia organizations were headquartered within the city. With such proximity to the leaders of the movement, it may have been easier for the editors to take a greater organizational role.

 

Coverage of Riots

 

The relationship between race riots and the black press was explored in The Amsterdam News on several occasions. In his column “Harlem Sketchbook,” the commentator Theophilius Lewis expressed fear that African-American outrage over the Italo-Ethiopian War would lead to unrest. He directly condemned the black press, claiming that they had instigated the harsh feelings that often preceded rioting by having “dedicated themselves to the propagation of the doctrine that white people, especially American white people, are a race of villains.” In short, the editors of the Northern paper were well-aware of the effects of the black press in stirring or preventing riots.

This role of the press is alluded to in the different tactics that the Amsterdam News and Journal and Guide used in the coverage of Ethiopia-related riots. The Amsterdam News tended to run stories on the unrests, which rocked Harlem at the war’s beginning in October 1935 and at its end in May 1936. Articles about the two pockets of unrest in Harlem appeared promptly, headlining the front page of the next week’s edition. The riots in Chicago, which occurred on August 31, 1935, were similarly covered in a timely matter, with a large third-page spread dated only a week previously.

In contrast, the Journal and Guide mentioned such major riots only in passing. The only mention of the September Chicago riot is  a passing reference in an editorial two months later, and the riots at the war’s end in May are only mentioned in passing in an article appearing in late June.  The absence of immediate coverage of riots by the southern Journal and Guide may be explained by a lack of interest due to geographical distance. However, the editors’ passing remarks about the riots indicate that the events were worthy of mention; furthermore, the News’ coverage of the Chicago riots as well as the Journal and Guide’s attention to other events in Harlem proves that geography did not distill interest in news. Rather, it appears that the editors of the Journal and Guide may have tempered immediate coverage of Ethiopia-related unrest, perhaps out of fear of copycat riots. Interestingly, Ethiopia-related arrest appeared to be more related to the proximity of Italians than newspaper coverage; the historian Joseph Harris described how tensions ran high in New York City “where the nation’s largest concentrations of African-Americans and Italians lived in uneasy proximity.” Correspondingly, the only incident of potential unrest in the South that the Journal and Guide covered happened in close proximity to a large group of Italians in New Orleans. There, three black professors from Dillard University carried a protest sign along the route of the Italian victory parade and were subsequently threatened.

 

 

Discussing the Ethiopians’ Racial Identity

 

Both papers, along with the rest of the country’s black press, were faced with a rather momentous challenge from the white press. Regardless of their feelings towards Italy, white journalists–especially Arthur Brisbane of the New York Times–stressed that the Ethiopians were not actually Negroid, but rather of mixed Hamitic (a fictional dark strain of the white race) and Semitic origins. The Journal and Guide and Amsterdam News used similar strategies to combat these accusations, which have been cited as one of several reasons for the movement’s failure. Both papers consulted experts such as Joel Rogers and the esteemed historian Carter G. Woodson to explain that though the average Ethiopian had rejected the American term “Negro,” believing it to carry connotations of slavery, that did not “mean he is denying racial kinship with Aframericans.” Additionally, both papers cited Haile Selassie’s nephew Malaku Bayen, who was educated at Howard and married an African-American girl, as proof that Ethiopians did feel a kinship with blacks.

Interestingly, the Journal and Guide provided substantial coverage in one area that the Amsterdam News did not. In addition to articles stressing that the Ethiopians were indeed members of the African race, the paper regularly printed photographs of Ethiopian soldiers or Emperor Haile Selassie and his family. In the Journal and Guide, these images often appeared on the local photographs page alongside images of newlyweds and Girl Scouts. There, in addition to demonstrating the obvious physical similarities between Ethiopians and African-Americans, the paper may have also increased solidarity and familiarity with the Africans by portraying them as members of the same community. Furthermore, these photographs could attract the attention of the young, the illiterate, and those who only followed local issues.  Although the Amsterdam News did have such a local photograph section, Ethiopians were rarely featured; most photographs appeared only alongside corresponding stories.

 

Comments

  1. This looks great! A really extensive study of this topic.