A Visitor from Ethiopia Discovers Harlem in 1931

By Jody Benjamin

Updated: Saturday, August 23, 2008

New York (Tadias) – ON A WINTER NIGHT IN 1931, as many Depression-era New Yorkers prepared for a lean Chanukah or Christmas, a room inside a residential building at 29 W. 131st Street, was filled with an expectant crowd.

Those gathered in the modest sanctuary of Harlem’s Commandment Keepers congregation were anticipating a special visitor from Ethiopia.

Just before 9 p.m., Taamrat Emmanuel walked into the room. A thin, bearded man in his early 40s, with eyes like deep wells, Emmanuel was a European-educated Beta Israel originally from Jenda, near Gondar Ethiopia. He had traveled far and wide advocating on behalf of his ethnic minority, which had maintained their Judaic beliefs for centuries in remote mountain areas. Now he found himself in the most important black cultural center, and the largest city, of the United States. The African-American and African-Caribbean congregation, led by rabbi Wentworth A Matthew, rose to its feet. A cornetist played the solemn anthem: Ethiopia, thou Land of Our Fathers. Its lyrics included lines like:

Ethiopia, thou land of our fathers
Thou land where the gods loved to be
As storm cloud at night suddenly gathers
Our armies come rushing to thee!

Although the song may have been unfamiliar to Emmanuel, it would have had special resonance for those who had come to see him. It was the anthem of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and was sung at the start of each meeting. Many of Matthew’s congregation had also been members of the UNIA and held fast to its principles. Also, the song was written by Arnold Ford, a rabbi and musician well-known to the Hebrews, and Benjamin E. Burrell. Ford was a mentor to Matthew, who in turn would go on to be an eminent leader and institution-builder among black Hebrews, descendants of American and Caribbean slaves who believed Judaism to be their true faith.

Above: Harlem’s Commandment Keepers congregation building.

Emmanuel was escorted to a seat as Matthew extended him the warmest of fraternal greetings.

It may be difficult to imagine, from the perspective of the 21st century internet age, the magnitude of that moment to those present. In today’s multi-culti United States, black people from scattered parts of the world tend to wear their national or ethnic identities as shields, like protective armor designed to keep away “strangers” while scuffling toward the ever-elusive goal of the “American Dream.” Many regard the concept of Pan-Africanism as hopeless, even misguided, idealism.

Back then, however, steadfast Garveyites believed they were watching their dreams morph into reality before their very eyes. Each week seemed to bring ever more hopeful news.

The coronation of Haile Selassie had been widely covered in the United States, not only in publications such as Time Magazine, where Selassie was pictured on the cover, but in newsreels that were screened in movie houses nationwide as well as extensively in the black press.

For many blacks in this country, it was the first time they had ever heard an African country and leader spoken of reverentially or seen such pageantry associated with a free black nation. And because it was Ethiopia, a land with such a storied ancient past, they could glimpse the evidence that the propaganda which had been drummed into them for centuries – that Africa had no history worthy of respect – was simply not true.

The historian Rayford Logan described the impact the coronation was having on Americans unaccustomed to such images of Africa:

“When the pictures of the coronation…of Ras Tafari as joint leader with his aunt, Empress Zawditu of Abyssinia, flashed on the screen of a northern theater, one could distinctly sense the shock that disoriented the audience,’’ Logan wrote in the The Southern Workman.(1)

“These coronation pictures…did not conform to the usual behavior pattern. First of all, no white man was anywhere in evidence. Then, the new emperor was brown; his aunt was Negroid; their chiefs were Negroes; the army of 40,000 was black.”

At the very moment Emmanuel was in Harlem, rabbi Ford was in Ethiopia. He had traveled there a year before, in order to perform at the coronation of Haile Selassie. He also hoped to spot out the possibility of his followers to emigrate to the African country, then one of only two on the Continent not in the grasp of European colonial powers. After a series of setbacks and delays, he had finally managed to secure an offer of land and had sent back word for others from the Harlem community should join him.

Leaving Ethiopia at a Young Age
AS A TEENAGER, TAAMRAT EMMANUEL HAD BEEN PLUCKED FROM ETHIOPIA TO EUROPE by the Polish-born rabbi and scholar Jacques Faitlovich. In the late 19th century, British missionaries had converted Emmanuel’s parents from Judaism to Christianity. Faitlovich met the family in Asmara in 1905, after he had been traveling in Ethiopia to investigate the fate of Ethiopian Jews, or “Falasha” as they were then called. Faitlovich wanted to return so-called “lost” Ethiopian Jews into the larger Jewish fold, and so he reconverted the family back to Judaism.

Later, Faitlovich took two teenaged Ethiopians back with him to Europe: one was Getie Jeremias, the other was Emmanuel. Faitlovich’s aim was to educate the boys so that they might become leaders among their people back home. Their presence in Europe would also help to convince Western Jews to support their African brethren who had maintained a very ancient form of the religion.

Emmanuel stood out as the more promising of the two students.(2) He spent about two years in Marseilles, France before being sent to study a number of years in Florence, Italy, where he lived during the First World War.

After the war, Emmanuel returned to Addis Ababa where Faitlovich appointed him headmaster of a school set up to educate so-called “Falashas,” or Beta Israel. Emmanuel ran the school for a few years, despite a number of difficulties. Facilities were poor and students had to travel great distances to come to board there since most Beta Israel lived in rural areas far from the capital. Emmanuel hoped to build a school closer to a Beta Israel community near Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia. He was frustrated by the meager funds he received from Westerners to support his aims.

By the late 1920s, Faitlovich had begun to focus on getting help from Jews in the United States. He and Taamrat came to New York with the help of the American Jewish Pro-Falasha Committee, which had been arranging speaking engagements for them around town.

In New York, however, it was a time of great cultural ferment. Among other issues, two agendas were competing at the same time. Just as Faitlovich was trying to drum up interest among Jews to help return so-called “lost” Ethiopian Jews into the larger Jewish fold, many African descendants in this country were looking to the homeland of their ancestors as a possible refuge from the entrenched racism and severely limited opportunities they faced in the United States.

Once in New York, Emmanuel journeyed to Harlem where he met rabbi Ford in 1928 or 1929.(3) It is not clear whether Ford contributed financially to Emmanuel’s cause, but the encounter proved timely for Ford, solidifying his apparently growing desire to build concrete ties with Ethiopia.

That is because Emmanuel was but the latest of a number of Ethiopians who had been traveling to the US to get African descendants – especially skilled professionals — interested to help modernize Ethiopia. Others included Malaku Bayen, a medical student at Howard University, Kantiba Gabrou, a former mayor of Gondar and Warqnneh Martin, the distinguished physician and diplomat. It is believed that Ford first met Gabrou in Harlem in 1919, while Gabrou was visiting the US as part of an official friendship diplomatic delegation sent by Selassie after the First World War.

A decade later, not long after his encounter with Emmanuel, the Harlemite left for Africa.

Above: Malaku Bayen, a medical student at Howard
University in the 1930′s. He is believed to be the first
Ethiopian to receive a college degree from the U.S.

Taamrat Emmanuel Addressed the Audience in French and West Africans Assisted as Interpreters.

All of this would have been known to many who came to listen to Emmanuel at the Commandment Keepers Congregation the night of December 23, 1931. A press statement written after the event notes that several native-born Africans, including some from French colonies, were in the audience. They were needed, it turned out, as translators because Emmanuel did not speak English. A bilingual man from French Guinea gave a short talk to the congregation about Africa, then translated for Emmanuel who addressed the audience in French.

“He assured [the audience] that he was the same as they and was very proud to be,’’ according to the statement, which is archived at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

Whether the Ethiopians and the black New Yorkers actually shared a common heritage had been a point of considerable controversy. This was true not only with regard to the Jewish question, but also among the larger community. So much so that popular black historian J.A. Rogers addressed the topic in his 1930 book, The Real Facts About Ethiopia, by attempting to reassure his American readers, “Ethiopia has always shown her friendliness to such Aframericans as have visited her.”

Among Matthew’s congregation, the controversy heated up considerably in the weeks just before Emmanuel’s talk. On December 2, The Amsterdam News ran a brief story that the local chairman of the American Pro-Falasha committee had publicly “denounced for the second time Harlem’s Negro adherents of the [Jewish] faith as fakes in a Jamaica [Long Island] meeting.”

In the article, Rabbi Matthew responded to the charge by Dr. Norman Salit with a challenge of his own saying that he was willing to debate the matter publicly.

“His statement that Harlem’s temples are a grotesque phenomena rising out of the mystic sensitivity of the Afro American played upon by charlatans is absolutely false,” Matthew said.

After his talk, an audience member asked Emmanuel about the issue. The controversy may have seemed strange to Emmanuel, unaccustomed as he must have been to the intricacies of American racial politics.

Under Faitlovich’s tutelage, he had been counseled against the development of any race consciousness or nationalist sentiment other than the brand of religious Zionism favored by Faitlovich, according to Shlomo Levy, Assistant Professor of History at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.

Yet Emmanuel, and Faitlovich’s other Ethiopian students, had their own ideas on the matter.

“As they traveled and read, they became aware of how the Western world viewed them and how their own leaders treated them,” said Levy.

Striking a balance between his identity as an Ethiopian and a Jew was an issue that would follow the Emmanuel throughout his life.

According to Levy, “Emmanuel’s struggle to find a balance between preserving a healthy respect for the traditions of the Beta Israel, while at the same time trying to forge a meaningful relationship with European Jewry, proved to be illusory.”

That night in 1931, however, the prospect of expanding ties between two disparate, far flung branches of Africa’s family might have seemed not only hopeful, but tangible. Emmanuel tried to play peacemaker.

“Mr. Salit is a friend,” Emmanuel said in response to the question, according to the press statement.

“But when [Salit] made the statement [I] was indeed surprised because he is sufficiently educated to know that he has neither historical nor biblical proof for his statement.”

The statement concluded by noting that Emmanuel: “begged that we drop the matter and forget about it.”

About the Author:
Jody Benjamin is an Associate Editor of the African American National Biography, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2008. He is working on a non-fiction book about the black Hebrews.

1. Logan, Rayford W., Abyssinia Breaks into the Movies, The Southern Workman, August, 1929

2. Trevisan Semi, Emanuela, La correspondance de Taamrat Emmanuel: Intellectuel juif d’Ethiopie dans la premiere moitie du XX siecle, Torino : Editrice L’Harmattan Italia, 2000

3. Scott, William Randolph. The Sons of Sheba’s Race: African Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War 1935-1941, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1993

Cover photo: Trevisan Semi, Emanuela, La correspondance de Taamrat Emmanuel: Intellectuel juif d’Ethiopie dans la premiere moitie du XX siecle, Torino: Editrice L’Harmattan Italia, 2000

1 Response to “A Visitor from Ethiopia Discovers Harlem in 1931”

  1. 1 Robin Aug 29th, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Under Faitlovich’s tutelage, he had been counseled against the development of any race consciousness or nationalist sentiment other than the brand of religious Zionism favored by Faitlovich, according to Shlomo Levy, Assistant Professor of History at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.

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