Ethiopia & Black America: The Forgotten Story of Melaku & Robinson

Ethiopian & African American Relations
The Case of Melaku E. Bayen and John Robinson

By Ayele Bekerie

Updated: Sunday, August 24, 2008

New York (Tadias) – In 1935, African Americans of all classes, regions, genders, and beliefs expressed their opposition to and outrage over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in various forms and various means. The invasion aroused African Americans – from intellectuals to common people in the street – more than any other Pan-African-oriented historical events or movements had. It fired the imagination of African Americans and brought to the surface the organic link to their ancestral land and peoples.

The time was indeed a turning point in the relations between Ethiopia and the African Diaspora. Harris calls 1935 a watershed in the history of African peoples. It was a year when the relations substantively shifted from symbolic to actual interactions. The massive expression of support for the Ethiopian cause by African Americans has also contributed, in my opinion, to the re-Africanization of Ethiopia. This article attempts to examine the history of the relations between Ethiopians and African Americans by focusing on brief biographies of two great leaders, one from Ethiopia and another one from African America, who made extraordinary contributions to these relations.

It is fair to argue that the Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1930s was instrumental in the rebirth of the Pan-African movement. The African Diaspora was mobilized in support of the Ethiopian cause during both the war and the subsequent Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Italy’s brutal attempt to wipe out the symbol of freedom and hope to the African world ultimately became a powerful catalyst in the struggle against colonialism and oppression. The Italo-Ethiopian War brought about an extraordinary unification of African people’s political awareness and heightened level of political consciousness. Africans, African Americans, Afro-Caribbean’s, and other Diaspora and continental Africans from every social stratum were in union in their support of Ethiopia, bringing the establishment of “global Pan-Africanism.” The brutal aggression against Ethiopia made it clear to African people in the United States that the Europeans’ intent and purpose was to conquer, dominate, and exploit all African people. Mussolini’s disregard and outright contempt for the sovereignty of Ethiopia angered and reawakened the African world.

Response went beyond mere condemnation by demanding self-determination and independence for all colonized African people throughout the world. For instance, the 1900-1945 Pan-African Congresses regularly issued statements that emphasized a sense of solidarity with Haiti, Ethiopia, and Liberia, thereby affirming the importance of defending the sovereignty and independence of African and Afro-Caribbean states. A new generation of militant Pan-Africanists emerged who called for decolonization, elimination of racial discrimination in the United States, African unity, and political empowerment of African people.

One of the most significant Pan-Africanist Conferences took place in 1945, immediately after the defeat of the Italians in Ethiopia and the end of World War II. This conference passed resolutions clearly demanding the end of colonization in Africa, and the question of self-determination emerged as the most important issue of the time. As Mazrui and Tidy put it: “To a considerable extent the 1945 Congress was a natural outgrowth of Pan-African activity in Britain since the outbreak of the Italo-Ethiopian War.”

Another of the most remarkable outcomes of the reawakening of the African Diaspora was the emergence of so many outstanding leaders, among them the Ethiopian Melaku E. Bayen and the African American John Robinson. Other outstanding leaders were Willis N. Huggins, Arnold Josiah Ford, and Mignon Innis Ford, who were active against the war in both the United States and Ethiopia. Mignon Ford, the founder of Princess Zenebe Work School, did not even leave Ethiopia during the war. The Fords and other followers of Marcus Garvey settled in Ethiopia in the 1920s. Mignon Ford raised her family among Ethiopians as Ethiopians. Her children, fluent speakers of Amharic, have been at home both in Ethiopia and the United States.

Melaku E. Bayen: Pan-Africanists in Thoughts & Practice
Melaku E. Bayen

Melaku E. Bayen, an Ethiopian, significantly contributed to the re-Africanization of Ethiopia. His noble dedication to the Pan-African cause and his activities in the United States helped to dispel the notion of “racial fog” that surrounded the Ethiopians. William R. Scott expounded on this: “Melaku Bayen was the first Ethiopian seriously and steadfastly to commit himself to achieving spiritual and physical bonds of fellowship between his people and peoples of African descent in the Americas. Melaku exerted himself to the fullest in attempting to bring about some kind of formal and continuing relationship designed to benefit both the Ethiopian and Afro-American.” To Scott, Bayen’s activities stand out as “the most prominent example of Ethiopian identification with African Americans and seriously challenges the multitude of claims which have been made now for a long time about the negative nature of Ethiopian attitudes toward African Americans.”

The issues raised by Scott and the exemplary Pan-Africanism of Melaku Bayen are useful in establishing respectful and meaningful relations between Ethiopia and the African Diaspora. They dedicated their entire lives in order to lay down the foundation for relations rooted in mutual understanding and historical facts, free of stereotypes and false perceptions. African American scholars, such as William Scott, Joseph E. Harris, and Leo Hansberry contributed immensely by documenting the thoughts and activities of Bayen, both in Ethiopia and the United States.

Melaku E. Bayen was raised and educated in the compound of Ras Mekonnen, then the Governor of Harar and the father of Emperor Haile Selassie. He was sent to India to study medicine in 1920 at the age of 21 with permission from Emperor Haile Selassie. Saddened by the untimely death of a young Ethiopian woman friend, who was also studying in India, he decided to leave India and continue his studies in the United States. In 1922, he enrolled at Marietta College, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree. He is believed to be the first Ethiopian to receive a college degree from the United Sates.

Melaku started his medical studies at Ohio State University in 1928, then, a year later, decided to transfer to Howard University in Washington D.C. in order to be close to Ethiopians who lived there. Melaku formally annulled his engagement to a daughter of the Ethiopian Foreign Minister and later married Dorothy Hadley, an African American and a great activist in her own right for the Ethiopian and pan-Africanist causes. Both in his married and intellectual life, Melaku wanted to create a new bond between Ethiopia and the African Diaspora.

Melaku obtained his medical degree from Howard University in 1936, at the height of the Italo-Ethiopian War. He immediately returned to Ethiopia with his wife and their son, Melaku E. Bayen, Jr. There, he joined the Ethiopian Red Cross and assisted the wounded on the Eastern Front. When the Italian Army captured Addis Ababa, Melaku’s family went to England and later to the United States to fully campaign for Ethiopia.

Schooled in Pan-African solidarity from a young age, Melaku co-founded the Ethiopian Research Council with the late Leo Hansberry in 1930, while he was student at Howard. According to Joseph Harris, the Council was regarded as the principal link between Ethiopians and African Americans in the early years of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. The Council’s papers are housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. At present, Professor Aster Mengesha of Arizona State University heads the Ethiopian Research Council. Leo Hansberry was the recipient of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Trust Foundation Prize in the 1960s.

Melaku founded and published the Voice of Ethiopia, the media organ of the Ethiopian World Federation and a pro-African newspaper that urged the “millions of the sons and daughters of Ethiopia, scattered throughout the world, to join hands with Ethiopians to save Ethiopia from the wolves of Europe.” Melaku founded the Ethiopian World Federation in 1937, and it eventually became one of the most important international organizations, with branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. The Caribbean branch helped to further solidify the ideological foundation for the Rasta Movement.

Melaku died at the age of forty from pneumonia he contracted while campaigning door-to-door for the Ethiopian cause in the United States. Melaku died in 1940, just a year before the defeat of the Italians in Ethiopia. His tireless and vigorous campaign, however, contributed to the demise of Italian colonial ambition in Ethiopia. Melaku strove to bring Ethiopia back into the African world. Melaku sewed the seeds for a “re-Africanization” of Ethiopia. Furthermore, Melaku was a model Pan-Africanist who brought the Ethiopian and African American people together through his exemplary work and his remarkable love and dedication to the African people.

Colonel John Robinson
Colonel John C. Robinson arrives in Chicago after heroically
leading the Ethiopian Air Force against the invading Mussolini’s
Italian forces.

Another heroic figure produced by the anti-war campaign was Colonel John Robinson. It is interesting to note that while Melaku conducted his campaign and died in the United States, the Chicago-born Robinson fought, lived, and died in Ethiopia.

When the Italo-Ethiopian War erupted, he left his family and went to Ethiopia to fight alongside the Ethiopians. According to William R. Scott, who conducted thorough research in documenting the life and accomplishments of John Robinson, wrote about Robinson’s ability to overcome racial barriers to go to an aviation school in the United States. In Ethiopia, Robinson served as a courier between Haile Selassie and his army commanders in the war zone. According to Scott, Robinson was the founder of the Ethiopian Air Force. He died in a plane crash in 1954.

Scott makes the following critical assessment of Robinson’s historical role in building ties between Ethiopia and the African Diaspora. I quote him in length: “Rarely, if ever, is there any mention of John Robinson’s role as Haile Selassie’s special courier during the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. He has been but all forgotten in Ethiopia as well as in Afro-America. [Former Ambassodor Brazeal mentioned his name at the planting of a tree to honor the African Diaspora in Addis Ababa.] Nonetheless, it is important to remember John Robinson, as one of the two Afro-Americans to serve in the Ethiopia campaign and the only one to be consistently exposed to the dangers of the war front.

Colonel Robinson stands out in Afro-America as perhaps the very first of the minute number of Black Americans to have ever taken up arms to defend the African homeland against the forces of imperialism.”

John Robinson set the standard in terms of goals and accomplishments that could be attained by Pan-Africanists. Through his activities, Robinson earned the trust and affection of both Ethiopians and African Americans. Like Melaku, he made concrete contributions to bring the two peoples together. He truly built a bridge of Pan African unity.

It is our hope that the youth of today learn from the examples set by Melaku and Robinson, and strive to build lasting and mutually beneficial relations between Ethiopia and the African Diaspora. The Ethiopian American community ought to empower itself by forging alliances with African Americans in places such as Washington D.C. We also urge the Ethiopian Government to, for now, at least name streets in Addis Ababa after Bayen and Robinson.

I would like to conclude with Melaku’s profound statement: “The philosophy of the Ethiopian World Federation is to instill in the minds of the Black people of the world that the word Black is not to be considered in any way dishonorable but rather an honor and dignity because of the past history of the race.”

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie was born in Ethiopia, and earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies at Temple University in 1994. He has written and published in scholarly journals, such as , ANKH: Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations, Journal of Black Studies, The International Journal of Africana Studies, and Imhotep. He is an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University. He is a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine.

To further explore the history of Ethiopian & African American relations, consult the following texts:

• Joseph E. Harris’s African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia 1936-1941(1994).

• William R. Scott’s The Sons of Sheba’s Race: African-Americans and the Italo- Ethiopian War, 1935-1941. (2005 reprint).

• Ayele Bekerie’s “African Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War,” in Revisioning Italy: National Identity and Global Culture (1997).

• Melaku E. Bayen’s The March of Black Men (1939).

• David Talbot’s Contemporary Ethiopia (1952).

17 Responses to “Ethiopia & Black America: The Forgotten Story of Melaku & Robinson”

  1. 1 ethioBlog Aug 24th, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Who knew?

    This is just such a great story we all should know and learn from.

    Thank you and please keep up with this, Dr. Ayele.

    May Ethiopia be saved once again from all the wolves that are on her throat!


  2. 2 Wardofa Aug 27th, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    “The Caribbean branch helped to further solidify the ideological foundation for the Rasta Movement.”

    The above sentence must be deleted because it is not true.

    Rasteferians useed to be a group of youth who admire king haileselase, not because of that mentioned movement, ok!

  3. 3 Wardofa Aug 27th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I am sorry i dont now what i am talking about ….

  4. 4 Tami Aug 30th, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Thank you so much for writing this article. It is so easy for people to look at those things that separate our communities instead of the things that bring us together.

  5. 5 King T Aug 31st, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    I am amazed. We need to learn more about us and people who helped is in our dearkest time.

    Thanks Doc!

  6. 6 belay Oct 12th, 2008 at 1:46 am

    melaku beyan well known in ethiopia.The last great emperor of ethiopia
    Haile Sellassie honored him by naming one children’clinic by his name.
    The clinik inside Haile sellassie hospital/now yekatit 12th//
    I was always sorry about his death at a young age

  7. 7 raskebre Oct 15th, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Give thanks for the forgotten story of Melaku E Bayen.The son of the Gerazmatch[Baron]Bayen and Waizero[Lady]Desta,Melaku Bayen was born on April 29,1900,in Wollo Province in central Ethiopia.At six months of age,he was taken by his parents to the city of Harar where he grew up in the palace of [grandduke]Tafari Makonnen,his mother’s first cousin and the future emperor of Ethiopia. We,the Black People 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.Rasta Fari.

  8. 8 Ras Kassa Oct 21st, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Can someone like Dr. William Scott and Dr. Ayele Bekeri start a foundation and hold fund raising drives to erect and dedicate monuments to recognize these two heros?

  9. 9 Ben Roy Mar 18th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Fabulous! I would love to commisserate. Feel free to e-mail to start a dialogue. There is so much emphasis on West African origins of our culture in the Americas but it is Bantu and yes Ethiopia is there during slavery – listen again to the music of Brazil and you can hear it there. This is a wonderful article, but how can I share it through e-mail from your site?

    Ben Roy (Binyam Nguste)

  10. 10 frezer Admasu Molaligne Apr 13th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    i write Amharic poems.sometimes in english.
    the God given chemistry
    What is in you
    what is in me
    is a natural harmony
    the rhythmic state of art
    lovely drumming Adam’s heart
    is server for those
    who demand it
    Live it or leave it.
    contact the poet!!

  11. 11 Dedon Kamathi Feb 5th, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    I lived in Ethiopia in 1973-1974.One year before I hooked up with Kwame Ture(Stokeley Carmichael) & his wife Miriam Makeba and join the AAPRP the revolutionary Pan African Party of Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Though a bit idealistic I moved to Ethiopia and was transformed into a life long Pan Africanist. Today at 60 I am still in the Party and reaching out to unite All African people for a United States of Socialist Africa. I do a radio program KPFK 90.7 fm in LA where I put out Pan African music, lectures, historical calendar, political prisoner segment program Freedom Now. Anyone who has info on Africans in the diaspora who helped African liberation please contact me at

    Mother Ethiopia transformed me to a permanent state of love of African and we must continue this unity. The beast does all they can to divide us. Africa Must Unite.

  12. 12 Kassu Mar 20th, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    I am enlightened by this story. Much respect to Melaku Bayen and his people of Wolo (Ethiopia) and and the son of Sheba , John C. Robinsons.

  13. 13 Amare May 3rd, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    In memeory of Col J Robinson, there was a school in Addis Ababa named after him and founded by an African American named Mr. Peterson (I forgot his first name). He married an Ethiopian woman and has 3 or 4 children. They left Ethiopia during the Derge entrance.

    I was a student of Col. J Robinson Memeorial school. It would be great if Mr. Robinson (if he is alive) or his children offer their remarks on the Col.


  14. 14 Howshua Amariel May 10th, 2010 at 4:20 am

    I AM Howshua Amariel an I have been told by my great grandmother that this bible of her father is a 1500 year old Ethopian bible given to John Robinson by King Helie Selassie,brother of May Robinson.amarielfamily. tripod. com/id11. html It a complete 84 leaf illuminated Ge’ez handwritten manuscript leaves, written on vellum. The vellum animal skin shows on some pages discoloration, especially around the edges of the pages, due to age, water damage, and use. It should be pointed out that the series of vertical pin-prick holes in the vellum in the outer margin were made as a guide to the scribe for the placement and alignment of each line. Total size of the pages is 4 3/4 in. x 6 in. The text area is about 4 in. x 4 in. These 84 sheets contain some red illuminated words. Also there are hand-drawn blue pencil additions on two different leaves.These are original handwritten manuscript leaves on vellum, not modern reproductions. Their a wood cover and a skin carrying case. Thank You for keeping the memory of my family works alive.JUST google my name howshua to find out more about my family or Call me here in Israel at 97254740-8416 Shalom

  15. 15 Tyrone Haymore Robbins, IL USA Oct 12th, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, I have been teaching this history of of
    Robinson and Melaku myself for the past 12 years. I thought I was the only
    voice in the world that knew of greatness of these two men. I am so glad to
    know that this very important history has not been lost or forgotten.
    John C. Robinson before he left the United States for Ethiopia in 1933 with his partner in the U.S. Corneliius R. Coffey were the first blacks to
    intergrate the highly accredited CURTISS WRIGHT AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY in
    Chicago, IL where they both learn and instructed programs of Aviation. They soon left the school and built the First Black Airport and Aviation training
    school in my hometown of ROBBINS, IL in 1931.
    Please add this information to your writings it’s all true and factual.
    I can give you more details if needed, contact me, Tyrone Haymore, Director
    of the Robbins History Museum that opened August 28, 2010.

  16. 16 romano Berhe Jan 28th, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Robinson & Melaku…..what a great setting…..Two men, two backgrounds two stories….yet One entity….ONE PANAFRICA, for eternity….excuse my spelling….love you all….one one one…..

  17. 17 Dino Robinson Oct 26th, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you for this story. Dr. Bayen’s wife, Dorothy Hadley was from Evanston. I have for sometime now, been looking for more information on Dorothy. Have you come across any information, photographs, etc. I know they had one sone (who also for a short while, lived in Evanston as a child) but do not know if he is still living. Any guidance would be helpful.

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