African Americans and Ethiopia On the Eve of the Fascist Invasion

By Professor Negussay Ayele

It is against the foregoing profile of the vagaries of international power politics prevailing then, that we turn our attention to a phenomenal story in Ethiopian and African American people-to-people relations on the eve of the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia. Among the early immigrants in Ethiopia, the most famous was the black rabbi, Arnold Josiah Ford, originally from Barbados but United States resident. He was an accomplished musician and an active participant in Garvey’s UNIA. He scored the music for the Universal Ethiopian Anthem, “Ethiopia, though land of our fathers…” of that organization as well other odes to Ethiopia. Rabbi Ford organized black Hebrews in Harlem aimed at preparing themselves to move from “Babylon” to the “Promised Land” or Zion somewhere in Africa. In 1930, that Promised Land turned out to be Ethiopia for rabbi Ford and his followers. He had been studying about and following events in Ethiopia for some time. He had met several high-ranking Ethiopians since 1919, including Professor Tamrat Emmanuel, a leader of Ethiopian Hebrews— known as fallashas and in more recent times, Bete Israel in Ethiopia. In each case, the vibes were good and he was encouraged to emigrate or at least visit Ethiopia. So, he arrived in Ethiopia with a few colleagues in in 1930 in time to witness the Coronation. A year later, more immigrants arrived in Ethiopia, including Mignon Innes, who was later married to rabbi Ford and was to play an important role in Ethiopian education.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s the person who spearheaded and forged relations of solidarity between African Americans and Ethiopians was Dr. Melaku Beyan of Ethiopia. He started to display panafricanist disposition since his arrival in the United States in 1922 and his college days at Muskingum College and Ohio State University, long before even rumors of war in Ethiopia. Melaku’s craving for interacting in meaningful ways with African Americans was satiated when he joined Howard University in 1929, where he had the good fortune of meeting with history Professor Leo Hansberry, one of the pioneers of African studies in the United States. Between 1930 and 1935 Melaku traveled back and forth to Ethiopia, accompanying African American recruits for various jobs and briefing the Emperor on the situation in the United States. He must have had an amiable and magnetic personality because wherever he went he made a lot of friends and the friendships were sustained throughout his lifetime. It was those college and university friends and colleagues who gathered around Ethiopia’s cause during the war years. Quite a few of them also volunteered to go to Ethiopia to serve as professionals in various fields.

One of the men recruited by Melaku Beyan was John Robinson, a.k.a. the Brown Condor. He completed his pilot’s training and earned his wings from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1920, one of the six hundred black pilots to do so. He again attended another mainstream flight school in Chicago where in 1931 and thus became the first African American to break the color barrier and graduate from that institution. His ordeal/odyssey was not over yet. Even after his bona fide graduation local airfields were closed to black pilots to use. So, Robinson got together with some supporters and financed the establishment of another private airport, which was duly certified by the authorities to be used by black pilots. According to his biography written by Thomas E. Simmons, The Brown Condor: The True Adventures of John C. Robinson, immediately after earning his flying license in 1927, Robinson started his own flying school in Chicago for blacks. He even founded an Air Pilots Association for black aviators, and he launched a “John Robinson Airlines.” However, the more he heard of what was happening in Ethiopia and sensed the indignation and frustration of the black community at its inability to do something about it, the more he was impelled to offer his services to fight fascism in Ethiopia.

Melaku Beyan heard about him and made contact. Subsequently, Robinson received a cable from the Emperor himself offering him a commission in the Ethiopian army. Prudently, when applying for his U.S. exit visa, he said he was going to Ethiopia on business to sell civilian airplanes. He arrived in Ethiopia at the end of May 1935.

Ethiopia had neither combat trained national pilots nor combat aircraft at the time, out of less than two-dozen mostly dysfunctional aircrafts. With that one aircraft, the intrepid Brown Condor flew incessantly on dangerous missions—not to mention a terrain and airspace he was unfamiliar with—from Addis to Adwa and back. He was carrying supplies, fighters and the Emperor from place to place in the very heat of the war, when the Fascists were controlling the skies and raining down bombs and poison gases. They tried to down him but could not. Robinson gives an eyewitness account of Fascist bombing spree in Adwa where he witnessed the very first assaults of the Fascist elements across the Mereb river on 3 October 1935. Professor William Scott in his book, The Sons of Sheba’s Race, paraphrases the Brown Condor’s description of that first day of bombing and the tragic reaction of innocent civilians in Tigrai:

When Italian planes attacked the Ethiopian towns of Adwa and Adigrat at the start of Rome’s African campaign, Robinson was caught along with Ethiopian civilians and military in the wanton and bloody bombardment. He had been sent on a courier mission to Adwa, scene of Italy’s humiliating defeat in 1896, the day before the surprise attack. Staying there overnight, Robinson was awakened at dawn by the terrible noise of explosions. Four large bombing planes arrived…and began bombing. Many people ran for cover in the city’s outskirts. Others sought refuge at the Red Cross hospital, imagining they would be protected there, but it too was shelled and was the scene of the heaviest casualties. Infuriated Ethiopian soldiers, anxious to engage the enemy in battle, ran out into the streets, waving their swords and challenging their adversaries to descend from the clouds and fight like men in hand-to-hand combat.

Although the Fascists failed to down his plane, the Brown Condor was shot at and wounded on his left hand, but he still managed to land safely. Whereas many thousands of African Americans and other Diaspora Africans had clamored and registered to go and fight along side their Ethiopian brothers and sisters, Colonel John Robinson was the sole African American who participated in the war for a few months. On the eve of Fascist entry into Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936, Robinson had to return back to the United States. However, once in the States the Brown Condor was received, feted and saluted as a genuine hero and the pride of the African American community. Thousands lined up the streets of New York and the delirious crowds lifted him off his feet and carried him for some distance. In Chicago, some 4000 residents lined up the streets waving Ethiopian and American flags to welcome their hometown hero wearing the Imperial Ethiopian Air Corps wings. He continued to campaign on Ethiopia’s behalf at EWF forums telling everyone concerned that Ethiopia will never bow out and the Fascists will never stay there for long. He told his listeners, “Mussolini’s troubles are just beginning, and guerrilla warfare will soon commence in the west of Ethiopia, especially in the mountain fastnesses where it will take years for the Italians to penetrate.” Later, after the war had ended, on Colonel Robinson was returned to Ethiopia in 1944 as head of a team of African American aviators and technicians to help build a modern Ethiopian Air Force.

On the face of it, the text of African American identification with and struggle for Ethiopia’s cause was neither esoteric nor surprising. Given the longstanding sense of bonding in their subconscious for the historic independent black nation in Africa, African Americans perceived the potential defeat of Ethiopia as their own defeat. They equated Ethiopia’s victory over Fascism as black vindication and its continuance as the beacon of freedom it has always been for black peoples at large. For black folks, siding with and fighting for Ethiopia was being true to themselves or to their “race.”

Professor Negussay Ayele is a noted Ethiopian scholar and is currently a faculty member at the Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. He has published a number of articles on Ethiopian and North East African Affairs. He is the author of Wit and Wisdom of Ethiopia. His latest book, Ethiopia and the United States, Volume I, the Season of Courtship (excerpted above), can be purchased by calling 650-814-2677.

Col. John C. Robinson, later known as the Brown Condor returning home in 1936