By Reginald Smith

African American professionals in Addis Ababa, 1942. Kneeling from left to right: Andrew Howard Hester, Edward Eugene Jones, Edgar E. Love. Standing left to right: David Talbot, Thurlow Evan Tibbs, James William Cheeks, the Reverend Mr. Hamilton, John Robinson, Edgar D. Draper


Ethiopia is an ancient name, redolent with history, culture, and religious influence. While the historical Ethiopia was the Greek name for the Kingdom of Kush, located in what is now the northern Sudan, modern day Ethiopia is the heir to the historic kingdoms of Abyssinia and Axum who remained independent for thousands of years and ruled in East Africa and for a period, Southern Arabia as well.

The ancestors of Blacks in the Americas and Caribbean hailed from West Africa, but a strong tie has been forged over the past hundred years between these communities and the state and people of Ethiopia. This lead hundreds of people and their families to move to Ethiopia during the first half of the twentieth century, some living there permanently. The emigration, though much smaller scale continues today. Where did this begin and why?

The focus on modern Ethiopia by people of African descent started during the age of segregation and colonialism. In an Africa partitioned by European powers at the Congress of Berlin, where no African representatives were present, independent Ethiopia represented a kingdom and a beacon for idealists who promoted the freedom of Africa and other Blacks around the world. This was emphasized when Ethiopian forces defeated invading Italians at the Battle of Adowa in 1896.

This focus began early, most prominently through Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and was amplified through the speeches and activities of Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which promoted a back-to-Africa movement and highlighted Ethiopia as a strong and independent African state. In the Caribbean, and later abroad, the Rastafarian movements emphasis on Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie raised the status of Ethiopia to near legendary in many eyes.

The origin for emigration to Ethiopia is hard to pinpoint. The oldest expat in the 1930s was missionary Daniel R. Alexander, originally of Missouri who arrived in 1903. The big impetus, however, may have been a visit to Harlem by an official visiting delegation of Ethiopia in 1919 described by Roi Ottley in “New World A-Coming.” The delegation included Dejaz-mach (a military title literally meaning ‘General of the Gate’) Nadou, later a signatory for Ethiopia’s admittance to the League of Nations, and Blatengeta (title for a royal page) Herouy Walda-Selassie, who would become Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1930. In 1920, a group of Black Americans reportedly emigrated to Ethiopia and settled in the Ethiopian highlands. Later, by the 1930s, reportedly about a hundred Black Americans lived in the capital Addis Ababa (Robbins, 1933). Some expats were distinguished, such as John West of Washington D.C. who was the emperor’s personal physician in 1930 though he left soon after. Others came to farm land granted to Black Americans by the Ethiopian government near Lake Tana.

Another group to migrate to Ethiopia starting during this time was Afro-Caribbeans. One of the most prominent was Arnold Josiah Ford of the Barbados. He had met the Mayor of Addis Ababa, Kantiba (mayor) Gabru and Taamarat Emmanuel, a Falasha or Black Jew, in New York around 1929. He later lead a group of West Indians, including several teachers, to settle in Ethiopia around 1931-1932. Ford was Jewish himself and was for a time headed the Harlem rabbinate of Black Jews. Unfortunately Ford died in 1935, right before the disaster of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia enraged and galvanized Blacks in many parts of the world. While many were not able to directly help, some did by supporting the Ethiopian World Federation, an organization in the US created to raise money for Ethiopia and disseminate news during the war and occupation. Others fought in the Spanish Civil War (covered in a previous Black in the Day) to fight the forces of fascism and indirectly fight for Ethiopia. There were a few persons, however, who directly entered the fray to support the Ethiopian side.

Two airmen, John Charles Robinson from Chicago and Trinidadian-born Hubert Fauntleroy of New York went to Ethiopia in 1934 to act as volunteer pilots in the Ethiopian Air Force. Volunteer European pilots in the country were undertaking mercy and aid missions but these two used Ethiopia’s only two airworthy planes to provide air defense for Ethiopia. With the Italians victorious in the summer of 1935, Robinson returned to New York having been given the title of captain by Emperor Haile Selassie. Fauntleroy, however, left a more sullied reputation for allegedly embezzling government funds and collaborating with the Italians. Besides these individuals, the fate of the expats living in Ethiopia during the invasion remains largely unknown.

Photo below of Mignon Inniss Ford

After World War II and Ethiopia’s liberation, a new wave of migration began. Robinson returned to Ethiopia with technicians to help modernize the Ethiopian Air Force. Many of his group returned in 1947 but Robinson stayed to help begin the forerunner Ethiopian Air Lines. Starting with a surplus DC-3, Robinson ferried passengers to East Africa and the Sudan until he tragically died in a plane crash in 1957. A large group of the expats which came to Ethiopia were educators recruited by the government by the Minister of Finance Lij Yilma Deressa. Among these was Dr. T.T. Fletcher, a graduate of Columbia University who became headmaster of the newly opened Medhane Alem Secondary School. Also, the widow of the late Arnold Josiah Ford, Mignon Ford, who had survived the war, opened the first private coeducational boarding school, the Princess Zenebe-Worq School. While she started with only her dining room, the school later had a facility donated by the Emperor and became renowned for educational excellence. She is now honored through the charitable organization the Mignon Inniss Ford Foundation (MIFF) (

Other expats included physicians like Dr. Charles Diggs and Dr. David Talbot who founded health clinics and conducted many public health campaigns. Talbot also served for several years as editor of the first English language newspaper in Ethiopia, The Ethiopian Herald.

The most enduring settlement of Black expats in the country is the city of Shashmene, southwest of Addis Ababa. This settlement stands out since it was given to expatriates by Emperor Haile Selassie starting with a group that emigrated in the 1950s which had been affiliated with the Ethiopian World Federation in Chicago. The land was granted to them as thanks for their support of Ethiopia’s war effort during the Italian invasion. This original community of about six families expanded as Shashmene became the preferred destination for a new group of expats, primarily from the Caribbean – the Rastafarians. This started in 1965 with Jamaicans coming from Kingston. The first was Noel Dyer, from Jamaica but arriving via the United Kingdom. He was followed by forty more over the next twelve years, primarily those from working class Kingston. Middle class immigrants followed until the early 1970s. From the early 1970s to 1990 immigration ground to a halt as the military socialist Derg took over the country. Afterwards, immigration continued though from many different islands in the Caribbean, the US, UK, and other parts of Europe. These new arrivals have helped supplement the community and contribute to the active Rastafarian culture in Ethiopia. A study of immigration records in (Bonacci, 2007) indicates at least 157 arrivals had come from the Caribbean from 1948-2002 though this likely is a large underestimate.

Left: Sign marking Haile Selassie 1st’s Shashemene land grant, right: Jamaican residents of Shashemene

The Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean emigrations to Ethiopia have moved from motivations of Garveyite idealism, to war support, to Rastafarianism. In a way, they are like a smaller echo of the large Ethiopian immigrant populations in areas like Washington D.C. Though often forgotten, they are an important link in the story of 20th Century Ethiopia and international Black movements.



Bonnaci, Giulia, “Á contre-courant: les mobilités caribéennes vers l’Éthiopie,” Études caribéennes, Vol. 8, December 2007. Link:
Harris, Joseph E., African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia 1936–41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Ottley, Roi, New World A-Coming. New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Robbins, Jerrold, “The Americans in Ethiopia,” The American Mercury, Vol 29., No. 113 (May, 1933) p. 63-69.
Shack, William A. “Ethiopia and Afro-Americans: Some Historical Notes, 1920-1970,” Phylon, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2nd Qtr), 1974 p. 142-155.
Photo credits: Top group image –, Shashemene photos Jah Lion
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