Not many people in the so-called “developed world” know much about Ethiopia. Even fewer know about its war with Fascist Italy. But that conflict spellbound the world in 1935. European governments watched as it became clear that Italy, and later Germany, would seek to change the balance of power. Blacks in the U.S. were outraged as they saw what amounted to a race war unfold. And it is a significant chapter of African American history that has almost been completely forgotten.
Blacks in the U.S. and the Caribbean already knew that Ethiopia was the one nation that had successfully resisted Europe’s Scramble for Africa, having defeated an Italian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Ethiopia could also boast an African civilization as ancient and arguably as sophisticated as that of any “advanced” European nation. It became a symbolic ideal for black people everywhere who fought colonialism or struggled for civil rights.
Harlem was the center of black culture coming out of its own Renaissance in the 1920s. Here is where the voices of resistance were loudest. Here is where black people increasingly saw themselves as African. They adopted Ethiopia’s struggle as their own, and the war served as a proxy for the civil rights crusade and ongoing fight for equality.
More than 20,000 protestors — both blacks and sympathetic whites — showed up in Harlem to demonstrate against Mussolini’s aggression on August 3, 1935. In Chicago, another 10,000 demonstrated and faced hostile, trigger-happy cops. All this in the middle of the Great Depression as millions barely scraped by, often out of work, and worse, out of food. Thousands of men even signed up to go fight for Ethiopia, but were stopped by the State Department, which discouraged all assistance except medical relief.
One African American aviator, John C. Robinson, did make it through. Recruited by the Ethiopian government to lead its air force, Robinson sailed over with the cover story that he was an aircraft dealer. He trained Ethiopians to fly and fix aircraft, including women, until his return to New York in 1936. Thousands of people turned up to give him a hero’s welcome. He would go on to be one of the principal architects of the Tuskegee Airmen program.
It’s a shame that stories like these don’t get more exposure, because they are so fascinating, inspiring and entertaining. Many other strands of world events like the war in Europe, the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the liberation wave that swept Africa in the 1960s all have links to this conflict. Its impact was felt across the globe and by millions of people.
My partner, Jeff Pearce, and I are working to do exactly that. Jeff wrote a great book about the war and we’re now working on translating the story into a documentary film. We’ve interviewed eyewitnesses of the conflict as well as historical experts. You’ll learn how and why this war in Africa changed the world.