Early Ethiopians in America
By Bawza Staff December 12, 2013
By Andrew Laurence
If it were not for a photograph published in the April 2006 U.S. National Park Service Calendar, we may never know about a group of Ethiopians who came to America in 1909. The photographer, Augustus Sherman, was a Registry Clerk on Ellis Island, the port of entry for millions of immigrants to the U.S. He would often take pictures in his spare time of immigrants that had to stay over for medical clearance, further interrogation, or to be picked up by sponsors.
The posed photograph depicts what may be an extended family of purported Borana Ethiopians in traditional dress waiting to be processed for immigration to the U.S. One can only guess what it would have been like for these rural southwest Ethiopian natives who would have had no knowledge of the outside world to comprehend what their future would hold for them. To make the long trek to the African coast and then a month long ocean journey by ship to the New World would have been beyond their imagination. Landing in New York with no understanding of America, the people, food, weather or way of life only adds to the mystery of what they might have been told about where they were going and what they will be doing.
As it turns out, the only reasonable explanation for these “exotic” Africans to have been brought to the American shores was to be exhibited in circuses and zoos according to Michael Weinstein in a review of the Sherman photographic exhibit at DePauw University. Another explanation has been given by the Ethiopian author Kadiro Amae Elemo in his book, The United States and Ethiopia: The Tragedy of Human Rights. Kadiro thinks it is possible that they came just years after Emperor Menilik’s army occupied the Borana country or that they were fleeing like others to the British colonies to escape the Abyssinian slave raids.
Although we can never be sure of how they got to the US, or what ever happened to these Ethiopian pioneers, we can see in this photograph a strong and proud people. Opposite of the typical image of the huddled masses, you see a dignified people, direct and indifferent to their surroundings.
It is hard to give the exact date of the first Ethiopian in the United States. In the 19th century, all of Africa was often referred to as Ethiopia and there are many references to Ethiopians in literature. For African Americans, the location of Ethiopia in the bible did much to signal salvation from slavery in America. In fact, in 1808, we have Ethiopian sea-fearers in New York City who were invited by African Americans to a segregated church service, The Ethiopians convinced the African Americans to start their own church celebrated today as Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NY.
The first official Ethiopian delegation to the United States was in 1919 and visited New York City, Washington, DC, and Chicago . Known as the Abyssinian Mission, the members included; Dejazmatch Nadew, Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie, Kantiba Gebru Desta, and Ato Sinkas. Some of the first Ethiopian students to come to the U.S. were in the 1920s; among them were Melaku Bayen, Worku Gobena and Beshawered Habtewold. They were handpicked by Atse Haile Selassie to be sent abroad for modern education. With their royal credentials, U.S. President Warren Harding enrolled them in his alma mater Muskingum College in Ohio.
By the mid 1930’s the number of Ethiopian college students began to rise, mostly coming from the Beirut-based American University. The Point Four program, administered by USAID, trained and educated about one thousand Ethiopians between 1951 and 1969 in all areas of endeavor to go back and use their new skills and knowledge for the progress of Ethiopia. With the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie 1 in 1974, many Ethiopians sought asylum in the US. After the fall of the military junta in the 1990s another wave of asylum seekers came to the US. In addition to Ethiopians who have brought their family members to America, there are the thousands of Ethiopians each year that win the Diversity Visa lottery and get to come to the US to become citizens.
Whenever you discover new information in your research you often have more questions asked than answered. Were these intrepid Ethiopian travelers degraded and disrespected in this unforgiving nation? We now can only wonder if the descendants of these immigrants are still amongst us. We hope that like others who came to these shores either by choice or against their will that they somehow were able to survive and thrive.
We should take inspiration and motivation from these early Ethiopians in America to make every effort ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities now available in the Diaspora. Whether in business or the arts, we do not face the kind of blatant discrimination that existed for these Ethiopians one hundred years ago in America. In addition, we need to document our family lives and community stories so that future generations will not be wondering whatever happened to us.
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