From Italy’s standpoint, it was true, Italy had been fairly royally chiseled out of any substantive World War spoils. The Allies had promised the sun and moon and then left Italy with crumbs, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, nothing but barren desert. Some Roman Empire that was. Well, Italy had Albania, too, but of course Albania was worthless. So it was that Benito Mussolini cast Italian eyes again on the ancient cradle of the Kingdom of Abyssinia. Abyssinia was nothing but barren desert either, so far as that went, but at least there was more of it.
Italy was still relatively new to the world stage in the 1930s. Until 1870 Italy had been a medieval collection of poor duchies and poorer principalities, and its early attempts to expand across the Mediterranean into Tunis were contemptuously blocked by the older powers. The Italian armies were not particularly sophisticated, in any case: When in 1896 the dictator Francesco Crispi resolved to make a protectorate of Abyssinia, 8,000 Italian soldiers were slaughtered at Adowa by Abyssinians armed with sticks and spears. Great was this sting. Italy had been just mortified ever since.
Now, in 1935, Mussolini was determined both to avenge the old Adowa humiliation and to stake an emperor’s claim at last to Italy’s rightful colonial place in the sun. Now the Roman legions were mechanized, bristling with tanks and warplanes, and all the world knew that Italy would storm defenseless Ethiopia the day the September rains stopped. The great powers did not approve, but the slightest diplomatic misstep could easily mean another world war; now Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari, the Lion of Judah, came before the League of Nations to plead for deliverance, and the great powers all went deaf.
On Tuesday, the 1st of October, as Europe watched silently, Caproni bombers blasted Adowa into rubble and columns of troops poured across the border and destroyed the pathetic war-dancing spearmen who rose up to meet them. The sun had not set before the Italo-Ethiopian War came as well to the hundreds of thousands of Italians and the hundreds of thousands of blacks who sought to live together in the City of New York.
Reaction was mixed in the Italian communities. “Italy makes war to civilize, just as the old Romans did,” said banker Cavaliere Raffaele Prisco. “The Italian people need colonies and must develop Africa,” explained newspaper editor Carlo Falbo. Shrugged Times Square barber Federico Fugini: “The war is no concern of us Italians who have come to this country.”
Reaction was mixed in the black communities. “The white races stand indicted before the civilized world,” scolded Urban League executive director James Hubert. Shrugged porter Walter Anderson: “They can do all the fighting they want to. I guess we all came from Africa some time or other, but that doesn’t make an Ethiopian out of me.”
If barber Fugini and porter Anderson might have sat down there and then and had a friendly drink, there was no such good will at Public School 178 in Brooklyn, where gangs of black kids and gangs of Italian kids squared off and brawled until school officials took away their sawed-off pool cues. In Harlem, jeering blacks rallied on Lenox Ave., waved the Ethiopian tri-color and vowed to run Italians out of the neighborhood; cops were called out to prevent the destruction of a Jewish-owned grocery that rented stall space to three Italian vendors.
At this very moment, Col. Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem, was in Addis Ababa, and it would have been his most glorious hour if he’d only had an airplane.
Trinidad-born Hubert Fauntleroy Julian had been one of Harlem’s most flamboyant figures for years. One of the pioneer black fliers, he had popped up in the early 1920s as black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s air minister, and he frequently mesmerized citizens by parachuting, crimson-clad, onto 125th St.
In 1924, three years before Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Julian announced his intention to make a solo seaplane flight from Harlem to Liberia and back. On the Fourth of July, as 25,000 cheering Harlemites gathered at the foot of 138th St., the Black Eagle passed the hat around, collected a few hundred dollars, climbed into his plane and, moments later, crashed into Flushing Bay. He had, he explained, developed “pontoon trouble.”
Four years later he announced another ocean hop, this one sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Aviation Amongst Colored Races, an organization newly formed by a Harlem quack named Geneva Morgan-Johnson, who practiced something called psycho-irradiation, and a white man named Hoffman, who previously had been associated with American Hebrew magazine. Things shortly became acrimonious, and the NAAAACR withdrew its support, pronouncing Julian “not sufficiently outstanding in Harlem aviation circles.” Even Julian blinked at that one “Harlem aviation circles?” he demanded. “I am those circles. Who else they going to get?” and he went cross-country seeking to raise private funding. There wasn’t any. “An unfortunate apathy curtailed my project,” he told the press.
In June 1930, he informed the world that Haile Selassie, Ras Tafari, the Lion of Judah, had appointed him chief of the Ethiopian Air Force.
He cut A dazzling figure in Addis Ababa, swaggering about in a splendid colonel’s uniform and sending out official Ethiopian military communiques. Ethiopian aviation, he declared, “is in a very advanced state.” This was not quite true. Actually, the Ethiopian Air Force consisted of three airplanes, and, late in October, he crashed one of them. It was the Lion of Judah’s personal favorite, too. Back to New York sailed the Black Eagle before year’s end.
But he remained devoted to Abyssinian causes, and in late 1934 and early 1935, as it became evident that Benito Mussolini had designs on Haile Selassie’s kingdom, it was largely Hubert Julian who brought this state of affairs to the attention of American blacks, and the proliferation of Ethiopian flags and relief-fund-raising stations in New York and other cities was very much the result of his impassioned crusading.
In February 1935, he was on his way back to Addis Ababa.
And again he cut a dazzling figure, dressed in khakis, swinging a sword, riding a fine white horse. But this time Ras Tafari wasn’t about to let him anywhere near an airplane, and the Chicago flier John Robinson was Ethiopia’s new air force chief. When the invasion came, it was Johnny Robinson who got the worldwide headlines, bravely flying against Mussolini’s airmen.
By December, Julian was back in New York, flying new political colors. “I couldn’t stand those lazy people any longer,” he sniffed. Ethiopia was a hopelessly barbaric place, he said, and as far as he was concerned the Italians could have their place in the sun. “Ethiopians do not care for the American Negroes,” he said. “They do not consider themselves Negroes. American Negroes should face their own problems at home and keep out of international affairs.”
He urged Harlem to take down the flags. Ethiopia, he said, “is not worth saving.”
As it happened, by now everyone could see that Ethiopia was lost and the relief efforts had pretty much dried up anyway.
When the war ended several months later, Hubert Julian was in Naples, calling himself Col. Huberto Juliano and promising several great trailblazing flights, none of which was ever made.
Back in Harlem in 1940, the Black Eagle publicly challenged Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering to a one-on-one Messerschmitt duel over the English Channel. Goering paid no attention to him.
First published on May 17, 1998 as part of the “Big Town” series on old New York. Find more stories about the city’s epic history here.
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