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Hidden Fighters

Remembering America’s black antifascist vanguard

They exist now mostly in archives. Photos show a beautiful young woman bent over an operating table, staring toward the camera with a mixture of defiance and exhaustion. A man in a sweater adorned with the Lion of Judah jauntily holds his flight helmet in one hand. A military commander points into the distance of a rocky Spanish valley. Salaria Kea, John Robinson, Oliver Law: they’re three of the tens of thousands of black Americans who, a year before the Abraham Lincoln Brigade turned up as defenders of Republican Spain, protested, fundraised, and fought to save Ethiopia from Fascism, in an episode that even leftists have forgotten.

In 1934, Ethiopia was one of just two African countries that had never been colonized by Europe, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Ethiopian emperor Menelik II had trounced Italian invaders in 1896, and nearly four decades later, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini yearned to avenge his imperial homeland’s “humiliation.” That December, Mussolini’s forces provoked a confrontation at Walwal, on the border between Ethiopia and Italian-held Somaliland.

Though Ethiopia belonged to the League of Nations, France and Britain had little desire to protect their fellow member state—especially when they were still hoping to persuade Mussolini to join an alliance against Nazi Germany. Why expend their continental political capital for a poor African nation? The United States still thought Fascism could be a decent bulwark against the Red Menace, and so jealously guarded its neutrality. Even the Soviet Union, which paid lip service to Ethiopian independence, was shown by the New York Times to have made a killing by exporting supplies to the camps of would-be occupying Italian forces in Africa.

Though only five years old at the time of the war, playwright Lorraine Hansberry later wrote, “I remember the newsreels of the Ethiopian war, and the feeling of outrage. . . . Fighters with spears and our people in a passion over it, my mother attacking the Pope blessing the Italian troops going off to slay the Ethiopians.” Black Americans like Hansberry were one of the few groups in the United States who recognized Fascism’s dangers. Even before Hannah Arendt, they saw the clear line that led from the horrors of European imperialism to the puffed-up violence of a Mussolini, and they would not allow Il Duce to swallow the cultured, defiant, and ancient country that they admired. Langston Hughes captured the sentiment in “Ballad of Ethiopia”: “All you colored peoples/ Be a man at last/ Say to Mussolini/ No! You shall not pass.”

“Death to Fascism!”

That spring, as Mussolini prepared for war in typically self-dramatizing fashion, black Pan-Africanists, Communists, churchgoers, and union members all sprang into action, in protests that raged across the United States. In May, after a black protester threw a brick through the window of an Italian-owned store in Harlem, police fired into a crowd of four hundred demonstrators—“rioters,” in the words of the New York Times—and wounded a man in the leg. During a June demonstration in Chicago, two young women, one black and one Jewish, chained themselves in front of the Italian consulate; signs that read “Hands off Ethiopia” hung across their chests. A local paper noted that Chicago had denied organizers a permit on the pretext that “Negroes in Chicago had no need to be worried about what was going on over in Europe.” To the city government, black internationalism was a more immediate threat than Fascist Italy.

In August, twenty thousand black and white protesters marched through Harlem chanting “Death to Fascism!” and “Italian and Negro people, unite in a common front against war!” Union leaders, Communists, Pan-Africanists, priests, and the Rabbi Michael Alpert all delivered speeches before the Harlem rally—days after a hundred black and pro-Fascist Italian residents battled each other with homemade weapons in the streets of Jersey City. Black Communist Party members in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side organized the Joint Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, and on August 31, 1934, Communist organizer Harry Haywood defied rampant police violence to lead a series of spontaneous demonstrations that blocked traffic and burned Mussolini in effigy. In his memoir, Haywood wrote that “the defense of Ethiopia had now become a fight for the streets of Chicago.” Communist-organized dock workers refused to load Italian ships. In the famous, aptly named Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell raised funds for Ethiopia while delivering passionate speeches in support of the country’s resistance to Fascism.

Despite such stirring shows of national solidarity, only one black American ever made it to Ethiopia. On May 2, 1935, pilot John Robinson boarded a train out of Chicago—the first leg of a month-long journey to Addis Ababa. At the age of twenty-nine, Robinson was already a pioneer. Forbidden from attending the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation because of his race, he worked as the school’s janitor in order to sit in on classes, and then used the knowledge to lead a group that built its own plane. This feat netted him a place as the school’s first black student. Robinson opened the Challenger Air Pilots’ Association, a black flying club, and then an airfield for black pilots. As chronicled in Phillip Thomas Tucker’s biography, Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, John C. Robinson, he later convinced the Tuskegee Institute to open an aviation school, where he planned to serve as an instructor.

If black Americans recognized the dangers of fascism abroad early, it was because they knew it all too well in its American guise.

However, the rapid escalation of the colonial wars in Africa upset those plans. Committed to Pan-Africanism, obsessed with flight, and disgusted with Europe’s abandonment of a fellow League of Nations member, John Robinson gave up his career to answer emperor Haile Selassie’s call for skilled technicians. “The League of Nations is just another White man’s bluff,” Robinson later wrote. “White people will always stick together when it comes to the color question.” In August, Selassie appointed Robinson head of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. His fleet consisted of eleven planes, and only eight of those were able to fly.

“[Robinson’s] flying ability has electrified the populace,” reported the New York Times after he was appointed to the position, but the aviator was locked in a battle with time. As he frantically drilled a tiny band of Ethiopian pilots, Mussolini amassed three hundred thousand troops along the border. With Ethiopia suffering from an arms embargo by Britain, Robinson repaired, begged, and smuggled a dozen more planes into the country over the course of the war. Ironically, Nazi Germany supplied some armaments to Selassie’s monarchy; they wanted to distract Mussolini as they prepared for the Anschluss in Austria.

On September 28, the day Haile Selassie mobilized the country, Ethiopia had 13 planes to Italy’s 595, 4 tanks to Italy’s 795, and only enough rifles to arm half its fighters. Ethiopia had no weapons factories, no one to grant it loans, and a League of Nations rhetorically committed to its collective security that, in reality, shrugged with contempt at the prospect of Ethiopia’s own Anschluss. Desperate, Selassie gave the order: on pain of death, every woman without a baby, and every man or boy old enough to hold a spear, must head to Addis Ababa.

Total-War Trial Run

On October 3, Italian warplanes began to bomb the small Ethiopian market town of Adwa.

In that town, in 1896, Ethiopian emperor Menelik II had once decimated Italy’s invading army—but this time, Mussolini made no formal declaration of war. The Fascists announced their presence with carnage. Italian planes pummeled a hospital and strafed civilians while Ethiopian fighters futilely fired their rifles at the sky. “I saw a squad of soldiers standing in the street dumbfounded, looking at the airplanes. They had their swords raised in their hands,” Robinson told a war correspondent after his narrow escape from Adwa. The Fascists thrilled to their slaughter. “I expected huge explosions like the ones you see in American films,” whined Vittorio Mussolini, one of the Fascist leader’s sons who took part in the battle. “The little houses of the Abyssinians gave no satisfaction to a bombardier.”

Two years before the Luftwaffe and the Aviazione Legionaria massacred up to sixteen hundred Spanish villagers in Guernica, Italy unleashed total aerial bombardment against civilians. In one span of thirty minutes, Italian planes dropped a thousand bombs on Dessie, the northern city where Selassie had moved his headquarters. Italy’s Regia Aeronautica pounded Ethiopia without pause, in what Selassie called an attempt to “exterminate man and beast.” Incendiary bombs razed villages and grazing cattle. Mustard gas fell from the sky in a burning rain. Mustard gas, which sears human skin into excruciating chemical blisters, is banned by the Geneva Conventions, but Spain had already used it against Moroccan civilians during the Rif rebellion in the 1920s, and in Ethiopia, Italy deployed it even against Red Cross field hospitals. Firebombing, blitzkrieg, lethal gas assaults on civilians: the tools Fascists tested against Africans would soon be used, on an equally bloody scale, in Europe.

More anti-Fascist protests broke out in New York and Chicago. Police dispersed a hundred female university students from a picket line in front of New York’s Italian consulate. “Down with Italian Fascism!” they chanted. In Harlem, police broke up a four-hundred-person demonstration they termed a riot, injuring and arresting a protester who waved an Ethiopian flag. Organizations including the Pan-African Reconstruction Association and the Negro World Alliance recruited thousands of black men willing to fight. News footage from the time shows a massive line of Harlem residents, elegantly dressed in suits and fedoras, signing up as Ethiopian volunteers.

But thanks to diplomatic interference from Washington, their efforts were for naught. Desperate to hew to the mid-thirties posture of neutrality before the burgeoning Fascist threat, the U.S. government pressured Selassie to reject potential volunteers, whom it then threatened with jail, fines, and loss of citizenship. What’s more, due to the grim logic of institutional racism, many African Americans simply lacked the financial means or bureaucratic documents to travel to Ethiopia; in Mississippi, for instance, some black babies were not even granted birth certificates.

Though they lacked planes, bombs, and sufficient bullets (many soldiers received only sixty to last them the war), the Ethiopian army held off the Italians for seven brutal months. In planes fit only for ferrying supplies, Robinson evaded and sometimes battled sleek Italian warplanes as he transported critical provisions and personnel. But ultimately, bravery is little match for gas and bombs. On April 30, 1936, with the entire Ethiopian Air Force destroyed and the country days from surrender, Robinson took one of the last trains out of Addis Ababa. Beneath his boots crunched leaflets demanding that government leaders in Addis Ababa submit or see their capital city bombed to the ground.

Robinson’s lungs were damaged from three mustard gas attacks; his arm bore the scars of Italian bullets. He was the only American who served through the entire Italo-Ethiopian War. When Robinson’s boat docked in New York, two thousand admirers greeted him as a hero.

Homefront Fascism

On June 30, 1936, emperor Haile Selassie stood before the League of Nations and begged its member nations to end their appeasement of Fascism. “Today it is us,” he supposedly said as he left the podium. “Tomorrow it will be you.” Eighteen days later, Fascist generals launched a revolt against the elected government of Spain.

There’s no need here to describe the details of the most mythologized war in modern leftist history, except to note that of the ninety black Americans who volunteered to defend the besieged Spanish Republic, many were veteran activists for Ethiopia (a dynamic explored by Robin D. G. Kelley in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class).

In his memoir, From Mississippi to Madrid, Abraham Lincoln Brigade driver James Yates described passing out anti-war leaflets and collecting donations for Ethiopian war survivors. “I was more than ready to go to Ethiopia,” he wrote. A character in a short story by Lincoln Brigade veteran Oscar Hunter gave this explanation for his decision to fight in Spain: “This ain’t Ethiopia but it’ll do.” With fellow Harlem nurses, Salaria Kea raised funds for a seventy-five-bed field hospital in Ethiopia, and then unsuccessfully applied to join the Ethiopian army. The next year, she sailed for Spain as the only black woman in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Oliver Law, perhaps the Brigade’s most celebrated member, led the Chicago Communist Party’s “Hands off Ethiopia” campaign. As a black Communist organizer, Law had been a frequent target of Chicago’s notoriously brutal police force; in 1930, Chicago cops left him hospitalized after apprehending him during an unemployment protest he had organized. Police arrested Law again weeks before he left for Spain—this time because he spoke at a demonstration for Ethiopia. In Spain, Law rose to the rank of captain of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—the first time a black American had ever commanded a racially mixed unit. Days later, he bled to death on Mosquito Hill, mortally wounded as he led a charge against Franco’s armies.

If black Americans recognized the dangers of Fascism abroad early, it was because they knew it all too well in its American guise. They saw Mussolini’s Blackshirts reflected in the white hoods of the Klan, and Hitler’s Jew-baiting mirrored by the systematic violence of Jim Crow. While much of the world slept, they fought Fascists in the streets of Jersey City, in the Ethiopian sky, and in the dirt of the Jarama Valley.

Crawford Morgan, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, put it this way: “Being aware of what the Fascist Italian government did to the Ethiopians, and also the way that I and all the rest of the Negroes in this country have been treated ever since slavery, I figured I had a pretty good idea of what fascism was. . . . I got a chance to fight it there with bullets and I went there and fought it with bullets. If I get a chance to fight it with bullets again, I will fight it with bullets again.”