‘It Would Have Pleased the Spirit of Mr. Garvey’ Helen and James Piper and the Return to Ethiopia Pt 1 of 3

Helen and James Piper are born in the early years of the 20th century in Montserrat, in the Eastern Caribbean. Migrants to the United States, they were Garveyites, Black Jews, and members of the Ethiopian World Federation, founded in 1937 in New York. In 1948 they settled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, like the generation of Pan-Africanists who were engaged in the reconstruction of the country after the war with Italy. A couple years later, they were the first settlers on the Shashemene land grant, given by Emperor Haile Selassie I to the “black people of the world”, members of the EWF, to thank them for their support during the war. There they built their house, and got engaged in local development. They developed relationships with their Ethiopian neighbors, while keeping in touch with their black and diasporic networks. The arrival of new returnees in the late 1960s and the unfolding of the Ethiopian revolution in the mid-1970s eventually put an end to their experience of repatriation.

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Helen and James Piper represent a missing link in the history of the Back to Africa movement. A hinge between the United States and the Caribbean, between the Black Jews and the Rastafari, they started the Shashemene settlement, where hundreds of Rastafari live today, despite the vicissitudes of social life and political change in Ethiopia. The experience of the Pipers offers another approach into what we could call the fabric of Pan-Africanism, which is precisely produced in the various aspects of the relationship between Africa and its Diasporas.

Beyond the literature on the classical sites of return to Africa, including Sierra Leone and Liberia, recent references have focused on renewing our knowledge and analysis of the experience of return. Most of them draw on various materials to shed light on little known people, trajectories and legacies. The increasing interest of scholars for return to Africa illustrates a shifting perspective on Pan Africanism, from its foundational discourses toward its social practices. While collections frame return within a continental perspective (Prah 2009, 2012, Falola and Essien 2014), some countries have become familiar landmarks of the literature, in particular Ghana (Lake 1995, Gaines 2006, Schramm 2010) and Tanzania (Boukari-Yabara 2010, Bedasse 2013). Israel, sometimes considered a part of Africa in Afrocentric discourses, is host to a community of Black Hebrews from the United States (Markowitz et al. 2003). Ethiopia is a newcomer in the literature on return and this contributes to enlarge Atlantic dynamics usually circumscribed by the Western coasts of Africa (Bonacci 2015, MacLeod 2014). In fact, despite the depth of Ethiopia’s relations with the black world, the Caribbean settlers and visitors who started to arrive in Ethiopia since the end of the 19th century are little known but for a few references (Scott 1971, Bonacci 2015). In the conclusion of his book of reference on African Americans and the war in Ethiopia, Scott actually mentions the arrival in Ethiopia of “James Piper, a carpentry instructor” (Scott 1993: 218).

Documenting the history of Helen and James Piper, Back to Africa pioneers in Ethiopia offers insight into the social practices of Pan-Africanism, that is the ways in which Pan-Africanism can be produced “from below” in the popular cultures and mobilities tying Africa and the African Diaspora. The life of these two persons illustrates how black ideologies are embodied. Ideological material (Back to Africa, Ethiopianism, Garveyism, Black Hebrewism, Pan- Africanism, etc.) is drawn from a conceptual understanding to the very height and scale of individuals, and there they reveal their social efficacy.

Without embodiment in the life of particular people, these ideologies would remain appealing ideas and abstract discourses. The Pipers perform the discourses, and their performance reveals who they are and what is the world they are living in. The craft of contextualizing the Pipers, or trying to, in their different places, movements and initiatives, acts like a changing stage where their life unfolds, and where they are tied to the fate of a particular generation of Pan-Africanists. The scholarly challenge is to remain theoretically relevant and empirically grounded in all of these contexts. It is as well to focus on the relations giving thickness to the social existence of the Pipers.

Before getting to Ethiopia, and once in Ethiopia, the Pipers evolved within the relations they crafted with their communities, and their host society. Kim Butler underscores that the study of relations can serve as a “framework for the study of a specific process of community formation” as it contributes to transcend specificities related to the study of a particular, or single, community – or diaspora (Butler 2001: 193-194). The Pipers are to be inscribed both in their relationship with local society and its land related issues; as well as in their relationship with the diasporic networks, institutions and people from which they come from. It is very much in these relations between and among “Africans at home” and “Africans abroad” that a Pan Africanism “from below” can take shape.

In terms of method, there is nothing artificial in tying together the bodies of knowledge required to follow the path of the Pipers. The dialogue between Shashemene and Harlem, between the descendants of enslaved Africans and an Ethiopian emperor, between Black Nationalism and African States implies the interpenetration of African Studies and African Diaspora Studies. Studying return to Africa contributes in turn to erode the contours of African Studies and of African Diaspora Studies, and to craft a Pan-African library. Archival sources in Jamaica and Ethiopia were put at good use; newspapers and in particular the Pan-African press, published in the United States and in the United Kingdom proved extremely useful. Any method used to document the trajectory of the Pipers would meet certain limits. More documentation could probably have been found in the United States, and entry in the family and descendants of the Pipers, in the Caribbean and the United States, would surely have provided additional data, in particular on the early history of the couple.

However, oral history was conducted in Shashemene, Ethiopia, with other returnees and with Ethiopians, and while memory should always be treated carefully, it provided wealth of information that helped contextualize the Pipers locally. Undoubtedly, this research benefits from the methods of micro-history, and a practice of history at the “level of the ground” (au ras du sol) as exposed by Jacques Revel (Revel 1989). Micro-history allows a reconstitution of lived experiences by identifying the structures, visible or not, on which lived experiences were articulated. Its experimental dimension, and its inventive relation to historical reality enable us to consider singular destinies, and to work with the range of possibles and uncertainties related to them.

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Helen and James Piper: Black Ideologies Embodied

Helen and James Piper are born at the beginning of the century, probably a little before 1910, on the small mountainous island of Montserrat in the Eastern Caribbean (Bishton 1986: 34, Campbell 1994: 222). In 1911, almost eighty years after the abolition of slavery, the population of African descent was a hundred times more numerous than the colonists, comprising Irishmen for the most part (Philpott 1973: 19, 23). The inhabitants of Montserrat migrated massively to the huge construction sites of the Panama Canal as of 1904. After the completion of the Canal, large-scale emigration continued, notably in the direction of the United States, where the Pipers arrived at the latest by the early 1930s.

During their stay in the United States, the Pipers got American nationality, and while their place of residence in the United States remains unclear – was it Harlem,1 Chicago,2 or perhaps both? – they circulated within urban spaces, which were then in the throes of transformation. Migrations from the South of the United States and from the Caribbean were having a decisive social impact in the Northern cities: the face of neighborhoods like Harlem was transformed; the inter-ethnic relations between people of different Caribbean origins and between them and African Americans were renewed; cultural effervescence produced the Black Renaissance; and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) found its social base and its international springboard.

The Pipers were too young to have been members of UNIA at the beginning of the 1920s when the movement was at its zenith. Following Garvey’s sentence in 1923, and the fast decline of his movement in subsequent years, the UNIA encountered by the Pipers no longer possessed its former institutional glory. The Pipers had a strong leaning towards Garveyism and were maybe UNIA members: they had heard of Garvey’s history, read his newspapers, seen photographs and collected testimonies with which they identified. This is evidenced from their references to Marcus Garvey in the letters they wrote to the Pan-African magazine African Opinion, once in Ethiopia:

We turn our thoughts to the Immortal, the late Hon. Marcus Garvey whose life-dreams were ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad’. He would have been happy to see this day but was called to the great beyond. He is gone but his ‘motto’ remains in the hearts of those who loved him. It would have pleased the great spirit of Mr. Garvey to see the march of Black people from the West to their native land, Africa.

The Pipers placed Garvey on a pedestal as a model, as an “Immortal” hero; it was the vision he preached that they sought to bring to pass by settling in Ethiopia. This bond is a clear illustration of the lasting impact of Marcus Garvey on those “scattered Ethiopians” who in the Americas were looking for a territory of their own. This influence is all the more important to underline given its visibility over time and its presence, under different guises, among the other returnees who later arrived in Ethiopia. The Pipers’ identification with the “native” land, subsumed by the generic term “Africa” was quite common.

Liberia was a major landmark of Garvey’s Back to Africa project, but Garvey’s use of “Ethiopia” was as well significant. Sometimes used as a reference to the contemporary African State, the term was most often applied as a metaphor for black people, making Garvey another voice of Ethiopianism: a reservoir of symbols that tightened together a Biblical Ethiopia and racial identities. In a milieu and during a period marked by remarkable religious vitality and diversity, the Pipers could have chosen affiliation in a number of black congregations, but they were Black Jews who identified simultaneously with the Hebrews and with the Ethiopians. Black Jews’ congregations had mushroomed in the United States’ Northern cities in the 1920s and 1930s, and most of those connected symbolically to Ethiopia, its Hebrew heritage and its Emperors (Brotz 1964: 18, 51). Almost twenty years before the Pipers, Arnold Josiah Ford, the Barbados-born Rabbi and composer of the Universal Ethiopian Anthem, former musical director of the UNIA, had settled in Ethiopia with a small group of disciples and many musical instruments (Scott 1971, Bonacci 2014).

In Ethiopia, Helen and James Piper are remembered as celebrating every Saturday morning. They did not have an image of Christ in their home but a tabot.4 Although the Pipers probably did not use this term, it is not surprising on the part of the Ethiopian woman who mentioned it: tabot is an Amharic word that has retained the Ge’ez plural and designates replicas of the Tables of the Law kept in the Ark of the Covenant that God entrusted to Moses and to the Israelites (Exodus 20, 34). All Ethiopian churches are consecrated by the presence of a tabot, which holds a central place in the rituals, feast days and celebrations of Ethiopian Christianity. Gladstone Robinson, a Rastafari who arrived in Ethiopia from the United States in 1964, presents the Pipers as follows:

James Piper was a Black Jew, a Hebrew, he went to all ceremonies. Friday they would lock down everything, no work, they cook and they stay in the house. [Once in Ethiopia] they tried to get me into that because I sat in a Sabbath session with them, and he did all the rituals and things. The sad part is when His Imperial Majesty came down and ask for Mr. Piper: he said he can’t come out ‘cause he is praying to his God. He wasn’t a Rasta, ‘cause Rasta can’t say that! God comes to you and [sucks his teeth]… The Emperor turned around and left right back to Addis. Ididn’t get involved with the Black Jews ‘cause they don’t believe in Haile Selassie, they would connect the line of Judah and all of that, Solomon, but they don’t say the Emperor is God like we do. But we worked with them and get along with them cause they helped [previously in the USA]. We had Black Jews working right with us.

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Interview with G. Robinson, Shashemene, 19/03/2003

Robinson frames his difference from the Pipers in religious terms. The acknowledgement of the divine character of the emperor was what made the difference between him, a Rastafari, and the Black Jews. It would have been unthinkable for a Rastafari to refuse to meet Haile Selassie I, whereas for the Pipers the observance of the Sabbath from Friday evening and all the day Saturday was a ritual practice which allowed no exception, even in the presence of the Emperor of Ethiopia. Robinson nevertheless emphasized the activities that linked Rastafari and Black Jews from similar sociocultural backgrounds, illustrating the circulations of the social practices of “Ethiopia” then at work. These congregations gave mutual support to one another and were constructed on similar social and interpretative basis, despite marked distinctions in their understanding of the human or divine nature of the emperor.

When the Italian-Ethiopian war broke out in October 1935, Helen and James Piper were young adults; they read the press, attended many meetings, took part in the protests, marched in parades and raised funds for Ethiopia. Prior to the war, were they imbued with the ideological and religious affiliations mentioned earlier? Or was it the Italian aggression that motivated their decisive involvement in the popular “traditions of organization” represented by Garveyism and the congregations of Black Jews(Hahn 2003: 473-476)?

From the start of the war, they were perhaps affiliated with some of the many pro-Ethiopian organizations, and they went on to become members of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF). The EWF was founded in 1937 in New York by Ethiopian Melaku E. Beyen, on order of Emperor Haile Selassie I then in exile in Bath in the United Kingdom. Its main objective was to centralize the moral and financial support of African Americans for the cause of Ethiopia. The EWF published a newspaper, Voice of Ethiopia, organized rallies and fundraisings, and diffused information about the war and the Ethiopian resistance. Branches developed quickly in the United States, the Caribbean and beyond, capitalizing on the massive concern about Ethiopia in black communities worldwide (Harris 1994: 120-141, Bonacci 2013). In 1947, Harry Broome, the president of Local 10 of the EWF in Chicago, announced to the Ethiopian Ministry of Information that sixty-eight members of the EWF were ready to leave for Ethiopia with funding, materials and tools (Shack 1974: 151).

However, little evidence attests that these members arrived in Ethiopia, and that the arrival of the Pipers in 1948 in Addis Ababa is related to the Chicago local of the EWF.

To be cont …….

Written by Giulia Bonacci

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Inaugural Pan African Colloquium

“Heroes and Heroines of the Back to Africa Movement, Pan Africanism, African Nationalism and Global Africanism: Their Philosophies, Activities and Legacies.”

UWI / PANAFSTRAG / CPAA Barbados 12-15 January 2016

Giulia Bonacci  is a Historian, Researcher Institute of Research for Development (IRD)  Research Unit Migrations and Society (URMIS)

Université Nice Sophia Antipolis Campus St Jean d’Angély 24 avenue des Diables bleus 06357 Nice Cedex 4 France giulia.bonacci@ird.fr


Donations towards African Heritage Foundation’s Ubuntu Project Development Fund are welcomed.



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