Italy invades Africa
by Thomas C. Fleming, Apr 14, 1999
In the 1930s, I was part of the "drugstore cabinet," a group of young black men who gathered at Montgomery's Pharmacy in Berkeley, California, where Byron Rumford worked every evening, after completing his hours as a pharmacist at Highland Hospital. I had known Byron since he was a student. In 1948 he would be elected to the state Assembly, becoming the first black person in Northern California to be elected to statewide office.
A black man named Montgomery, from Washington, DC, came to Berkeley and opened up the city's first pharmacy owned and operated by a black. A lot of guys who were going to college would stop by to see Byron. He closed the doors at 10 o'clock every night, so we'd come in there late in the evening, and hang out in the back of the store. Mostly we'd talk about racism.
In 1935, like other black Americans, we reacted to the invasion of Ethiopia, one of the two independent black-ruled states in Africa; Liberia was the other. Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator, defied the League of Nations when, in his concept of an imperial Italy, he decided that Ethiopia was ripe for plucking, and declared war against that African nation.
The League ordered him to desist, but it had no armed forces, and Mussolini paid no heed. The League issued sanctions and trade embargoes, but these harmed only Ethiopia, not Italy. Both Britain and France maintained Mediterranean fleets, but neither made the slightest attempt to intervene with the passage of the Italian troop-carrying armada. Some countries, including League members, sold Italy oil and other needed supplies.
I think opposition to the war was universal among blacks throughout the United States. The white press was yelling for sanctions also.
The Italian army had a difficult time, despite the awesome arsenal they brought with them, which included tanks, heavy artillery and their air force. Despite the preponderance of armed might, the only way Italy won was to use poison gas against the valiant Ethiopians. It was a black nation, so who was going to say anything?
Thus the Italians got revenge for their defeat by the Ethiopian army in 1896, when Italy had attempted to enlarge its African holdings. At the battle of Adowa, using old guns they didn't know would operate, and a lot of spears, the primitive, ill-armed Ethiopians had humiliated a modern European army. In their childlike manner, they had castrated all prisoners captured in the battle. Their philosophy was: when they went back home to Italy, they couldn't become fathers of sons who might return to seek vengeance.
When Mussolini started his invasion, one of the flashiest blacks of the 1930s, Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, appeared in Harlem and identified himself as an aviator, which made good copy in the black press. Julian, we learned, was a native of the Caribbean who had migrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City. How he became a colonel, and what armed forces he had served, was never made clear.
Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the first black person to obtain a pilot's license. Tall, athletic and handsome, he was dubbed "the Lindbergh of his race." Despite constant struggles to raise financial backing for his exploits, he had a brilliant and widely publicized flying career. In 1964 he published his autobiography, "The Black Eagle."
The Ethiopian Air Force was composed of one non-combat type plane. The colonel announced that he was going there to offer his services to Emperor Haile Selassie. He did go, and flew the plane one time. That one time, the plane crashed. The colonel survived and came back to Harlem, where the last I heard, he had persuaded a wealthy white woman to finance some other adventures.
In Europe, the next move of the fascist hordes came in 1936 when Francisco Franco, who had been brooding in Morocco for years, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, bringing African troops with him, to overthrow the Republican government of Spain. Italy, Germany and other fascist states openly supported the Spanish rebels with arms, men and money, while the Soviet Union provided warplanes and munitions, but not men. France and Great Britain stood by, but France did test some of its warplanes in the contest.
Many Americans, including some blacks, left the U.S. for Spain, where they formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight the fascists. They didn't segregate them over there; this wasn't the United States Army. I was hoping they would get Franco and cut his throat. I knew one man from the San Francisco Bay Area who joined, Don Thayer. He was white.
It was considered illegal to go, but I don't think the U.S. government tried to bother those who went. Of course, J. Edgar Hoover called all of them Communists. Paul Robeson was one big name, along with Ernest Hemingway, who participated in some manner. Robeson went over and sang to the troops out in the trenches.
Spain owned some parts of Morocco, and the Moroccan troops were part of the Spanish army. Morocco is an Arab country, so the Africans who fought on the side of the fascists weren't necessity black Africans. But you have black fascists, just like you have black liberals.
Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
This column is edited by Max Millard, who has conducted over 100 hours of interviews with Fleming, and blends Fleming's spoken words with his writings. Born in 1907, Fleming is the founding editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's oldest weekly black newspaper. Fleming's 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Send request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109.
More Fleming articles
Back to Front Page