Written by Dr. Girma Abebe
Born in Wollo Province, Ethiopia, on April 27, 1900, Melaku Beyan was the son of Grazmatch (Lieutenant) Beyan and Woizero (Mrs) Desta. After his parents had transferred to Harar, their son, only a little boy, came to serve Ras Makonnen, the father of Crown Prince Tafari, who was then the Governor of Harar Province. Then young Melaku served the Crown Prince as his personal assistant in Harar and later in Addis Ababa for well over a decade. Palace life, which was competitive and terrifying, led Melaku to become disciplined and meticulous in his work. Wasting no time at the palace in Harar and Addis Ababa, Melaku immediately joined the elite priest school that attracted the cream of tutors famous for their cultural and historic knowledge of Ethiopia.
The schools prepared Melaku to stand the rigor of courses in science and mathematics abroad. Melaku Beyan was one of the students who met members of the Educational Commission to East Africa and assured the members that young Ethiopians would die for their country in the event of aggression by colonial powers. Melaku attracted the attention of his mentor, Crown Prince Tafari Makonne, whom he served as a page and personal attendant, and one day in 1921, the Crown Prince stated, â€œThis boy ought to make a good physician.â€ He asked him, â€œMelaku, would you like to go to Europe to study?â€
On January 19, 1921, Melaku Beyan, Beshahwoured Habtewold and Workou Gobena had bid Her Majesty Empress Zewditu and the Crown Prince farewell and left for India. There, they attended a preparatory school where, unfortunately, their British teachers menaced the highly capable Ethiopian students. One of their tutors spoke of the greatness of the British Empire; another told them that the King of England would eventually rule Ethiopia. When Melaku and his two colleagues left India for the United States, they carried with them a sealed envelope that contained a personal letter of recommendation addressed to President Warren G. Harding from Crown Prince Tafari Makonne, heir apparent to the Ethiopian throne.
The anticipation of meeting the President of a very powerful nation made the Ethiopians nervous and they never tried to hide their excitement. â€œCould the busy President receive us at all?â€ They asked themselves repeatedly. The thought that they were only students, after all, heading not to an Ivy League college but destined for a high school that was yet to be designated. The Ethiopian Crown Prince had, as was his usual custom, addressed a courteous but yet a forceful letter to the President that stressed the urgent need at home for educated Ethiopians. He had very kindly asked the President to assist the young Ethiopians in their pursuit of professional education. The emphasis was on professional training as it was originally planned for Melaku to study medicine and return to Ethiopia as a physician to organize the public health system throughout the length and breadth of his country.
The three Ethiopian students were in good luck; they were received by the President of the most powerful nation in the world. He greeted them warmly and advised them to join his alma mater, Marietta College in Columbus, Ohio. The Ethiopians genuinely expressed the Crown Princeâ€™s deep appreciation and their own sincere thanks to the President and gratefully accepted his national and candid advice to join the college in Columbus. They immediately submitted their application to the dean of admission and received a positive reply. The schools back home in Ethiopia had not prepared the Ethiopians for immediate college work, especially in foreign languages. They could only qualify for middle class high school studies but, indeed, they all did very well in the preparatory school and they joined within a very short time Marietta College as first-year students.
Melaku subsequently attended both summer and winter classes and entered Muskingum College in Columbus, Ohio, in 1925. His competitive spirit and great determination enabled him to graduate from the four-year college in 1928, becoming the first Ethiopian to have earned an American degree. Then, he quickly joined the graduate school at Ohio State University for advanced work in chemistry. Although Melaku Bayan greatly appreciated his eight-yearsâ€™ stay in Ohio, where he received two diplomas and made many good friends, he was, nevertheless, hurt by the discrimination openly shown him at the fashionable eastern college and at other establishments in metropolitan Columbus. In 1929, he transferred to Howard University, the great African American learning institute in Washington, D.C. As expected, Melaku joined the medical faculty at his new school.
Shortly thereafter, he met a beautiful African-American coed, Dorothy Hadley at Howard, and married her in 1931. They had a son two years later. The year 1935 was momentous. Melaku graduated from Howard University with the degree of Doctor of Medicine â€“ cum laude. Marcus Garvey of the Caribbean Islands had reached the peak of his power within the black population of North America when Melaku Beyan first arrived in the United States of America in 1922. Garvey had already organized his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). At that crucial point, Ethiopia had come under attack by some members of the United States black community, including Garveyâ€™s personal followers.
The critics maintained that Ethiopians were elitist; they denied they were black skins and they ignored other blacks in world forums. But for many decades, and in fact for centuries, well before the establishment of Garveyâ€™s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Ethiopia had an assured place in the hearts and souls of not thousands but millions of black persons in the world because of its special Biblical background and age-old independence. At the beginning, Marcus Garvey himself stood high before his admirers who numbered in the thousands and declared: â€œWake up Ethiopia! Let us work toward the one glorious end of a free, redeemed and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations.â€ W.E.B. Du Bois, the Harvard-educated black intellectual â€“ and much more an organizer of black communities â€“ admired Ethiopia and stated, â€œEthiopia is a Negro country. Ethiopians are as Negroid as American Negroes.â€ From his residence in Harlem, Melaku Beyan circulated in August 1937 a letter that said in part the following: â€œHere in America the black race is beset with troubles because of color for which it is not responsible. We note that in Barbados and Trinidad, our people are being misused because they dare to demand and fight for a decent living. In Ethiopia, the crowning injustice against our people has been committed. You know the sad story. We note with grief that English newspapers are preparing the minds of the English people to accept Britainâ€™s recognition of the so-called conquest of Ethiopia. Great Britain has already lost prestige on account of her weak opposition to Italian barbarism. She must not further degrade her name by recognizing Italian aggression. Now is the time when the black race, as a whole, can make itself heard, can make its influence felt by raising its voice in united protest to the League of Nations, to Great Britain, and to other states members of the League against recognition of the aggression of one member weaker and peaceful, Ethiopia.â€
In April 1937, Melaku informed Sylvia Pankhurst, editor of New Times and Ethiopia News, as follows: â€œThe President of Muskingum College, Ohio, together with the faculty and the student body were sending protests for the slaughter of their alumnus â€“ Beshahwarad Habtwwold - during the Graziani massacre in Addis Ababa in February 1937, to the President of the United States, the British Prime Minister, the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and an expression of their approval of the stand taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury.â€ Further, Melaku touched an important matter in his communication to Sylvia Pankhurst when he said that lack of news about Ethiopia, coupled with the propaganda from Italian agents stationed in America and in Western Europe and missionaries returning from Ethiopia who were trying to be in good grace of the Fascist regime, had been responsible for the lack of interest in the white groups. He was convinced that in London and in New York, the Italian Fascists had succeeded in obtaining and corrupting black Catholics to carry out a great propaganda work in favor of an Italian invasion of Ethiopia. He stated openly and firmly that certain blacks, including most significantly black Catholics, had been the actual obstructionists to the work of his mission.
Melaku Beyan respected Dr. Workneh Martin, a well-known Ethiopian diplomat and physician. He recited the good advice of the physician with great administration. â€œThe greatest service you could render your country,â€ said the knowledgeable Martin, â€œwould be to influence thousands of black people in the United States of America and the West Indies and let them come and help us to develop Ethiopia.â€ With Dr. Workneh Martinâ€™s advice as a background, Melaku later wrote: â€œIt was the idea of race solidarity that caused me to send Africa-Americans to Ethiopia to be involved in development â€¦. European imperialists evidently became aware of the growing race consciousness and decided to strike early. They struck in 1935 and Ethiopia decided to fight to the last man. I was at the front during 1935 and 1936 and one of the foremost thoughts in my mind was whether the black people of the world were made to realize that the white world was trying to destroy one of the last black independent nations in the world.
I wanted to know if they realized that Ethiopians were giving their lives to defend the honor of the black race.â€ While still a student in the United States, well before graduating from Howard University, Melaku Beyan served in the capacity of unofficial representative of his country to North America working in particular to promote the relationship between the people of Ethiopia and African-Americans. He sought scholarships and various educational opportunities in the Western Hemisphere for the benefit of Ethiopian citizens.
During the Italian Ethiopian war in the 1930s, Melaku seized every opportunity to explain to American and Caribbean audiences the principal reasons for the war and asked them never to ignore its implications to the black race as a whole. Melaku was correct on all occasions. He respected and obeyed the social rules observed strictly in his home country. For example, in 1932 the State Department invited him to serve as an interpreter when Ras Dessta Damtew visited the United States to present Emperor Haile Selassieâ€™s compliments to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his election to become President of the United States.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of his service, at least to Americans, was the spontaneous standards of manner shown by Melaku as escort during Ras Destaâ€™s stay in America. He was invited to sit like the American escorts at the Rasâ€™s table in the dining car of the train that took them from New York to Washington D.C. but he chose to stand behind the chair of Ras Desta all through dinner. Later, at the official dinner given for the honored guest by the Under Secretary of State in Washington, the young man again stood while the other officers sat and dined. In the 1930s, Melaku helped recruit American financiers and educators to serve in Ethiopia. It was a good beginning, but it was interrupted because of the imminent Italian attack on Ethiopia.
He returned to Ethiopia in 1935 and after only about a month in Addis Ababa he was sent to the Ogaden with the Ethiopian Red Cross to tend to the wounded soldiers. Melaku was one of a handful of physicians who served in Jijiga, Daggah Bur and Korahei. In late November 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie was preparing to leave Addis Ababa for the northern front and Dr. Melaku Beyan was called back from the Ogaden to serve as an attending physician to the Emperor and to take change of the first aid unit in the war zone serving a body of 120,000 active combatants. The fighting lasted several months. Unfortunately, it did not go well for the Ethiopian side, and the Emperor ordered a return to Addis Ababa.
Dr. Melaku Beyan continued to serve as the Emperorâ€™s personal physician, interpreter and spokesman. Members of the Imperial Council met in Addis Ababa early in May 1936, when Ras Kassa, the Empress and other high-ranking officials proposed that the Emperor should depart immediately to the League of Nations in Geneva to appeal to the members for justice. However, an impressive number of officials objected the Emperorâ€™s departure to Europe. The famous nationalist, Blatta Takele, who later carried on the fight against Fascist Italy, reportedly asked: â€œAre you not the son of Emperor Theodore?â€ (Theodore had committed suicide at Magdala, Ethiopia, rather than surrender to the attackers of his land.) Fikre Mariam, another hero in the Italian Ethiopian war, was said to propose angrily, â€œIf the Emperor tried to flee, our honor demanded that we should ambush the train at Addis Ababa suburb and he should die at our hands.â€
Apparently, Dr. Melaku was undecided and he made no comments on the issue at that point. On May 3, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie left Ethiopia for Europe and Dr. Melaku Beyan was selected to accompany him as his physician. The Emperorâ€™s appearance before the League of Nations was delayed because of Italyâ€™s strong lobbying against the move to grant him an opportunity to deliver what proved to be a prophetic speech. On June 30, 1936, he addressed the crowded Assembly when he very efficiently defended Ethiopiaâ€™s legitimate right to exist as a sovereign state and as a full member of the League of Nations. But those who had the power to act in favor of Ethiopiaâ€™s historic independence turned a deaf ear to the Emperorâ€™s dignified appeal. Dr. Melaku Beyan later said with great regret and distress that the League of Nations ignored the good message addressed by the Ethiopian Emperor. Its silence on the occasion was a regrettable sign that began its own destruction. Further, Melaku pointed out that the League had been induced by the major powers to lift even the minimum sanctions imposed against Italy â€“ sanctions that had never been fully applied in the first place.
After evaluating the sad situation in the League of Nations and the self-serving attitude of the major powers, Melaka appeared to agree with his compatriots who had refused to send the Emperor to Geneva to present the Ethiopian case before the Organizationâ€™s Assembly in keeping with principles and justice. It was better, he said, to defend Ethiopia at home rather than face humiliation elsewhere. â€œI came to a definite conclusion,â€ he said, â€œthat our only hope lay in what we the Ethiopians at home could do and what our people, the black peoples of the world, would do to help us save our independence.â€
In September 1936, Dr. Melaku Beyan returned to the United States as Ethiopiaâ€™s representative and coordinator of fund-raising activities. He preferred to work with his black brothers and sisters in America; he was demoralized by what he witnessed in England and Europe. â€œExpect Sylvia Pankhurst, P.H. Stantely Jevons, Hazle Napier and a few others,â€ he pointed out, â€œI never heard of anyone else among the whites who had courage enough to say we could and should save our country.â€ On arrival in the United States on September 23, 1936, Dr. Melaku immediately issued the following declaration to reach, in particular, people of African descent. â€œWe are not going to surrender,â€ he told them, â€œour soldiers will fight until our enemy leaves our land. Blacks will win.â€ Millions of African-Americans and others saw a hero standing in their midst and admired Melakuâ€™s message.
In 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie instructed Dr. Melaku Beyan to open diplomatic offices in the countries that continued to recognize the Ethiopian Government and to continue to carry out the diplomatic struggle at the League of Nations. He stressed that his envoy in America should solicit funds and assist those who were fighting against the enemy at home and help other needy Ethiopians within and outside Ethiopia. Melaku complied with the directives he received from the Emperor. Melaku introduced forthwith a weekly paper, The Voice of Ethiopia, and established â€œThe Ethiopian World Federation,â€ by merging all pro-Ethiopian organizations, including significantly, â€œThe Universal Negro Improvement Association,â€ that had already been initiated and created by Marcus Garvey.
The courageous move by Melaku to create a united African- American and African-Ethiopian fronts to defend the cause of his country was Melakuâ€™s unforgettable contribution to his homeland. In brief, his tireless efforts to establish greater racial bonds between Ethiopians and people of African descent earned him universal respect. Regrettably, not long afterward, the great giants â€“ Marcus Garvey and Melaku Beyan â€“ clashed. Garvey accused Emperor Haile Selassie of refusing to receive a colored delegation in London. He maintained, â€œMussolini of Italy has conquered Haile Selassie of Abyssinia, but he has not conquered the Abyssinians or Abyssinia.â€ The accusation that was firmly denied by Melaku was, nevertheless, a disadvantage when the African-Americans were in an endless struggle against the ruthless regime of Italy. Many African-Americans and residents of the Caribbean Islands shared their resources generously for the Ethiopian cause when Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia and slaughtered thousands of its citizens on their own historic land. Some even stood courageously on the side of their Ethiopian brothers and sisters and fought bravely against the advancing enemy forces. There were, unfortunately, some who succumbed to enemy favors and gratuities in behaviors unbecoming for their status in the African-American community. Melaku continued his struggle until he died of pneumonia at an age of 40.
Ethiopian Medical History
Photo: Dr. Melaku Beyan. Dr. Melaku Beyan became the first Ethiopian medical doctor to complete his education in the United states in 1935 (Dr. Workneh Eshete became the first Ethiopian doctor to obtain a modern medical education in 1882)
The non-governmental organization, People to People, has just released The Manual of Ethiopian Medical History by Enawgaw Mehari, Kinfe Gebeyehu and Zergabachew Asfaw. The purpose of the publication is to teach the future generation of Ethiopian medical students and health care professionals about Ethiopiaâ€™s medical history.
Mekele University and Bahir Dar University have reportedly agreed to incorporate the study into their medical education curriculum.
Enawgaw Mehari, MD
Kinfe Gebeyehu, MD
Zergabachew Asfaw, MD
Senior Graphic Editor: Matthew I. Watt