Arnold Josiah Ford

Jul 18th, 2014 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment, Faith & Religion, Social Sciences
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Arnold Josiah Ford1877-1935 Arnold Josiah Ford was a self-proclaimed Rabbi and the founder of a black synagogue in Harlem. An accomplished musician, he wrote the enduring and inspiring “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem” in tandem with Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement.

Immersed in Music

Ford was born in the West Indies, in the city of Bridgetown on the Island of Barbados, on April 23, 1877. His parents, Edward Ford and Elizabeth Braithwaite, were both originally from Africa. Ford’s father was from Nigeria, and worked as a police officer and sometime preacher. His mother had emigrated from Sierra Leone. Ford’s early education centered on music including lessons on the harp, the violin, and the bass. By age 20, he was an accomplished musician. He enlisted in the British Royal Navy in 1899 and was assigned to the music corps, which took him to ports throughout the world including Africa. After the Navy, he worked briefly as a clerk in Bermuda and then, he claimed, as a public works administrator in Liberia where freed American slaves had begun to settle in 1821.

Ford’s travels eventually took him to the United States, and his passion for music led him, in 1910, to the vibrant and burgeoning musical scene in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Within two years, he was appearing with an early jazz group at the Clef Club, an influential gathering place lor Harlem musicians. Ford also engaged in the politics of the day by becoming director of the New Amsterdam Musical Association, the union for black musicians. As some point around 1916, he married Olive Nurse with whom he would have two children.

During this period, the Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1915, to “unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.” Garvey believed that music was central to attracting and inspiring members, and he solicited Ford to take charge of the movement’s music program. Ford collaborated with Benjamin Burrell to compose an anthem that would convey the pride of African heritage. The piece, “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem,” became wildly popular.

Politics and Religion

The back-to-Africa theme for which the UNIA is famous resonated with Ford who had grown up in a family that believed it could trace its descent from the Jews of the Bible. Many Blacks held similar beliefs with some claiming that God and Adam and Eve were Black, and that Blacks were the only true Jews. By the time Ford met a delegation of Ethiopian diplomats in 1919 and heard from them that a group of Africans who were undeniably Jewish had been identified, he had already decided he was a Jew. This conviction appears to have been reinforced by a longtime fascination with occult knowledge and secret rites, a trait he also exhibited by joining the Masons where he attained the status of master.

Over the next several years, Ford’s role within the UNIA grew well beyond music to responsibility for helping develop policies and compose official documents. In some respects, he became the public face of the UNIA, second only to Garvey, and often was selected to open proceedings at UNIA meetings or represent the organization at national and international conferences. Garvey, however, was under investigation by the federal government, which alleged that he and adjunct UNIA businesses had engaged in fraudulent dealings. In 1923, Garvey was indicted, convicted, and sent to prison. The UNIA began to disintegrate without its leader, and Ford’s personal connection to Garvey suffered as well. He initiated a lawsuit against his former mentor over unpaid music royalties.

Even before the collapse of the UNIA, Ford had become increasingly serious about living as a Jew. Following a divorce from his wife in 1924, he established a synagogue of his own and declared himself its Rabbi. Beth B’nai Israel operated from a storefront in Harlem. Ford strived to make the synagogue as authentically Jewish as possible by gaining proficiency in Hebrew and conducting a strictly traditional service on the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday Beth B’nai Israel soon evolved into Beth B’nai Abraham in a different building on 135th Street. Members of the traditional Jewish community in New York who attended services reported favorably on Ford’s command of Jewish rites, but kept a safe distance from the synagogue’s operations. They were not moved to accept him as a Rabbi, to view his congregants as Jews, or to respect his temple as a synagogue.

Ford had learned a great deal from Garvey about organizing and business. In 1928, he established a quasi-commercial adjunct to the temple, which he called the B’nai Abraham Progressive Corporation. The corporation purchased a building, rented out apartments, and operated two schools, one religious and one secular. When the Great Depression struck the following year, however, business was hard hit. By 1930, the B’nai Abraham businesses were bankrupt. Discouraged and disappointed with the outcome of his many years of work in the United States, Ford decided it was time to accept a long-standing invitation from the Ethiopian government, directed at well-educated American Blacks, to return to the ancestral home of Africa.

He turned his congregation over to another black Rabbi, Arthur Wentworth Mathew, and sailed for Ethiopia. There, he continued his life as a practicing Jew, remarried, had two more children, and headed a group of approximately 100 returning African Americans who lived on several hundred acres of agricultural land provided by newly crowned Emperor Haile Selassie. Ford died quietly on September 16, 1935.

Ford’s life and work stood at the nexus of several important developments in black history. His musical presence at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance is still remembered, and “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem” remains widely sung. As a key aide and partner to Garvey, he became an important figure in the movement among African Americans to celebrate their heritage and consider returning to Africa. And numerous black Jews still practice and maintain their devotion to Judaism throughout the world.

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