Jamaica-born Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, per his biographies, was raised a Catholic but some historians have questioned whether or not he was a Muslim, considering he came into contact with personalities like Egyptian nationalist Duse Muhammad Ali, members of the Indian Hetrodox Ahmadiyyah Movement, and then Arnold Josiah Ford.
Ford would become the music director of Garvey’s movement, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which protested against racial discrimination and encouraged self-government for Black people all over the world
A Black Jew from Barbados, Ford, according to an account, wanted Garvey to accept Judaism as the religion of the Black man but Garvey refused. Ford however was really connected to Garvey’s UNIA for such a long time that he even compiled the anthem of the movement while in charge of its music program.
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Ford, a Black nationalist and an accomplished musician, created several songs, served on committees of the UNIA, and spoke at rallies before later founding a synagogue in New York and leading some Black people to establish a “colony” in Ethiopia. Some reports say that it was through Garvey’s movement that Ford met several Ethiopian Jews, making him recall teachings from his childhood that Black people were directly related to the Jewish people.
Recognized by some as the first Black rabbi in the United States, Ford was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, on April 23, 1877, to parents Edward Ford and Elizabeth Braithwaite, both originally from Africa. Ford’s father was from Nigeria and was a police officer and preacher at the Wesleyan Methodist Church where Ford was baptized. His mother was from Sierra Leone, with historical accounts stating that his family maintained customs and traditions that identified them with Judaism.
Growing up, Ford’s parents wanted him to become a musician so they ensured he had private tutors who gave him lessons on the harp, the violin, and the bass. Along the way, he studied music theory with Edmestone Barnes before joining the musical corps of the British Royal Navy in 1899. There, he was assigned to the music corps, which toured different ports and performed around the world.
After the Navy, he worked as a clerk in Bermuda for some time and claimed that he was a public works administrator in Liberia where freed enslaved Black people had begun to settle. By 1910, Ford was in America, in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Harlem had then become popularly known as the Black Cultural Mecca famous for its great jazz clubs, African-American arts, culture, and heritage. In two years, Ford was performing with a jazz group at the Clef Club, where Harlem musicians, including Black Jewish musicians, gathered.
Ford later delved into politics, becoming the director of the New Amsterdam Musical Association, the union for Black musicians. By 1916, he had married Olive Nurse with whom he would have two children. It was during this same period that Garvey founded the UNIA. Within a few years, UNIA, which started in Jamaica, had become the largest mass movement in African-American history.
But Garvey knew that music was key to attracting more members to his movement, and with Ford becoming its music director, the movement continued to grow. Ford specifically became the musical director of the UNIA choir, with Samuel Valentine as the president and Nancy Paris its lead singer. The three became key members of an active group of Black Jews within the UNIA who studied Hebrew, religion and history, according to a report. Later, Ford co-composed a song called “Ethiopia” which in 1920 became the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem.” The UNIA required the anthem to be sung on all occasions.
But following Garvey’s trial, conviction, and imprisonment on mail fraud charges, the UNIA started to dissolve. Ford turned his attention towards opening a synagogue in Harlem to spread Judaism. He first formed partnerships with some Black religious leaders to start congregations before finally opening Beth B’nai Abraham in Harlem in 1924, declaring himself a rabbi. A Jewish scholar who visited the congregation described their services as “a mixture of Reform and Orthodox Judaism, but when they practice the old customs they are seriously orthodox”.
By 1928, Ford had created a business attached to the church, largely centered on real estate. The business went bankrupt in the 1930s amid The Great Depression, compelling Ford to move to Ethiopia. At the time, the Ethiopian government was urging Black people to emigrate to the African nation with the promise of land and other amenities.
Before Ford moved to Ethiopia, there were over 40,000 indigenous Black Jews living there, and he thought of building a colony to essentially unite Black Jews of the Diaspora with those already in Ethiopia. Though this did not materialize and he died there in 1935, it is documented that Ford’s ideas inspired future Black Jewish congregations in the United States as well as the rise of Rastafarianism in Jamaica.