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The 1903 Skinner Mission: Images of Ethiopia in the Progressive Era1

  • Amanda Kay McVety (a1)

This essay examines the 1903 U.S. diplomatic mission to Ethiopia, which offers an unusual perspective on racial attitudes in the Progressive Era. Desirous of exploring new trade possibilities, the Theodore Roosevelt administration sent Robert P. Skinner to Addis Ababa to sign a reciprocity treaty with Emperor Menelik II. The timing of the mission had much to do with Roosevelt's global interests, but it happened to occur at a critical point for Ethiopia, which had recently thwarted an attempted Italian invasion. This victory delighted African Americans, especially those with a pan-Africanist perspective. Black Americans had long identified with the idea of Ethiopia, but they now identified with the actual nation and its leader. Black writers argued that the Ethiopians had triumphed over modern racism when they triumphed over the Italians. Those involved in Skinner's trip had a different view of the racial implications of Ethiopia's success. To them, the victory was that of a Semitic people whose triumphs were less startling. When talking about Ethiopia, black and white American observers revealed more about their own preconceptions and hopes than about the country to which the United States was making overtures.

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The author wishes to extend a note of gratitude to Alexandra Nicholis and Mandy Altimus Pond of the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, for their invaluable assistance with this project. She would also like to thank her anonymous readers and Alan Lessoff.

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2 Milkias, Paulos and Metaferia, Getachew, eds., The Battle of Adwa (New York, 2005).

3 Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (May 18, 1896).

4 Robert P. Skinner to David J. Hill, Jan. 8, 1900, July 26, 1902, Consular Letters from Marseille, T 220, State Department Records, Record Group [RG] 59, National Archives, College Park, MD [Hereafter NA—College Park].

5 Robert P. Skinner to Francis B. Loomis, May 13, 1903, Consular Letters from Marseille, T 220, RG 59, NA—College Park.

6 Robert P. Skinner to Francis B. Loomis, June 17, 1903, Skinner Correspondence, Francis Loomis Papers, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, CA.

7 Gordon, John Steele, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York, 2004), 205–82; Zimmermann, Warren, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York, 2002), 25; Yafa, Stephen, Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber (New York, 2006), 191201.

8 Brownstein, Ronald, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America (New York, 2007), 28; Dalton, Kathleen, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York, 2002), 205; Bender, Thomas, A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (New York, 2006), 220; Hunt, Michael H., The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained & Wielded Global Dominance (Chapel Hill, 2007), 51; Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York, 1987), 245.

9 LaFeber, Walter, The American Search for Opportunity, 1865–1913 (New York, 1993), 133; Rosenberg, Emily S., Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945 (New York, 1982), 22, 49; and Rosenberg, , Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900–1930 (Durham, NC, 2003), 9.

10 Love, Eric T. L., Race Over Empire: Racism and U.S. Imperialism, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill, 2004), 196200.

11 Theodore Roosevelt, “Second Annual Message” (Dec. 2, 1902), Presidential Speech Archive, Scripps Library, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia (accessed July 22, 2010).

12 Robert P. Skinner to Francis B. Loomis, May 13, 1903, Consular Letters from Marseille, T 220, RG 59, NA—College Park; Helen Wales Skinner, Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, unpublished manuscript, p. 4, Massillon Museum, Massillon, OH.

13 Skinner, Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, 45–46.

14 Ibid.; Adams, Henry, The Education of Henry Adams (1918, New York, 1999), 418.

15 Beale, Howard K., Theodore Roosevelt and the American Rise To Power (New York, 1956), 4147; Gerstle, Gary, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Divided Character of American Nationalism,” Journal of American History 86 (Dec. 1999): 1280–307; Hawley, Joshua David, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness (New Haven, 2008), 3539, 60–66; Frenkel, Stephen, “Geography, Empire, and Environmental Determinism,” Geographical Review 82 (Apr. 1992): 143–52; Füredi, Frank, The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race (New Brunswick, 1998), 2545; Horne, Gerald, “Race from Power: U.S. Foreign Policy and the General Crisis of ‘White Supremacy’” in The Ambiguous Legacy: U.S. Foreign Relations in the “American Century,” ed. Hogan, Michael J. (New York, 1999), 313; Hunt, Michael, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven, 1987), 7791; Horsman, Reginald, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA, 1981): 298303; Jackson, John P. Jr. and Weidman, Nadine M., “The Origins of Scientific Racism,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 50 (Winter 2005/06): 6679.

16 Semple, Ellen Churchill, American History and its Geographic Conditions (Boston, 1903); Semple, Ellen Churchill, “The Operation of Geographic Factors in History,” Bulletin of the American Geographic Society 41 (1909): 422–23; Peet, Richard, “The Social Origins of Environmental Determinism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75 (Sept. 1985): 317–24. For a description of how Europeans tended to share Semple's sense that American exceptionalism was rooted in the relationship with the environment, see Lessoff, Alan, “Progress Before Modernization: Foreign Interpretations of American Development in James Bryce's Generation,” American Nineteenth Century History 1 (Summer 2000): 6996.

17 Montesquieu, , The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and eds. Cohler, Anne, Miller, Basia, and Stone, Harold (Cambridge, 1989), 310; Turner, Frederick Jackson, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1961), 3762.

18 Roosevelt, Theodore, Letters and Speeches (New York, 2004), 184–86.

19 Skinner, Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, 45–46.

20 Blundell, Herbert Weld, “A Journey Through Abyssinia to the Nile,” Geographical Journal 15 (Feb. 1900): 97118; Levine, Donald N., Greater Ethiopia, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 2000), 1739; Perham, Margery, The Government of Ethiopia (New York, 1948), 330; Munro-Hay, Stuart, Ethiopia. The Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide (London, 2002), 1539. On the myths that have dominated Western views of modern Ethiopia, Kebede, Messay, Survival and Modernization: Ethiopia's Enigmatic Past (Lawrenceville, NJ, 1999); and Tibebu, Teshale, “Ethiopia: The ‘Anomaly’ and ‘Paradox’ of Africa,” Journal of Black Studies 26 (Mar. 1996): 414–30.

21 McGee, W. J., “Opportunities in Anthropology at the World's Fair,” Science 20 (Aug. 19, 1904): 253–54.

22 Our Overture to Menelik,” Washington Post, Oct. 10, 1903, p. 6.

23 Our Expedition to Abyssinia,” Harper's Weekly, Dec. 5, 1903, 1933–34.

24 Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folks, ed. Blight, David W. (1903; Boston, 1997), 39.

25 Hopkins, Pauline, Of One Blood (1902–03; New York, 2004), 154.

26 Japtok, Martin, “Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, Africa, and the ‘Darwinist Trap,’African American Review 36 (Autumn 2002): 405–06; Harris, Marla, “Not Black and/or White: Reading Racial Difference in Heliodorus's Ethiopica and Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood,” African American Review 35 (Autumn 2001): 375–90.

27 Woubshet, Dagmawi, Tillet, Salamishah, and Giorgis, Elizabeth Wolde, “The Romance of Ethiopia: A Critical Introduction,” Callaloo 33 (Winter 2010): 12.

28 Walker, David, David Walker's Appeal, ed. Wilentz, Sean (1829; New York, 1995), xxvi.

29 Williams, George Washington, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, vol. 2 (New York, 1883), 544–52.

30 Metaferia, Getachew, “Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement” in Battle of Adwa, ed. Milkias, and Metaferia, , 181215; Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925 (New York, 1978), 2324, 156–69; Gruesser, John Cullen, Black on Black: Twentieth-Century African American Writing about Africa (Lexington, KY, 2000), 149; Fredrickson, George M., Black Liberation (New York, 1995), 5793; Weisbord, Robert G., “Black America and the Italian-Ethiopian Crisis: An Episode in Pan-Negroism,” Historian 34 (Feb. 1972): 230–41; Bruce, Dickson D. Jr., “Ancient Africa and the Early Black American Historians, 1883–1915,” American Quarterly 36 (Winter 1984): 684–99.

31 Gomez, Michael A., “Of Du Bois and Diaspora: The Challenge of African American Studies,” Journal of Black Studies 35 (Nov. 2004): 175–94.

32 Pankhurst, Richard, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia, from Early Times to 1800 (Addis Ababa, 1961).

33 Skinner, Robert P., Abyssinia of To-Day: An Account of the First Mission Sent by the American Government to the Court of the King of Kings, 1903–1904 (New York, 1906), 91.

34 Skinner, , Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, 44.

35 Ibid., 47; Skinner, , Abyssinia of To-Day, 5.

36 Skinner, , Abyssinia of To-Day, 141.

37 Marcus, Harold G., The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844–1913 (Oxford, 1975), 6134; Pankhurst, Richard, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford, 1998), 176–88; Prouty, Chris, Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1833–1910 (Trenton, NJ, 1986), 125.

38 For an examination of the importance of a capital city to the modern nation, see Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State (New Haven, 1998).

39 Pankhurst, The Ethiopians, 195.

40 Skinner, Abyssinia of To-Day, 86–87; Marcus, Menelik, 190–213.

41 Skinner, Abyssinia of To-Day, 52.

42 Ibid., 137.

43 Ibid., 73–82; Skinner, Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, 54–57.

44 Skinner, Abyssinia of To-Day, 83.

45 Ibid., 120–21.

46 Ibid., 93–94.

47 “Treaty Between the United States and the King of Ethiopia, to Regulate the Commercial Relations between the Two Countries” in Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with the Annual Message of the President (Washington, 1905), 298300.

48 Robert P. Skinner to Francis B. Loomis, Feb. 1, 1904, Consular Letters from Marseille, T 220, RG 59, NA—College Park.

49 Robert P. Skinner to Francis B. Loomis, Feb. 4, 1904, Commission of the United States of America to Abyssinia, Reel 41, Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

50 New Animals at Zoo,” Washington Post, Nov. 17, 1904, p. 9.

51 Skinner, Journal of a Foreign Service Officer's Wife, 60.

52 Comment,” Harper's Weekly, Jan. 23, 1904, 119.

53 William Ellis to John Hay, Jan. 13, 1904, Consular Letters from Marseille, T 220, RG 59; NA—College Park. Ellis's involvement in Ethiopia does not end here, but I am still researching that story.

54 An American Promoter in Abyssinia,” World's Work, Mar. 1904, 4601–02.

55 “Ellis Rode In Pullman,” Washington Post, Aug. 22, 1906; William Ellis to Theodore Roosevelt, July 7, 1917, reel 239, Roosevelt Presidential Papers.

56 New York Times, Jan. 1, 1904.

57 Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks, 45.

58 Hayford, J. E. Casely, Ethiopia Unbound, 2nd ed., intro. F. Nnabuenyi Ugonna (London, 1969).

59 Ater, Renée, “Making History: Meta Warrick Fuller's ‘Ethiopia,’” American Art 17 (Autumn 2003): 1921.

60 Ibid., 17–19; Gruesser, Black on Black, 11.

61 Paulos Milkias, “The Battle of Adwa: The Historic Victory of Ethiopia Over European Colonialism” in The Battle of Adwa, ed. Milkias and Metaferia, 43–50.

62 Pan-African Conference in London,” New York Times, June 17, 1900.

63 Esedebe, P. Olisanwuche, Pan-Africanism: The Idea and Movement, 1776–1963 (Washington, 1982), 4557; Walters, Alexander, My Life and Work (New York, 1917), 257–60.

64 Menelik to Carnegie, Nov. 17, 1903, Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum, Dunfermline, Scotland; Getachew Metaferia, “Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement” in The Battle of Adwa, ed. Milkias and Metaferia, 204.

65 Ambassador Long to Secretary of State Hull, Sept. 17, 1935, in Foreign Relations of the United States 1935, ed. Perkins, E. R. (Washington, 1953), 1:757.

66 Harris, Brice Jr., The United States and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis (Stanford, CA, 1964), 2029.

67 Ethiopia Prepares for Mobilization,” New York Times, May 12, 1935.

68 Israel, Josef, “A Primitive Ethiopia Faces the West,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 1935; McCormick, Anne O'Hare, “New Dreams of African Empire,” New York Times, June 16, 1935.

69 Carter, Boake, Black Shirt, Black Skin (Harrisburg, PA, 1935), 92, 159–64.

70 Negro Expects Mussolini to Avenge Carnera,” New York Times, June 27, 1935, 8.

71 Chicago Negroes Protest Italy's Policies in Africa,” Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1935, 2.

72 Scott, William R., The Sons of Sheba's Race: African Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1941 (Bloomington, IN, 1993), 10, 4451.

73 Du Bois, W. E. B., “Inter-Racial Implications of the Ethiopian Crisis,” Foreign Affairs 14 (Oct. 1935): 8292; Selassie, Haile, Selected Speeches of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie First, 1918–1967 (Addis Ababa, 1967), 314; Selassie, Haile, My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, trans. Ezekiel Gebissa, ed. Marcus, Harold (East Lansing, MI, 1994), 2:2223; Woolbert, Robert Gale, “Feudal Ethiopia and Her Army,” Foreign Affairs 14 (Oct. 1935): 7181.

1 The author wishes to extend a note of gratitude to Alexandra Nicholis and Mandy Altimus Pond of the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, for their invaluable assistance with this project. She would also like to thank her anonymous readers and Alan Lessoff.

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
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  • EISSN: 1943-3557
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