When did Ethiopians and Eritreans get here? And how did Washington region become home to “Little Ethiopia” and “Little Eritrea?”

By Matthew S. Schwartz |

The Washington region is home to the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa. Ethiopians in D.C. began opening shops and restaurants in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights and, when rents got too expensive, the Shaw area. Today the largest concentration of Ethiopian businesses is in Silver Spring, Maryland, and to a lesser extent, Alexandria, Virginia.

But when did they get here? And how did Washington become home to “Little Ethiopia” and “Little Eritrea?” That was the question listener Ben Weingrod asked as part of WAMU 88.5’s What’s With Washington project.

In a way, the answer for the first wave of emigres starts with Detroit.

American culture long an attraction

The first time Tebabu Assefa heard the smooth sounds of American R&B, he was a world and a lifetime away. Over coffee at his Takoma Park home, Assefa reminisces about the longstanding fascination Ethiopians have had with American culture.

“We grew up with Motown,” Assefa says. As a young man in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the sights and sounds of America were everywhere. “I would walk down to the American information library to glance at Ebony and all those magazines,” he says. “We were immersed in the American culture. The American culture had captivated us, especially the youth.”

Indeed, the Ethiopian-American relationship dates back long before Motown. In the ’50s, Emperor Haile Selassie was the first Ethiopian emperor to visit the White House, where he met with President Dwight Eisenhower. In October of 1963, Selassi returned to get to know John F. Kennedy. Less than two months later, Selassie was the only African head-of-state to attend JFK’s funeral.

“Kennedy’s picture and Martin Luther King’s picture was common in many houses in Ethiopia,” Assefa says. “So we had that kind of fascination with America. I tasted my first hamburger cooked by a Peace Corps guy who came to my neighborhood. Peace Corps left a very, very strong impression.”

Haile Selassie I, the then Emperor of Ethiopia, attended President John F Kennedy's funeral (Nov. 25, 1963) (PHOTO: JFK Presidential Library & Museum, Boston, MA)

Haile Selassie I, the then Emperor of Ethiopia, attended President John F Kennedy’s funeral (Nov. 25, 1963) (PHOTO: JFK Presidential Library & Museum, Boston, MA)

From students to exiles

With such a longstanding relationship and fascination with American culture, it was a natural fit for Ethiopians who wanted to study abroad. Getachew Metaferia, professor of political science at Morgan State University, says many Ethiopians were drawn to D.C. There was an influx of students throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

“The embassy’s here, so they feel that they are home,” Metaferia says. “The other attraction is the existence of university, specifically Howard University. And in addition, Washington, D.C. is majority black — it used to be majority black — so they never faced the racism; they feel that they are home.”

But while many Ethiopians came to study, most never intended to stay in the U.S.

Continue reading this story on WAMU 88.5
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