Arnold Josiah Ford: The First Black Rabbi in The United States

Written by Jae Jones

is known by many people as the first rabbi in the United States. Rabbi Ford is recognized as a well-known figure in American’s Black Judaism movement. There are some people who do dispute the claim of him being the first Black rabbi. Ford was born in Barbados on April 23, 1877. His mother was hailed from Sierra Leone and his father was Nigerian. He was exposed to the arts, mainly music at an early age.

Ford joined the British Royal navy and was enlisted in its music corps, while on tour to different ports and performing around the world. After Ford left the Navy, Ford arrived in America in 1910 right as the music scene in Harlem was beginning to boom. He joined a jazz band and quickly became known as one of the biggest fixtures in the Harlem musical community. After a few meetings with Jamaica-born Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey Ford became inspired to embrace Judaism out in open.


Ford became involved in Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association as its music director, and began to create several songs, including the co-authoring of the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem.” Via the UNIA, Ford was introduced to Ethiopian Jews and which moved him to recall his childhood teachings that Black people were directly related to the Jewish people. (Black America Web)

During Garvey’s arrest and conviction, the UNIA began to dissolve, and Ford began to focus on opening a synagogue in Harlem and spreading the Judaic tradition. Ford declared himself a rabbi and opened Beth B’Nai Israel at a storefront. Ford continued to grow in faith and during this time so did his membership. The synagogue was eventually renamed Beth B’Nai Abraham. White Jews who would often visited the area would observe Ford’s practices and even give him praises but he was not declared or recognized by them as a rabbi.

Ford also created other business ventures through the synagogue that concentrated on real estate and other ventures, but because of The Great Depression in 1930 there were struggles that couldn’t be undone. With his business bankrupt, Ford accepted an invitation from the Ethiopian government to emigrate to the African nation. In 1930 he and a small group of Black Jews went to Ethiopia, where they participated in the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, created a school, and acquired 800 acres of land for the purpose of uniting Black Jews of the Diaspora with their brothers already in Ethiopia; it was there were Ford died.



Black America Web


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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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