There are an estimated 25 Ethiopian businesses on a single city block at 9th and U Streets in Washington DC, the center of what is known as “Little Ethiopia.” Many of those are restaurants, serving up traditional dishes like tibs (a dish of sautéed meat and vegetables), injera (flatbread) fir fir (a spicy dish of shredded flatbread, clarified butter and berbere) and doro wat. With an estimated population of 250,000 people, Washington DC and the surrounding areas have the highest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa. This has made the area the best place for Ethiopian food in America. But how did why is this case? How did the nation’s capital become a second Addis Ababa?
In 1930, Haile Selassie was installed as Ethopian emperor in a coronation that received international attention. Attended by dignitaries from across the world, Selassie’s face landed on the cover of Time Magazine. Selassie, whose birth name was Ras Tafari, was regarded by some as the coming messiah and the physical manifestation of the Rastafarian belief system. Essentially a Christ figure, he is still viewed as prophetic by many today, especially in Jamaica. Soon after his coronation, however, world politics overcame religious fervor. In 1935, Mussolini's Italian army invaded Ethiopia as a show of power. Considered one of the precursors to World War II, the Italian army easily defeated the ill-armed Ethiopian forces and took the capital of Addis Ababa on May 5th, 1936. Selassie retreated into exile, but he reappeared in front of the League of Nations (of which Ethiopia and Italy were both members) on June 30th, 1936 to give a speech considered one of the greats of the 20th century. Speaking in his native Amharic, he condemned the League of Nations for not doing what they were created to do - stand up for a member nation. Explaining in graphic detail the horrors that the Italian Army had inflicted on the Ethiopian people, he asked for help in making the atrocities stop. The League of Nations still did nothing, showing how little power it really had. Historians give credit to Selassie as the impetus behind the creation of the better-equipped United Nations.
Living in exile for five years, Selassie returned to his home country in 1941 when Allied forces retook Ethiopia and declared it a sovereign state. He immediately went to work improving the lives of his people through education, job creation and a new constitution. Viewed around the world as a humanitarian (despite being an autocrat), he was invited by President Eisenhower to visit America in 1954. Nine years later, he returned at the behest of President Kennedy. Less than two months later, Selassie came back to America for a much less happy affair - the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Selassie was the only African head-of-state to attend.
The bond between the countries continued to be strong, especially when an influx of young Ethiopians came to America to pursue educational opportunities in the 1950s and 1960s. The nation’s capital was a natural fit for these young students due to their familiarity with it, the abundance of universities and its perception as an African-American city—by 1970, seven out of every ten DC residents were black.
It was in 1974 when dynamics changed and Ethiopia was rocked by civil war. Hit with famine and a growing belief that Selassie was out of touch with the country’s poor, a Marxist military coalition staged a coup d’etat and ousted Ethiopia's long-standing monarchy. Bloody and violent altercations erupted across the country. A year after being forced from power, Selassie was found dead in his home. Although the official reason for his death was prostate complications, many believe he was assassinated.
Many of Selassie’s supporters fled the country, fearing for their lives. Considering the long-standing goodwill between the countries, America welcomed the political refugees, even going so far as to alter policy with the Refugee Act of 1980 to increase the cap on the number of refugees who could be let into the country. With an already a sizable group of Ethiopians in the nation’s capital due to the students and diplomats, many of these refugees found comfort in coming to a place where they already had a neighborhood. Forty years later, the population has continued to grow.
Up until the turn of the century, “Little Ethiopia” was centered in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC. But rising costs sent many to the U Street corridor (historically known for its jazz) and the surrounding areas of DC, like Silver Spring, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia. But no matter when one goes in the DC area to get their fill of injera or kitfo, they can’t go wrong.