Princes of the Great Plains
They called themselves Ethiopians and religious leaders. UCLA Professor of History Robert Hill says we can learn from these imposters.
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2007
We have uncovered a hitherto unknown black nationalism…not found in the history books.
Ethiopian Princes or imposters? This is the question UCLA History Professor Robert Hill addressed in a presentation on Feb. 9, 2007.
In the lecture, sponsored by the Latin American Center, Hill guided a UCLA audience through newspaper clippings, photographs, and FBI reports suggesting that some Africans who gained prominence in the United States reinvented themselves as royalty and as religious leaders. Two men in particular, known as Checlzzli and Challoughlczilczise, posed as Ethiopian Princes between about 1910 and 1940.
According to articles in The Negro World newspaper and other publications, Checlzzli traveled to Indiana, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Detroit, and parts of Canada, making nationalistic statements. Calling himself a prince and a bishop, Challoughlczilczise established the Reformed Coptic Church of East Africa in the United States and had a large religious following. Both conferred themselves a long list of degrees and deanships in numerous fields.
The two cases show that there was a nationalistic movement in the Great Plains in the 20th century. "We have uncovered a hitherto unknown black nationalism…not found in the history books," Hill said.
What's more, Hill suggested, both Challoughlczilczise and Checlzzli were probably from the Caribbean. They came to the United States and, true to a pattern, invented new identities. "People come to America to reinvent themselves," he said.
The two cases, of course, raise a lot of questions. What role does the imposter play in forming African American culture, and are the deceptions also impositions if the public readily accepts the fakers?
Such lines of inquiry could represent a new dimension of African American cultural and social studies, Hill said. Most research employs conventional angles on cultural history, including theology and social movements. He said that African American historiography needs to address the "cultural work that the imposter has done."
Challoughlczilczise's story continues today. Hill coincidentally met the great-granddaughter of the "Ethiopian bishop's" successor in northern California, where her family had long since migrated. Grace Douglas and other members of the family still have relics associated with Challoughlczilczise and the Reformed Coptic Church.
Members of the UCLA audience asked Hill what motivated the two historical figures to fake their identities. Hill did not offer any hypothesis but said that the available evidence does not suggest that money was a motive.
Hill said the stories of Checlzzli and Challoughlczilczise offers one moral: "Be careful about who you say you think you are. We are, all of us,… constantly putting on and taking off identities."