His Imperial Majesty was the first reigning foreign head of state to visit the state of Oklahoma on 18 June 1954. The Emperor brought a contingent of 19 persons with him to personally thank Oklahoma State University for their work in assisting Ethiopia in modernizing agriculture and education under the Point Four Program begun during U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s administration.
The Oklahoma Ethiopia connection had been initiated by the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1950 when He requested Henry G. Bennett, then president of the University, to come to Ethiopia to explore the possibility of establishing an agricultural college in Jimma and Alemaya. After Bennett visited Ethiopia, he presented a report and the aspiration of the Emperor for education in Ethiopia. Truman was so impressed by Bennett’s report that in November 1950, he appointed him the first head of the Technical Cooperation Administration to implement the President’s fledgling Point Four technical assistance program in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was the first country to request technical assistance under the Point Four program.
On 16 June 1951, the U.S. and Ethiopia signed a technical assistance agreement. The contract provided for the Oklahoma group to establish an agricultural education, research and extension system. First education program was the establishment of the Jimma Agricultural Technical School (JATS). The Emperor was so pleased to see the establishment of the college at Jimma and decided to include Oklahoma as part of their diplomatic visit when He was there. Tragically, Bennett and his wife were killed in an airplane crash in Iran a few months after the contract was signed, in December 1951, while on a tour of Point Four projects in Africa and the Middle East.
Among the people who accompanied the Emperor in the Oklahoma tour included Wolde Giorgis Wolde Yohannes,(Minister of Justice and Minister of the Pen), Aklilu Habte Weld, (Minister of Foreign Affairs who had signed the United Nations Charter for Ethiopia in San Francisco in 1945) and Endalkatchew Mekonnen (the Oxford educated Chief of Protocol of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Upon His arrival at the Star of Bombay landed at Stillwater’s Municipal Airport, the Stars and Stripes and the green, gold, and red banner of Ethiopia hung from two new flag poles erected for the occasion at the Searcy Field airport. The Emperor emerged from the plane dressed in a field marshall’s sun tan dress uniform with nine rows of campaign ribbons (including the U.S. Legion of Merit) and carrying a very long leather swagger stick. His Imperial Majesty gave a smart salute to his audience before being officially welcomed by President Willham, Stillwater’s Mayor A.B. Alcott, Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor James E. Barry, and Ambassador Simonson.
The Emperor had requested an opportunity to see “an Indian,” and Acee Blue Eagle, a well known Native American artist from Okmulgee, in full headdress and buckskin clothing. The Native American in full Pawnee regalia, gave the Conquering Lion of Judah a war bonnet and renamed him “Great Buffalo High Chief.”
Governor Johnston E. Murray was more tongue-tied. “Welcome to Oklamopia,” he said. Before him stood that most inapproachable figure, the self-styled King of Kings who traced his lineage back to the Biblical Solomon and came laden with enough treasure for all three Magis combined—as a State Department memorandum would later put it, “Ethiopian court etiquette makes the Hapsburgs look breezy.”
In the airport, Oklahoma had clumsily hung Ethiopia’s flag upside down, but what was up and what was down, anymore? Suddenly, as Lion became Buffalo, everything was sliding toward Oneness.Emperor Haile Selassie was the first African leader that most Americans had ever seen. His stalwart military bearing and dress were the epitome of dignity. The Emperor even was remembered in the lyrics of a popular song, “Shanty in an Old Shanty Town,” by Johnny Long (“I’d be just as sassy as Haile Selassie, if I were a King…”).
Johnny Long and his Orchestra – A Shanty in old Shanty Town
The Emperor’s visit to Oklahoma was a milestone in the state’s history. Guests at the dinner termed the event “the most impressive” function they ever attended.56 “His Imperial Majesty’s visit certainly will long remain at the top of our list of special functions here at Oklahoma A. and M. College,” President Willham wrote to Ambassador Simonson. Haile Selassie was one of the best known international celebrities at the time, remembered for his eloquent appeal for collective security to the League of Nations in 1936 when Mussolini’s fascists invaded his nation and for his sending Ethiopian troops to join United Nations forces in the Korean war in 1950 1953.
He remains the only Ethiopian leader to have received a State reception in America. Emperor Haile Selassie was cheered by more than a million New Yorkers in a ticker tape parade down lower Broadway and was given honorary degrees by Howard University, Columbia University, McGill University, and the University of Michigan. The 60th Anniversary of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Visit to OSU is celebrated this year at Oklahoma State University.