Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, 23 April 1877 – 16 September 1935, was a self-proclaimed Rabbi and the founder of a black synagogue in Harlem.
An accomplished musician, he wrote the enduring and inspiring “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem” in tandem with Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement.
Ford was born in the West Indies, in the city of Bridgetown on the Island of Barbados, on April 23, 1877. His parents, Edward Ford and Elizabeth Braithwaite were both originally from Africa.
Ford’s father was from Nigeria and worked as a police officer and sometime preacher. His mother had emigrated from Sierra Leone. Ford’s early education centered on music including lessons on the harp, the violin, and the bass. By age 20, he was an accomplished musician.
He enlisted in the British Royal Navy in 1899 and was assigned to the music corps, which took him to ports throughout the world including Africa. After the Navy, he worked briefly as a clerk in Bermuda and then, he claimed, as a public works administrator in Liberia where freed American slaves had begun to settle in 1821.
Ford’s travels eventually took him to the United States, and his passion for music led him, in 1910, to the vibrant and burgeoning music scene in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Within two years, he was appearing with an early jazz group at the Clef Club, an influential gathering place for Harlem musicians.
Ford also engaged in the politics of the day by becoming director of the New Amsterdam Musical Association, the union for black musicians. At some point around 1916, he married Olive Nurse with whom he would have two children.
During this period, the Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1915, to “unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.”
Garvey believed that music was central to attracting and inspiring members, and he solicited Ford to take charge of the movement’s music program. Ford collaborated with Benjamin Burrell to compose an anthem that would convey the pride of African heritage. The piece, “The Universal Ethiopian Anthem,” became wildly popular.
He died in Ethiopia in 1935.