Understanding Black Hebrew Israelites: History, Leaders And Beliefs

Understanding Black Hebrew Israelites: History, Leaders And Beliefs

Black Hebrew Israelites
Understanding Black Hebrew Israelites: History, Leaders and Beliefs. Photo of Black Hebrew Israelites in Times Square NYC on Friday, 27 October 1995 by Elvert Barnes Photography.

The Black Hebrew Israelites movement has been gaining traction in recent years. When Kendrick Lamar said, “I’m a Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo,” he was embracing an ideology that was first introduced centuries before he was even conceived. So, what exactly do Black Hebrews believe and who are the leaders of the movement?

According to author and professor Dawn L. Hutchinson, the Black Hebrew movement was founded in the 19th century by two men, Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy.  

In her book, “Antiquity and Social Reform: Religious Experience in the Unification Church, Feminist Wicca and Nation of Yahweh,” Hutchinson explained that Cherry founded the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations in 1886 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ in 1896 in Lawrence, Kansas.

Cherry taught that Adam, Eve and Jesus were all Black and that Black Americans had lost their Hebrew identities during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Crowdy added that Black people were the true heirs of the lost tribes of Israel and that Jews of European descent were children of interracial marriages between Black Israelites and white Christians.

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Like the traditional Judeo-Christian and Muslim faiths, today there are various denominations of Black Hebrew Israelites with varying beliefs.

“There are various types of Black Hebrews, as there are Christian variations,” Crystal Heard, a practicing Messianic Black Hebrew told The Moguldom Nation in an exclusive interview. “One thing we all have in common is that we believe the Scriptures are about Black folk, not the current people in Israel — specifically, those who were products of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But some groups believe in the Messiah (Jesus). Some don’t. Those are typically the groups you see dressed a certain way on the street cursing white people out.”

A Facebook page for Black Hebrew Israelites underscores Heard’s point, stating that “Black Hebrew Israelites are people of (so-called Negroes, Indian and Hispanic descent scattered throughout North, South & Central America, and the West Indies) ancestry, situated mainly in the Americas. We are the descendants of the ancient Israelites and are God’s chosen people.”

“A lot of this is a discovery process,” Heard said. “We’re following history and a lot of history has been moved and changed.”

Ronald Dalton Jr., 44, is a Black Hebrew Israelite scholar who’s published several books and movies on the subject. His book series is entitled “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.” He also founded The Negro Network, which is on a mission to “educate and wake-up Black America.”

The Waking Up Process

Raised in the Apostolic Pentecostal faith, Dalton is the son of a pastor and spent much of his life in church. In 2011, Dalton was working as a physician’s assistant when he began questioning lots of things. In the emergency room, he said he saw “a lot of destruction, despair, broken families and strongholds” among Black people. He couldn’t understand why, despite their best efforts, Black Americans continued to be on the bottom rungs of society.

“We say it’s a waking-up process,” Dalton told The Moguldom Nation in an exclusive interview. “I woke up in 2011. I said ‘Black people go to church all the time. We’re praying, we’re fasting, we’re being baptized … we’re living holy lives. Why is it that we’re still at the bottom?’ We just couldn’t get ahead for nothing.”

After carefully reading Deuteronomy 28 in the Bible, Dalton said he had a revelation that all the curses prophesied about the Israelites in the Bible applied to Black people across the diaspora. He has since dedicated his life to teaching other Black people about what he says is their “true identity.”

“It’s a growing movement that is happening among Black people all over the world, in the Caribbean, United Kingdom, Africa and other countries; and it really kind of all started from Blacks in America searching for their identity,” Dalton said. “It needs to be covered and it needs to be discussed in the right way because the European and Western media would try to put a spin on it and make it seem as though we’re a hate group and anti-Semitic and all this other stuff, but that’s not the case.”

Like Heard, Dalton said Black Hebrew Israelites have different denominations similar to other world religions. He also echoed Heard’s assertion that those who teach hate rhetoric and call the white man the devil are not representative of all Black Hebrews.  

“Nowadays, it seems like a lot of times we don’t ask questions,” Dalton said. “We don’t use our brains and think for ourselves and use critical thinking and logic and say, ‘I understand we went through slavery and it was hard and they did a huge number on us, but that doesn’t mean that we have to go out and wake up people and at the same time preach all this hate towards other nations.’ There’s a different way that you can teach history and not all the (Black Hebrew) Israelites worldwide are like that.”

Dalton added that he understands some of the anger of Black Hebrew Israelites who do have philosophies such as believing the white man is the devil. Though he doesn’t agree with their assessment, he understands how it feels as a Black person to find out you have been lied to about who you really are for centuries.

“When you start uncovering who we really are and all the lies that have been told to us … everybody has a different set of emotions when they find out the truth, and sometimes that’s anger,” Dalton told The Moguldom Nation.

Leaders of the Black Hebrew Israelite Movement

The variety of beliefs today among Black Hebrew Israelites make it difficult to come to a consensus on modern-day leaders, but there’s synergy around who are seen as the movement’s early leaders, Dalton said.

In addition to Cherry and Crowder, Dalton credits Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthews and Rabbi Ben Ammi Ben-Israel with being impactful forefathers of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Rabbi Abihu Reuben is also listed by some as an impactful leader of the movement.

Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford

Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford was born April 23, 1877 in Bridgetown, Barbados. He became a musician in the Royal Navy, then moved to the U.S. He is considered by some to be the first Black rabbi in America. A linguist and poet, Ford said his ancestry traced back to the priestly families of the ancient Israelites, according to his family’s oral history. His family continued to practice Jewish customs and traditions in Barbados and Ford carried his faith with him to America.

Upon moving to the states, Ford became involved in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), where he was responsible for music, religion, history and co-authoring both the rules handbook and “Ethiopia,” a song that celebrated African pride and traditions before slavery.

Ford started the Beth B’nai Abraham congregation in Harlem in 1924, which he ran until the Great Depression caused his corporation to go bankrupt.

In 1930, Ford traveled to Ethiopia with a small group of fellow Black Jews to perform for the coronation of Haile Selassie. They hoped to settle there and unite Black Jews across the diaspora. Ford died there in 1935.

Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthews

Born June 23, 1892, in St. Kitts, British West Indies, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthews immigrated to New York in 1913. He founded the Commandment Keepers Black Hebrew Congregation in 1919. Matthews taught that Black people were the original Jews and white Jews were products of interracial marriages or descendants of Esau. He was an associate of Rabbi Ford.

Ford bestowed upon Matthews “full authority to represent us (Black Jews) in America” from Ethiopia and furnished Matthews with a certificate of rabbinic ordination.

Matthews created a Masonic lodge called The Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews the Sons and Daughters of Culture and also founded the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, where he taught and ordained rabbis in the Black Hebrew movement.

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Rabbi Matthews and other Black Jews ran into issues being accepted by white Jews because they failed to fully assimilate to their views, according to blackjews.org. Matthews applied twice to the New York Board of Rabbis, which rejected him both times citing his failure to show he was of Jewish descent or recognized conversion. Concluding that Black Jews would never be fully accepted, Matthews focused on purchasing land and building the Black Hebrew movement.

Though he died in 1973, much of Matthews’ teachings are still widely taught among Black Hebrew Israelite congregations.

Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben

Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben was born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1902. He moved to Chicago in 1919 and founded one of the city’s first Black Hebrew congregations — the Congregation of Ethiopian Hebrews.

Reuben converted to Judaism in 1925 after becoming disenfranchised with Christianity due to racism, according to the Chicago Tribune.

He moved to New York in 1947 to study at Rabbi Matthews’ Israelite Rabbinical Academy and earned his degree of divinity in 1951.

The Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation credits Rueben with being one of its longstanding leaders.

Reuben died Feb. 4, 1991 of complications from heart disease. He was 89.

Rabbi Ben Ammi Ben-Israel

Rabbi Ben Ammi Ben-Israel was born Ben Carter on Oct. 12, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. After serving in the U.S. Army and working as a metallurgist, Ben-Israel was introduced to Black Hebrew Israelite theology in 1961. He became involved with the movement and changed his name.

Ben-Israel founded the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem after he had a vision in 1966 and the angel Gabriel instructed him to take a group of Black Americans to Israel. The first group arrived in 1969. At the time of Ben-Israel’s death in 2014 at age 75, there were more than 3,000 members of the community, the New York Times reported. More than half had been born in Israel.

True to core Black Hebrew Israelite tradition, Ben-Israel’s community members believe they are descendants of the original tribes of Israel. Ben-Israel wrote extensively on the Black Hebrew Israelite faith and the community he led persists today. Members have been granted a path to citizenship by Israel in exchange for stopping the influx of new members.

While Ben-Israel was controversial to many and accused of being a swindler and dictator by some, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in Ghana. He was also named “One of the Most Influential Africans of the Last Millennium” by “Focus on Africa” magazine in 2000.

Ben-Israel gained Israeli citizenship in 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported. When he died in 2014, his funeral was in Dimona, an Israeli city in the Negev desert and the center of Ben-Israel’s community. The Orthodox chief rabbi of Dimona was among those who eulogized him.

Members from all walks of life

Black Hebrew Israelites come from different walks of life and upbringings, according to Dalton.

“There’s a lot of Black people that have come out of the Christian church – not necessarily coming out, meaning that they don’t follow the Bible – they just know the truth and they can connect the truth, meaning the history, of the Old Testament with the New Testament,” Dalton said. “So they’re calling themselves Messianic Israelites. They believe in the same principles as Christians do … it’s just that now they know that they are the real Israelites of the Bible and according to Christ we still have to obey and keep His commandments and also bear the testimony of the gospel of Christ … and these people usually don’t have that hateful rhetoric when they’re speaking and you’re not going to see them on the corner. You’re going to see them in churches and assemblies and congregations in buildings.”

White-washed history

Like many things of old, Dalton and other historians have accused Europeans of white-washing history. Dalton said that since he began releasing his books and videos, he’s been contacted by many Africans who’ve told him about “things hidden by colonial masters.”

Dalton has criticized Hollywood’s continual releasing of slavery movies as if that’s where Black history begins. He cited examples such as Nick Cannon’s recent firing by Viacom for saying the true Hebrews were Black — evidence, he said, that mainstream media doesn’t want the truth to be told.

“A lot of the history that we get today is coming from a Western influence, from a Europeanized influence,” Dalton said. “A lot of the history we read in the Bible is a different history that’s hidden … The history is the most important thing that they don’t want us to know because the history ties into our true identity. And as Bible believers, if we understand our true identity as Israelites, if we really understand the scriptures – past, present and future, the prophecies – then we can do all things according to who we really are.”

Dalton reiterated his claim that being an Israelite doesn’t mean he’s in a confrontational cult that hates white people. He said he even had to further explain what it means to be a Black Hebrew to his mother.

“I told my Mom being an Israelite doesn’t mean I’m in a cult, it doesn’t mean I’m in another religion, it just means that this is who I identify as. It’s my heritage,” Dalton said. “Just like Jews say that they’re Jewish, Arabs say that they come from Ishmael, Greeks say they’re Grecians, Italians identify with Romans … so all you guys that are Christians, you’re also Israelites. Your ancestors go back to Jacob so you can’t ignore your birthright. That’s who you are.”

Dalton said he’s faced immense opposition in trying to get his message out. This includes being blocked from YouTube and Facebook; being blackballed from running ads with major media despite having money to pay; and being rejected by streaming platforms Netflix, VUDU and Amazon – who initially reached out because his viewing numbers are so great, then retreated after they saw the content.

“There’s been a concerted effort to prevent this from spreading across the world. … I’m trying to tell you it’s unreal even to the fact that the government will get involved,” Dalton told The Moguldom Nation. “History is very important to people that are in power right now – those in control of our money, of our government, of our education, of our religion – they have to put out a narrative that keeps Africa and the children of the diaspora in a state of disorganization, disunity, destabilization, lack of identity and everything to keep us from coming together.”

Dalton said he will persist, however, because the message is too important to let the powers that be erase it.

“Any time Black people have a different narrative on their history and they’re saying that they are the real Israelites of the Bible, then it’s labeled as antisemitism,” Dalton said. “But if Black people say we’re the Egyptians or we’re the Kushites or we’re anybody else other than God’s chosen people then it’s not a problem.”

“There is an effort to prevent the rise of a movement that can revolutionize the minds of Black people worldwide to get them to start to come together and unite and they don’t want that,” Dalton continued. “And it begins with an awakening of self, an awakening of identity. Once we understand who we are as a people then we can begin to mobilize and have some true unity.”