The Volunteer Who Had Encounters with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia — William Seraile (Ethiopia)


by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

(The following Profile is drawn largely from an article by William Seraile, Ethiopia 1963-65, published in Peace Corps WorldWide.)

William (Bill) Seraile was among about 140 Volunteers, mainly in their early twenties and graduates of Ivy League Colleges, some small schools, a few large public universities, and a small number of historic black colleges and universities, that arrived in Ethiopia as the second group of Volunteer teachers in the fall of 1963.  Most of them had to examine their atlases to find Ethiopia on the map. Only one had ever been to Africa having spent a summer in Kenya with Operation Crossroads Africa.

The trainees had two months of Peace Corps training at UCLA, studying Ethiopian culture, history and Amharic. Their language instructors were all young Ethiopian graduate students studying in American universities. Following that, Bill’s group departed for Ethiopia from New York via a refueling stop in Rome and an overnight stay in Athens. They landed in Addis Ababa on September 11, 1963, Ethiopia’s New Year’s Day.

Although there were seven or eight African Americans in Bill’s group, good luck led him to be the first Volunteer off the plane where he was met by the American Ambassador. They posed together for a photograph. Bill was excited to be in Africa, even though he had no idea of his ‘roots’. (Later DNA analysis revealed the Mandinka areas of West Africa, as well as two percent from East Africa, perhaps Ethiopia). All Bill experienced in these first moments in Addis was that he was HOME.

Haile Selassie greets some PCVs

Now, Bill’s several encounters with Emperor Haile Selassie were initiated. His first selassie greetingencounter with the Emperor occurred a few days after his arrival when he met him at the Imperial Palace. As he recalls, the Emperor was small in height, but majestic in his greetings to Volunteers. He presented each Volunteer with cuff-links in onyx embossed with a lion’s image. But Bill can’t recall what he gave to female Volunteers. Then, individually, each Volunteer met the Emperor, and Bill — wanting to use his newly found language of Amharic, commented to the Emperor when it became his turn: “in Ethiopia, there are many beautiful trees,”.  The Emperor responded: “There are”.

Bill was assigned to teach world geography and European history at a Secondary School

His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie

in Mekelle in the province of Tigray near Eritrea. In February 1965, Bill had his second encounter with the Emperor. He brought Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to Axum, the ancient capital. Along with several other Volunteers, Bill traveled the 65 miles from his site to see the royalty who had come to dedicate the church of Mary of Zion where Ethiopians believed the Arc of Covenant is protected by a single priest.

Religious orthodoxy prevented women from entering churches and monasteries, but a special ruling afforded the Queen (and female Volunteers) this honor. Lax security provided Bill and his companions the opportunity to walk beside British magazine photographers taking photos of His Majesty as well as the Emperor of Ethiopia. Bill spotted Prince Philip and said too loudly to another Volunteer “let’s talk to the Prince.” He turned and said: “talk with my wife, she is more interesting”.

Bill’s next encounter with the Emperor was some months later. Along with another Volunteer, they went on a three-day trek to Lalibela. On the final day, they ended up at a thirteenth-century rock-carved church a veritable ‘new Jerusalem’ in Ethiopia. And close to the church, there was a parked Land Rover with a lone passenger: Haile Selassie.

Although Bill thought this would have been his last encounter with the Emperor, he was pleased to have one more. After he left Peace Corps and was working for the International Voluntary Service in Vietnam,  he was in a taxi from the airport in Bangkok.  The highway to the city was lined with Ethiopian flags for Haile Selassie who had just ended a State visit.

Bill Seraile

For 36 years after Peace Corps, Bill taught African American History and Culture at Lehman College, City University of New York, where the intimate knowledge of his native continent must have enthralled his students, highly qualifying him for a Profile in Citizenship.

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