Edna Tafari Makonnen and Jamal Akil Robinson initially struggled to find equal social footing when they got together for coffee in February 2015. That she is royalty was not the problem.
An Ethiopian princess, Ms. Makonnen is a great-granddaughter of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, whose lineage is said to trace back to the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. But when she met Mr. Robinson at Bon Bon’s Coffee in Fort Wayne, Ind., Ms. Makonnen wasn’t feeling very regal.
The two, who had connected earlier that month after he saw a photo of her on Instagram and sent her a message on the app, are both graduates of Northrop High School in Fort Wayne. A senior when Ms. Makonnen was a freshman, Mr. Robinson, now 34, had been a star soccer player. “Jamal was this popular, outgoing guy who caught everyone’s eye,” she said. Though his teenage swagger was long gone when they sat down for coffee, Ms. Makonnen, now 31, was still mindful of her 14-year-old self.
“I was the studious type,” she said. “He didn’t even remember me.”
That might have been because her eagerness to share the details of her ancestry had cooled by the time she and Mr. Robinson were walking the same high school halls. As a child, however, Ms. Makonnen embraced her royal history as soon as she was old enough to grasp it. “My parents instilled in me who I am, and I was just so respectful of it,” she said.
Ms. Makonnen learned to speak Amharic, the predominant language in Ethiopia, before she spoke English. In grade school, she let others know she could wear a tiara with authority. “My parents would come to pick me up, and my teachers would say, ‘Edna said she’s a princess.’” Ms. Makonnen said. “And they would say, ‘She is!’”
When she started talking to Mr. Robinson in 2015, Ms. Makonnen had established a policy of keeping her heritage mostly under wraps. “I was humble,” she said. After graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in public health in 2014, she returned to Fort Wayne to live with her parents, Prince Tafari Makonnen and Aster Abitow; her maternal grandmother, Aregash Mengesha; and her two younger brothers.
Prince Tafari and Mrs. Abitow, whose father served as special adviser to a prime minister of Ethiopia under Selassie, came to Indiana in the late 1980s. They met in 1987 in Zimbabwe, where each had relocated after Selassie was overthrown as emperor and imprisoned in 1974. “Out of all the places in the U.S., they came to Fort Wayne,” Ms. Makonnen said, because her father’s great-uncle had settled there in the early 1980s.
Sticking to her policy of discretion, Ms. Makonnen didn’t mention her family tree to Mr. Robinson while they chatted at the coffee shop. But even if she had, he might not have stuck around for too long. When she agreed to meet him, he presented her with a selection of 30-minute calendar slots.
“Jamal was very businesslike in the way he reached out,” Ms. Makonnen said. “He was like, ‘I have times available on these days, at these times.’” She picked a half-hour that found him in the run-up to a board meeting with Believe in a Dream, an organization that he founded in Fort Wayne in 2010 to help high school students pursue interests in entrepreneurship and the arts.
Mr. Robinson, who also grew up in Fort Wayne, had devoted much of his life after high school to his career. He attended the University of Central Florida on a soccer scholarship for two years, before being cut from the team and dropping out in 2008. “It was tough,” Mr. Robinson said of that time, because soccer “was something I had spent my whole life working on.”
Upon returning to Fort Wayne, which is also home to his father and mother, Earl Robinson and Dr. Audrey Frison-Robinson, and two of his four older siblings, he started a one-man business selling sunglasses while living with his parents. The goal was to sell the line, called DESIAR Eyewear, to celebrities. “I would bedazzle them with rhinestones and then try to get backstage at concerts,” Mr. Robinson said.
When Mr. Robinson’s coffee meeting with Ms. Makonnen exceeded his time limit and ran to 60 minutes, he saw it as an auspicious sign. “We had a beautiful conversation,” he said. “I was attracted to her right away and really wanted to get to know her.”
He reinforced his interest with eye contact so intense that she was compelled to comment. “I was like, ‘I notice you’re looking directly at my eyes,’” Ms. Makonnen recalled saying to Mr. Robinson. He told her that was intentional. “I said, ‘I want you to have my full attention.’”
His ensuing courtship of Ms. Makonnen started slowly. The day after they met for coffee, he left for a two-week leadership program in California. He promised to call Ms. Makonnen on FaceTime as soon as he returned. When he made good on that promise, the wheels of romance were set in motion. “Jamal was very consistent with me,” Ms. Makonnen said. “I loved that.”
Though the feelings were there on both sides, so was a desire to avoid rushing intimacy. A first kiss didn’t happen until May 2015. Mr. Robinson said he wanted their developing relationship “to be different from other dating situations,” adding, “I didn’t want it to be about infatuation.”
He became somewhat obsessed with Ms. Makonnen’s ancestry, though, after she told him about it in the summer of 2015. “One of my best friends is from Ghana,” Mr. Robinson said. “When I told him I was seeing Edna, he said, ‘Bro, do you know the lineage of that family?’ He broke it down for me as an individual from the continent.”
Then “I went straight down the rabbit hole,” Mr. Robinson added.
That summer brought another milestone for the two: In August 2015, they became an official couple. “Jamal said to me, ‘My intentions are to date you, then to be engaged to you and then to marry you,’” Ms. Makonnen said.
Despite his devotion, her family was at first reluctant to accept him as a suitor. When Ms. Makonnen introduced him to her grandmother that fall, she was beyond dismissive. “She hazed him for quite some time,” Ms. Makonnen said. “She wouldn’t even say his name correctly.”
Ms. Mengesha, who helped raise Ms. Makonnen, spoke little English. Like the rest of the family, she had hoped Ms. Makonnen would marry an Ethiopian. But their hesitation to roll out the royal red carpet for Mr. Robinson didn’t last; after about 18 months, “Jamal became almost like an Ethiopian,” Ms. Makonnen said.
“He loved the food, he could speak the language,” she added. “My grandmother said to me, ‘That’s going to be your husband.’”
Before they could prove she was right, Ms. Mengesha died, on July 3, 2020, of thyroid cancer.
By then Ms. Makonnen and Mr. Robinson were living together in Arlington, Va. She moved there in 2016 to begin an internship with the White House, after giving up a career in banking that she had started in Fort Wayne because it had been unfulfilling. Mr. Robinson, who around that time had partnered with Jaylon Smith, an N.F.L. linebacker and free agent, to start the sunglasses line CEV Collection, made the decision to join her in Arlington that fall.
In 2017, Ms. Makonnen was hired by the National Security Council in Washington, where she is now the deputy director for human capital. Mr. Robinson, who that year completed a bachelor’s degree in business at Western Governors University, is the chief executive at CEV Collection.
He proposed to Ms. Makonnen on July 12, 2019, during a family visit to Fort Wayne. Ms. Mengesha, who was losing her fight with cancer, was by his side. When he dropped to one knee in front of Prince Tafari and Mrs. Abitow and presented Ms. Makonnen with a ring after a traditional Ethiopian lunch, Ms. Mengesha’s hand was on his shoulder. The room was in tears.
“It was the most beautiful moment of my life,” Ms. Makonnen said. “My family means so much to me.”
On April 30, after a yearlong customary Ethiopian mourning period following the death of Ms. Mengesha and then two postponements caused by the pandemic, Ms. Makonnen and Mr. Robinson were married before 216 guests at SS. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Potomac, Md. The Rev. Andrew Jarmus, a pastor at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Fort Wayne, flew in to officiate at the Orthodox Christian ceremony, which he led in both Amharic and English.
Ms. Makonnen, in a white off-the-shoulder wedding gown with a cathedral-style veil, walked down the aisle on the arm of Prince Tafari to a string quartet; Mr. Robinson, in a black tuxedo, awaited her. At the altar, Father Jarmus placed gold crowns on both the bride and groom, who were later draped in cape-like Ethiopian wedding garments called kabas as part of the ceremony.
After Ms. Makonnen and Mr. Robinson promised to love and cherish each other for life, and after Father Jarmus pronounced them husband and wife, the newlyweds marked the beginning of their union with a gesture that transcends cultures and royal titles: a kiss.
On This Day
When April 30, 2022
Where SS. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Potomac, Md.
Succession Prince Tafari shed happy tears as he walked his daughter down the aisle. “Today, I’m giving you my daughter in God’s church,” he told Mr. Robinson at the altar. “I’m expecting you to give my daughter back to us this way in heaven.”Before the ceremony, he said of Mr. Robinson, “he is a very fine gentleman, very family oriented. He will be a loving husband.”
Almost a Palace A post-ceremony cocktail hour and reception were held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. “We chose it because it’s known as the second-best address in D.C.,” Mr. Robinson said. “The first best address is where Edna works, at the White House.” For dinner, guests chose an Ethiopian buffet-style meal or a plated dish of chicken or steak.