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Early African American Aviators

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John C. Robinson

John C. Robinson (far right) stands with other members of the National Airmen's Association of America, circa 1939.


John Charles Robinson was born in Florida in 1903. His father died in an accident shortly after he was born. His mother Celeste then moved with him and his sister to Gulfport, Mississippi. In 1910 at the age of seven, Robinson saw his first aircraft, a float plane that taxied to a beach where the pilot intended to pick up his girlfriend. The curious crowd then watched the silver plane glide out into the Gulf of Mexico, take off, and soar above them. From that moment, Robinson knew he wanted to one day learn how to fly an airplane. When he ran home with excitement to tell his mother about what he had just seen and of his dream to one day learn how to fly, she said bluntly, "A black man has no business fooling around with airplanes."

Robinson later attended Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (later Tuskegee Institute), where he learned to be an automobile mechanic. This focus on mechanics and industry was the mission of Tuskegee, as its goal was to provide training for black students that would lead to jobs in a segregated America. As it would turn out, Robinson's focus on automobile mechanics would serve him well in his future career as a pilot, just as it had served James Herman Banning and other black pilots. Once Robinson finished college, he headed to Detroit, Michigan, thinking that there would be more opportunities there for an auto mechanic than in the segregated South.

In Detroit, he earned a reputation for being an exceptionally good auto mechanic. Despite this success, Robinson still dreamed of learning to fly. As he soon learned, however, most air shows and flight schools would not even let a black man pay to go up for an airplane ride, let alone teach him to fly. Then, one day in the countryside outside of Detroit, he encountered a former barnstormer down on his luck, his biplane disabled with engine trouble. Although Robinson had not worked on an aircraft engine before, he offered to work on the barnstormer's airplane engine in exchange for a ride. To his surprise, Robinson succeeded in fixing engine. The relieved barnstormer then took Robinson up for his first airplane ride over the Michigan countryside, per their agreement. Another young man, also a pilot, was there at the time and, upon observing Robinson's competence in repairing the plane's engine, agreed to help him to learn to fly. Robinson soon decided to move to Chicago as he became aware of a small but growing black aviation community in that city.

Once in Chicago, Robinson came into contact with like-minded individuals such as Cornelius Coffey, who had developed a love of manned flight during this Golden Age of Aviation. He was able to secure a full-time job in an automobile garage soon after finding his way to Chicago. Even with this job, Robinson soon signed on as a night-time janitor in a Curtiss-Wright classroom once he realized the school would not accept him due to his race. He thus became a full-time auto mechanic during the day and a janitor after dark. As a janitor at Curtiss-Wright, he absorbed the instructor's lectures. The instructor soon came to realize how determined Robinson was and persuaded the school to let him enroll.

After working together at Emil Mack's auto repair shop, both Robinson and Coffey enrolled in the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics. The two had become fast friends, and their relationship would lead to collaboration over the years on many aviation-related projects, all with the goal of bringing more African Americans into this burgeoning industry. It was Robinson and Coffey who, in May 1934, first planted the seed for the establishment of an aviation school at Robinson's alma mater, Tuskegee Institute.

Across black America during this Golden Age of Aviation, Robinson was widely acclaimed as the long-awaited "black Lindbergh." Robinson's fame, which for a time rivaled that of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, came primarily from his wartime role as the commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.

It was Robinson's aviation activities in Chicago that attracted the attention of Haile Selassie and Howard University-educated physician and Ethiopian activist Melaku E. Bayen. They recruited Robinson to join them in Ethiopia to fight against the Italian invasion. Robinson became the only African American who served for the entirety of the war, during which time he became known as the "Brown Condor of Ethiopia."

Ultimately, Mussolini's Italian forces conquered Ethiopia. Selassie managed to escape to England, and Robinson made his way back to Chicago in 1936, where he was photographed alighting from an airplane flanked by Janet Harmon and Willa Brown.

Back home in Chicago, the flight school that Robinson had established in 1931 with Coffey was flourishing, and buoyed by the return of the Brown Condor. In addition, the Tuskegee Institute finally heeded his earlier suggestion and introduced an aviation program. Robinson's school in Chicago and the Tuskegee Institute went on to produce hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen who later gained fame during World War II.

Once the war ended, Selassie returned to rule in Ethiopia. He invited Robinson back to Ethiopia, first to rebuild the nation's air force, then to create Ethiopian Airlines. On 27 March 1954, Colonel Robinson died of injuries he suffered in a plane crash that had occurred two weeks earlier at the Addis Ababa Airport. Robinson was buried the next day at Gulele cemetery in a large and massive ceremony attended by a huge crowd that included Emperor Haile Selassie, the Duke of Harrar, Prince Mekonnen Haile Selassie, military commanders, cabinet ministers, and other government officials. From Mississippi to Chicago to Ethiopia, the Brown Condor had a major impact on aviation's growth and development, not only in the African American community, but on the African continent as well.

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