John Robinson (aviator)

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John C. Robinson
John C Robinson.jpg
Robinson in Ethiopian Air Force Uniform
Nickname(s)The Brown Condor
Born(1903-11-26)November 26, 1903
Carrabelle, Florida, U.S.
DiedMarch 27, 1954(1954-03-27) (aged 50)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Gulele Cemetery
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branchImperial Ethiopian Air Force
Years of service1935–1944
UnitBrown Condor Squadron
Battles/warsSecond Italo-Ethiopian War
World War II
(East African Campaign)
Other workEthiopian Air Lines

John Charles Robinson (November 26, 1903[1] – March 27, 1954[2]) was an American aviator and activist who was hailed as the "Brown Condor" for his service in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force against Fascist Italy. Robinson pushed for equal opportunities for African-Americans during his early career, and was able to open his own eponymous aviation school in addition to initiating a program for black pilots at his college, the Tuskegee Institute. Robinson's achievements as an aviator were in stark contrast to the limited opportunities for most African-Americans in aviation careers, and were an important factor in reducing racially based prohibitions in the United States. Robinson is sometimes referred to as the "Father of the Tuskegee Airmen" for inspiring this all-black group of pilots who served in the United States Army Air Forces following the United States' entry into World War II.

Early life[edit]

Robinson was born in 1903, in Carrabelle, Florida, and spent his early years in Gulfport, Mississippi. His birth father died when he was a baby, leaving him and his four-year-old sister, Bertha, with their mother Celeste Robinson, who then married Charles Cobb.[1] Robinson was inspired by flight at an early age. According to one account, in 1910, Robinson was seven years old when he witnessed a float-equipped biplane flown by John Moisant in Gulfport, Mississippi.[3]


Robinson completed his education at Gulfport High School for the Colored in 1919, where he developed a strong interest in mechanics and machinery.[4] However, Robinson could not continue his education in Gulfport; African-Americans were barred from continuing their education beyond the tenth grade.[5] Robinson subsequently made preparations to attend the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.[5] He first attended college at the Tuskegee Institute in September 1921 to study automotive mechanical science, graduating three years later. In addition to studying automobiles, he learned math, literature, composition and history.[6] He repeatedly applied to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation in Chicago, but was denied each time. He ended up getting a job there as a janitor and unofficially sat in on classes until an instructor managed to secure a place for him,[7] and was the first black student at the school.[8]

Early employment[edit]

Prior to entering college, Robinson held a short-term job as shoeshine man before getting a job as warehouse personnel.[9] After finishing his college degree, Robinson was unable to find a suitable career in his hometown of Gulfport. Robinson attributed this to racial discrimination as many of the local garages were under white ownership; speaking to his father, he said, "[The garage owners will] give me a job sweeping, filling gas tanks, changing tires, or washing, but I'm an engine man ... When I talk to [them] about automotive science they smile, look at each other, and then look at me like I belong behind a mule and a plow."[10]

Robinson consequently moved to the Detroit area, where jobs in the automotive industry might be more plentiful.[11] There, he had difficulty finding a line of work that his college degree would have ensured him, mainly due to his extensive knowledge on the trade being unwelcome by those who could not keep up with his intellect. Robinson continued to refuse jobs sweeping or as a messenger boy, and managed to become a mechanic's assistant instead. Despite continued discrimination and failure to acknowledge his experience from some of his white coworkers, Robinson's skill was noticed and he was promoted to a full mechanic and was given a pay raise. Sometime later, he was approached by taxi cab owner named Fitzgerald who offered to double his pay to work for his garage. Robinson took the job, but was never comfortable working for a business that secretly bootlegged whiskey to Canada during the Prohibition Age.[12]


Early flights[edit]

Despite his successes as a mechanic, Robinson began searching for means to take to the air. He was eventually directed to a small field, where he met pilots Robert Williamson and Percy, and earned his first flight in Robert's Waco 9 after fixing the engine on Percy's Curtiss JN-4D (Jenny).[13] Robinson was determined as ever to get back into the air, and sought his next best chance to do so in Chicago. After opening a garage for income, he repeatedly applied for the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. Robinson was rejected every time, but circumnavigated this roadblock altogether by becoming a janitor on Saturday nights, thereby being able to listen in on the lessons being taught in the evening class at the time. Becoming exposed to like-minded individuals in the subject, Robinson started the Aero Study Group, one that successfully manage to build its own airplane, tested out by the same night teacher whose class Robinson cleaned, Bill Henderson. Impressed by the plane, Henderson got Robinson a slot at the school, and, under the instructions of Mr. Snyder, Robinson became a licensed pilot. Before long, Robinson convinced the school to allow his peers from the Aero Study Group to enroll and become pilots as well.[14] Later, Robinson, along with his friend Cornelius Coffey formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association for African Americans wanting to fly.[15]

Expanding black aviation[edit]

Deciding that aviation school should not be closed to African-Americans, Robinson and his friend Cornelius Coffey opened their own airfield in Robbins, Illinois, the John Robinson School of Aviation.[16] To further promote black pilots, Robinson convinced his old college, the Tuskegee Institute, to open up a school of aviation, as soon as funds were available to do so.[17]


In January 1935, Robinson announced his intentions to volunteer to defend Ethiopia in its ongoing conflict with Italy,.[18] The announcement took place at a meeting of black business owners and community leaders sponsored by the Associated Negro Press (ANP) in Chicago.[19] Dr. Melaku Bayen, a cousin of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, became aware of Robinson's announcement and qualifications, and met with Robinson directly. Bayen subsequently made a favorable recommendation for Robinson to Selassie. In April 1935, Selassie wired an official invitation to Robinson offering an officer's commission in Ethiopian.[20]

Robinson's decision to accept the commission was based on several factors. First, Robinson and his colleagues were political and military activists motivated to aid Ethiopia as it was threatened by an imperialistic Italy under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini; and as Ethiopia was non-colonized, it represented the larger idea of a free and independent Africa that Robinson supported.[18][21] Second, opportunities for black aviators in the United States were limited, particularly in the U.S. Army Air Corps, where all African-Americans were explicitly prohibited from service. Lynchings by white mobs also continued to be common both in Robinson's hometown in Florida as well as in Mississippi.[22] Finally, having already earned recognition for his all-black military aviation unit in Illinois as a part of the National Guard, Robinson was interested in building and maintaining a similar unit in Ethiopia to promote black political consciousness.[21]

After arriving in 1935, Robinson initially conducted pilot training at a recently opened officer training school close to Addis Ababa.[23] On 8 August 1935, Robinson was assaulted by fellow aviator Hubert Julian at the Hotel de France in Addis Ababa.[24] Julian, a recognized aviator from Trinidad who volunteered to help develop the Ethiopian Air Corps, was then ordered by the Emperor to leave the country.[25] Soon after the incident, Robinson was then named the commander of the Ethiopian Air Force.[25] The air force consisted of about two dozen aircraft, which included four Potez 25 biplanes, but all of the aircraft were weaponless.[26] Early in his command, Robinson participated in a reconnaissance mission to provide supplies and soldiers from Addis Ababa to Adwa.[25] The Italian invasion began on October 3, 1935. The eventual force totaled to 19 aircraft and 50 pilots. Ethiopian forces, however, were ultimately outmatched by the Italian airforce, who had advantages in experience and in sheer numbers. On May 9, 1936, Italy annexed Ethiopia.[18]

Robinson was also a witness to an Italian bombing of the city of Adwa in October 1935. He observed that the city was unprepared for the attack, and resulted in much confusion and residents fleeing to the city outskirts. "I saw a squad of soldiers standing in the street dumbfounded, looking at the airplanes. They had their swords raised in their hands," he described.[27]

For his service, Robinson received considerable press attention for his service through NBC Radio,[28] the Transradio Press Service,[29] and the Chicago Defender.[30] Robinson returned to the United States in 1936. Contemporary historians also recognize his achievements in Ethiopia.[31] Robinson's documented achievements in Ethiopia are considered to be the catalyst that inspired demands for social equality to allow African-Americans to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and allowed for the organization of the African-American military pilot group, the Tuskegee Airmen, during World War II.[32] Robinson is therefore sometimes referred to as the "Father of the Tuskegee Airmen".[33]

Later life and death[edit]

In 1944, after Ethiopia's liberation by the Allies, Robinson returned to the country to establish a pilot training school.[34] He also played a role in the foundation of Ethiopian Airlines.[35] He died in Addis Ababa on March 27, 1954, from injuries he suffered in a plane crash.[2]


Robinson's Aero Club is the subject of the novel, The Challengers Aero Club by Severo Perez.[36]

On February 19, 2015, a reading garden at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia was dedicated to commemorate Robinson's contributions to Ethiopian aviation during and after war with Italy.[37]

A segment featuring John Robinson's story aired during an episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on February 7, 2018.[38]


  1. ^ a b Tucker, Phillip Thomas (2012). Father of the Tuskegee airmen, John C. Robinson (1st ed.). Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-59797-487-5.
  2. ^ a b Tucker 2012, p. 256.
  3. ^ Simmons, Thomas E. (2013). The man called Brown Condor : the forgotten history of an African American fighter pilot. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub. pp. 9–18. ISBN 978-1-62087-217-8.
  4. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 10.
  5. ^ a b Tucker 2012, p. 15.
  6. ^ Simmons 2013, pp. 20–24.
  7. ^ Tucker 2012, pp. 34–37.
  8. ^ Tucker 2012, pp. 38.
  9. ^ Simmons 2013, p. 20.
  10. ^ Simmons 2013, p. 29.
  11. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 23.
  12. ^ Simmons 2013, pp. 30–33.
  13. ^ Simmons 2013, pp. 34–51.
  14. ^ Simmons 2013, pp. 55–83.
  15. ^ "The early days of blacks in US aviation". Air Force Magazine. US Army Air Corps. 66: 69. 1983.
  16. ^ "Black Aviators | DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis". WTTW. Retrieved 2014-08-25.
  17. ^ Tucker 2012, pp. 211–213.
  18. ^ a b c Stentiford, Barry M. (2011). Tuskegee Airmen. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-313-38685-5.
  19. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 69.
  20. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 71.
  21. ^ a b Tucker 2012, p. 58.
  22. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 59.
  23. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 97.
  24. ^ "American Negro Aviator Heads Ethiopian Airforce". Lawrence Journal-World. Associated Press. 22 August 1935. Retrieved 18 April 2015.
  25. ^ a b c Caver, Joseph; Ennels, Jerome; Haulman, Daniel (2011). The Tuskegee Airmen, an Illustrated History: 1939–1949. Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-58838-244-3.
  26. ^ Simmons 2013, p. 128.
  27. ^ "Aviator Tells How Air Raiders Bombed Aduwa". Pittsburgh Press. United Press. 6 October 1935. Retrieved 31 July 2014.
  28. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 194.
  29. ^ Simmons 2013, chpt. 3.
  30. ^ Tucker 2012, p. xi.
  31. ^ McClellan, Charles W.; Harris, Joseph E. (1996). "African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia, 1936–1941". African American Review. 30 (3): 468. doi:10.2307/3042540. JSTOR 3042540.
  32. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 229.
  33. ^ Stentiford 2011, p. 213.
  34. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 248-249.
  35. ^ Tucker 2012, p. 249-250.
  36. ^ Perez, Severo, The Challengers Aero Club,Los Angeles: Script & Post Script, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9790881-0-0 OCLC 856530426
  37. ^ Haslach, Patricia (19 February 2015). "Remarks by Patricia M. Haslach U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia at the Dedication of a Reading Garden in Honor of John Robinson". Embassy of the United States: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 18 April 2015.
  38. ^ Bee, Samantha; Black, Ashley Nicole (February 7, 2018). Black History Spotlight: John Robinson. TBS. Retrieved February 9, 2018 – via YouTube.

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