This is an unlikely story, given the circumstances, but it is a fascinating one told well by author Thomas Simmons. He researched his subject for nearly three decades, interviewing people who knew the protagonist, and now he has put it all together in a narrative that reads like a novel.
John Charles Robinson was born in 1903 in Florida and grew up in a very segregated South. His father died in an accident shortly after he was born. His mother moved with him and his sister to Gulfport, Miss., where she met Charles Cobb and later married him. Mr. Cobb might as well have been John’s biological father for all the love and devotion he showed the bright boy, as did his mother, Celeste.
In 1910, when John was seven, he saw his first aircraft, a float plane that taxied to the beach where the pilot intended to take his girlfriend for ride. A crowd gathered and watched the silver plane glide out into the Gulf of Mexico, take off and soar above. John Robinson knew that he wanted one day to fly an airplane. When he ran home to tell his mother excitedly about his dream to become a pilot, she said, “A black man has no business fooling around with airplanes.”
Although segregation, prejudice and bigotry were part of everyday life for the young man, he set out to overcome the obstacles these things presented. He did this by learning to excel at school and later at work, to never let disappointments overcome his determination and to wear his successes with modesty. A loving family buttressed his good nature and self-confidence.
For college, he enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute and learned to become an automobile mechanic. He decided there would be better job opportunities in the North, so he moved to Detroit. He earned a reputation as an exceptionally good mechanic. Learning to fly was still his goal. Most places wouldn’t even let a black man pay to go up for a ride, let alone teach him to fly. One day in the countryside, he found a former barnstormer down on his luck who had engine trouble. Although Robinson had not worked on aircraft engines, he offered to work on this one in exchange for a ride. He succeeded. Another young man there at the time, recently graduated from college and a pilot himself, took a liking to John and helped him learn to fly.
Moving to Chicago, he wanted to enroll in the Curtiss-Wright Aviation School, but black students were not welcome. Although he had a full-time job in an auto garage, he signed on as a night-time janitor in a Curtiss-Wright classroom, absorbing the instructor’s ground-school lectures. The instructor realized how determined John was and persuaded the school to let him enroll.
John and a friend went on to found a small flying school, encouraging young black men to enroll. Circuitously, this fact came to the attention of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, who was working to modernize his country. He invited Robinson to come to Africa to head his air force. Much of the book is devoted to this personal adventure. As the threat of an invasion by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy grew, Robinson built a cadre of black pilots and ground crews. Unarmed, the small fleet of airplanes could perform one essential task in a country with primitive lines of communication: ferry messages back and forth between the front lines and the emperor’s general staff in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The author gives us a you-are-there feeling as Robinson and his pilots navigate the difficult terrain of Ethiopia, dive into clouds to elude Italian pursuit aircraft, and take off and land under hazardous conditions. Then-Col. Robinson also witnessed Italian aircraft spraying mustard gas on thousands of Ethiopian ground troops.
Word of Robinson’s exploits seeped back to America, first to black communities and newspapers, then to the general press. His dream of making it possible for many young black men to become flyers came true. Briefly, he was nationally famous.
Ultimately, the Italians conquered Ethiopia, but only temporarily. Selassie escaped to England, John Robinson to America. Back home, his aviation school thrived. Tuskegee, to which had he proposed an aircraft school in the 1930s, finally had one and turned out hundreds of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, who gained fame in World War II.
After the war, Selassie invited Robinson back to Ethiopia, first to rebuild his air force, then to create Ethiopian Airlines. As with everything else this remarkable man did in his short life (he died at age 51), he performed these jobs with determination and thoroughness. His lifelong triumph over adversity belongs to the greatest of American success stories.
Peter Hannaford’s latest book is “Presidential Retreats: Where They Went and Why They Went There” (Threshold Editions, 2012).
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