Annie Turnbo Malone, founder of the Black Hair Industry, had a personal pilot, John C. Robinson (known as the Brown Bomber and Father of the Tuskegee Airmen), who flew her around the country and he also started an aviation school at Poro College in Chicago. Mr. Robinson certainly has a story of his own that needs to be told.
The “Brown Condor” was born John Charles Robinson in 1903, Florida. His family relocated to Gulfport, Mississippi and at age seven he spotted his first aircraft, a float plane. He became understandably excited, but his mother countered with, “a Black man has no business fooling around with airplanes.”
Undeterred, similar to female aviator Bessie Coleman, John Charles Robinson would not let a family member’s sentiments prevent him from eventually pursuing his dream. Robinson focused his efforts on doing well academically in school. He worked hard to pay for college tuition at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He attended the HBCU to become an automobile mechanic, after realizing the increasing importance of cars in everyday life. Robinson wisely left Mississippi for Detroit, home of the major American Automakers.
Robinson ran into a “barnstormer” who had airplane engine troubles. Robinson transferred his automotive mechanical skills into repairing the barnstormer’s airplane engine. Another young man helped Robinson with his flying lessons. But Robinson needed to attend aviation school in order to obtain his pilot’s license. However, he was denied entrance to a Chicago’s Curtiss Wright Aviation School because of his race. He then ingeniously became the school’s janitor where he was able to eavesdrop on the classes he needed to obtain his pilot’s license! Robinson still maintained a full-time job as an auto mechanic. An instructor was impressed with him and persuaded the school to allow him to enroll.
Robinson built his own plane, started his own flying school for African Americans, and helped create a Black airport when airports refused to refuel his plane. He also pushed for an aviation program at his alma mater Tuskegee Institute to train other Black pilots who would later be known as “The Tuskegee Airmen. “The Red Tails” Squadron played an important role in escorting American fighter planes in World War II.
As if these feats were not enough, Robinson was personally invited by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to lead the Imperial Ethiopian Air Corps as a colonel and commander. Robinson fought fascism in 1935 when Italy’s Mussolini attacked this African nation. As commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Robinson and his group of pilots and ground crew were responsible for dispatching critical information from the front lines to the capital in Addis Ababa. They served in dangerous missions and “witnessed Italian aircraft spraying mustard gas on thousands of Ethiopian ground troops.” Italy briefly conquered Ethiopia. Robinson who was twice wounded and gassed, returned home a hero.
The Chicago Defender wrote, “There was never been such a demonstration as was accorded the thirty-one year old Chicago aviator who left the United States thirteen months ago and literally covered himself in glory trying to preserve the independence of the last African Empire. There are reports that he will be joining the faculty of Tuskegee Institute to teach aviation.”
After WWII, Robinson was invited back to helm Ethiopian Airlines. He died at age 51. There is a museum exhibit in his honor in Mississippi. “The Brown Condor’s” inspiring story was researched painstakingly for over twenty years by author Thomas E. Simmons.