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Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, John C. Robinson

Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, John C. Robinson by Philip Thomas Tucker. Potomac Books, 2012, 352 pp.

 

During the 1930s and 1940s, many Americans—especially African-Americans—knew about John C. Robinson, perhaps the foremost black aviator of that period. One of a handful of African-American pilots of the interwar years, he became known as the “Black Lindbergh” for his establishment of the first flight school for African-Americans and the first US airport managed by blacks, among many other achievements. As commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, April 1935–May 1936, Robinson earned the sobriquet “Brown Condor of Ethiopia.” During World War II, he served as an aircraft maintenance instructor for the US Army Air Forces in the United States and for the Ethiopian Air Force in Ethiopia after its liberation from Italy.


Unfortunately, Robinson died in 1954 at the young age of 50 from injuries sustained in a plane crash in Ethiopia where he remains buried in a relatively obscure cemetery near the capital of Addis Ababa. However, soon after the war ended, he was forgotten not only by Americans at large but also by African-Americans. Ironically, more Americans today know about Eugene Bullard, the first black combat pilot, who flew for the French Air Service during World War I—but for only two months and probably without scoring any enemy kills—than about Robinson although the latter’s aviation record far outweighs Bullard’s in many respects.


Despite my 27 years in the Air Force and formal studies in American and military history in general (and Air Force history in particular), I did not know that Robinson existed, much less anything about his civilian and military achievements, until I read this biography. In this generally outstanding work, Dr. Tucker—a graduate of St. Louis University; the author or editor of more than 20 books on various aspects of African-American, Civil War, Irish, and women’s history; and a historian for the US Air Force—has done wonderfully in resurrecting Robinson from obscurity for a new generation of African-Americans.


In this highly readable and well-researched biography, the author uses Robinson’s original letters, newspaper accounts of his achievements, existing biographies of his subject, and other sources to bring Robinson’s story to life. Born in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1903, Robinson, over time, literally brought himself up by his “bootstraps” and escaped the despondent life of his peers in a deeply segregated South to become possibly America’s most prominent black aviator before the start of World War II. Tucker describes in detail Robinson’s persuasive communication abilities, which he used to pursue and obtain his personal and professional goals, despite existing racial barriers. These objectives included training and work as an auto mechanic, the establishment of a prosperous garage, entry into the prestigious and, at the time, all-white Curtiss Aeronautical School in Chicago, the purchase of his first airplane, and the establishment of his own flight school and airport. During his one year in Ethiopia, he displayed extraordinary flying skills in many aerial skirmishes with far more numerous, better armed, and technologically advanced Italian aircraft.


The only real issue I have with the book is its title, which I believe is a bit misleading since Robinson had very little to do with the actual establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first African-American combat aviation unit, and with subsequent African-American aviation combat units (the 100th, 301st, and 302nd Pursuit Squadrons, as well as the 332nd Pursuit Group), manned by the Tuskegee Airmen. Of course, as a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, he did pursue the founding of a black flight-training program with his alma mater’s administration between 1934 and 1940, thus providing the initial idea for a flight program at that institution. However, disagreements between him and the school’s president, Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson, delayed the emergence of a flight school there until late 1939 when it became reality as part of the federal government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program. Unfortunately, at the time, Robinson had another commitment; consequently, Charles Alfred Anderson Sr., another well-known black aviator, became the chief civilian flight instructor at the Tuskegee school and, later, at the US Army flight schools at Tuskegee.


Additionally, Robinson most certainly inspired thousands of African-Americans in the interwar period to become pilots. Once the Army opened its flight schools at Tuskegee, many of these men wanted to become Army pilots, and, by the end of World War II, nearly 1,000 of them had done just that. At least some of these individuals were probably inspired by Robinson’s accomplishments and exploits to become combat fliers. However, Tucker makes no or very little reference to the direct impact or influence of his subject on those African-Americans who volunteered for the Army’s flight training and eventually became Tuskegee Airmen. If he had established this connection, then perhaps readers would have better understood his reasons for selecting the book’s title.


Finally, despite Robinson’s tremendous aviation accomplishments in the 1920s and 1930s, his exploits in Ethiopia during the Italo-Ethiopian War, and his service in World War II and later in Ethiopia, the author doesn’t really address why this man dropped into obscurity by the early 1950s. Tucker does mention the prevailing racial discrimination in the South and the possible overshadowing of Robinson’s achievements by the wartime exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen and their subsequent accolades. However, that appears to be the extent of his commentary on Robinson’s “disappearance” from the minds of African-Americans. The author’s assessment of this phenomenon would have been enlightening, especially since the book does resurrect Robinson as a major African-American aviator of the interwar period, stimulate the growing interest of blacks in aviation, and emphasize his indirect influence on African-American military aviation as embodied by the Tuskegee Airmen.

 

Robert B. Kane, PhD

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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