A few years after the division of the African continent, the Italian Kingdom – which had obtained Eritrea and Italian Somalia as its African territories – wanted to add Ethiopia to its kingdom on March 1, 1896. But it failed after the defeat of the Italian army in the Battle of Adwa which is also described as the First Italo-Ethiopian War.
The battle fought near the northern town of Adwa in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region is the first victory by an African country over a colonial power. It left a very sour taste in the mouth of Italy so it decided to take revenge in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935 – 1939). Led by Italian leader Benito Mussolini, Italy was successful in that war but not without strong Ethiopian resistance under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie I and a brave African-American aviator from Chicago who did his part to fight fascists as commander of Ethiopia’s air force.
History says that when news broke that Italy was taking over Ethiopia, Blacks in the U.S., particularly in Harlem, who were loud in resistance and who saw the African nation as an ancient cradle of civilization, were outraged. Thus, they volunteered to take on Italian dictator Mussolini. Apart from protesting, thousands of them signed up to go and fight for Ethiopia. They were however stopped by the State Department, which threatened jail, adding that the U.S. should only offer medical relief.
But African-American aviator John C. Robinson was able to make it to Ethiopia. Recruited by the Ethiopian government to lead its air force, he sailed over with the cover story that he was an aircraft dealer, according to one account.
Born in Carrabelle, Florida, in 1903, Robinson and his family later moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, where, as a kid, he stood on the beach and watched the “first aeroplane” land in Gulfport. There and then, he began to love the idea of flying. He also had an interest in mechanics and machinery, so he traveled to Alabama in 1921 to study mechanical science at the Tuskegee Institute.
After studying there to be an automobile mechanic, he moved to Chicago in 1927 and opened a garage in Bronzeville. He lived nearby the garage with his wife. Robinson would train as a pilot and earn his pilot’s license. Despite his amazing skills, the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago refused his application because it did not admit Black students, the Chicago Tribune reported.
So what Robinson did was to get work as a janitor at the university. He would clean classroom floors during lectures so he could follow what was being taught. And after classes, he would take notes off the chalkboard. After some time, the school finally admitted him, and in 1931, he graduated at the top of his class as a master mechanic. He would also sign on as the school’s first Black instructor and teach the first all-Black class, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In 1935 when Italy was preparing to go to war with Ethiopia, Robinson announced that he would help Ethiopia to fight the Fascist Italian forces. He disclosed that he was ready to fight for Africa’s last sovereign nation which he and many other Black people saw as their true ancestral homeland and which was for them, a symbol of redemption in the diaspora.
After making it to Ethiopia, he immediately took over as leader of the nation’s air force in August 1935 and trained many Ethiopians to fly and fix aircraft. According to BlackPast, Robinson commanded a fleet of about twenty Potez 25 biplanes “which were however weaponless and used for reconnaissance and supply.”
Robinson, who was credited with having fought off two Italian planes during an observation flight in Ethiopia, helped the African country fight the Italian fascists for well over a year, earning the nickname Brown Condor. Being a Black flyer, media organizations all over the world including the Black press in the U.S. paid attention to him during the Second Italian-Ethiopian War.
But Robinson’s air force flew “only a dozen or so aircraft”, which the Tribune described as “mediocre scouting planes.” At the end of the day, Ethiopia was defeated by the Italians. Selassie fled to Europe in exile. Robinson also went back to the U.S. in 1936, where he was given a hero’s welcome. He later became known as the Father of the Tuskegee Airmen for his immense contributions to the aviation programs he started at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the early 1940s.
And after World War II, Robinson went back to a liberated Ethiopia to train pilots and organize the country’s national airline. And that was where he died in 1954 following a plane crash in Addis Ababa. He is buried there at Gulele Cemetery.
At a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery to honor Robinson in 2018, Michael Raynor, who was then United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, said: “The story of Col. John C. Robinson illustrates something that is sometimes overlooked when we talk about the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, when we tend to focus on the important work that takes place between our two governments.”
“But Col. Robinson’s story reminds us that the impact of our people-to-people relationships can be even greater.”