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John C. Robinson: Father of the Tuskegee Airmen

By Phillip Thomas Tucker. 329 pp. Potomac Books, 2012. $29.95.

 If only 18th-century adventure novelist Alexandre Dumas had been alive to pen the life story of John C. Robinson, he could have done justice to this aviation pioneer’s adventures. In 1910, the 5-year-old Robinson was inspired by the rare sight of an airplane landing in his small Mississippi Gulf Coast town, and resolved to become an aviator—a daunting ambition for an African American in Jim Crow America. Nevertheless, young Robinson studied hard, got a degree at Tuskegee Institute, and migrated to Chicago. There he learned about airplanes and piloting by eavesdropping on classes at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School while working there as a night janitor. He eventually got his license, and went on to bring more black Americans—men and women—into the field.

In 1935, Ethiopia was threatened with savage near-genocide by Fascist Italy. Like many African Americans then, Robinson was inspired by the Pan-African movement, led by such powerful figures as W. E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, which called for freeing Europe’s African colonies and uniting people of color. So at 29, Robinson left his auto repair business in Chicago to help Ethiopia’s besieged emperor, Haile Selassie, form an air force. Challenged by limited resources and a mostly indifferent world, he scraped together a few planes to conduct reconnaissance for Selassie’s hopelessly outgunned troops. He was gassed and wounded, fired off a few telling shots at the Italian air force, then escaped back to America, where he was hailed by his community as the Brown Condor—black America’s Lindbergh.

Today Robinson’s swashbuckling story is almost forgotten. Author Phillip Thomas Tucker provides a straightforward recitation of the facts, but not much romance. Additionally, the subtitle “Father of the Tuskegee Airmen” is a bit misleading: In 1934 the farsighted Robinson tried to establish an aviation program at Tuskegee, but he was a relative outsider during the process that made his alma mater home to the legendary airmen by 1941. Still, as their biggest role model, Robinson unquestionably helped motivate the Tuskegee pilots and laid the groundwork for the postwar integration of America’s military.

Unfortunately, Thomas loses sight of Robinson as a complicated man of action—a follower of Booker T. Washington’s pacifical self-help precepts who pivoted into Pan-African militancy—beneath mountains of data, though the book does include a thorough description of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, complete with grisly details of slaughtered civilians. It makes you wonder what Dumas could have done with such rich material.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.