On March 1, 1896, a few years after the African continent was divided, the Italian Kingdom – which had acquired Eritrea and Italian Somalia as African territories – desired to add Ethiopia to its kingdom. However, the strategy backfired after the Italian force was defeated in the Battle of Adwa, commonly known as the First Italo-Ethiopian War.
The battle, which took place near Adwa in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, was the first time an African country defeated a colonial force. It left a foul taste in Italy’s mouth, prompting it to seek vengeance in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–1939). Italy won the war under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, but not without fierce Ethiopian opposition led by Emperor Haile Selassie I and a heroic African-American aviator from Chicago who served as commander of Ethiopia’s air force and did his part in fighting fascists.
When news of Italy’s takeover of Ethiopia reached the United States, Blacks in the United States, particularly in Harlem, who were outspoken in their opposition and considered Ethiopia as an old cradle of civilization, were enraged. As a result, they volunteered to fight Mussolini, the Italian dictator. Thousands of people signed up to fight for Ethiopia in addition to protesting. The State Department, however, intervened, threatening them with imprisonment and stating that the US should only provide medical assistance.
However, John C. Robinson, an African-American aviator, was able to reach Ethiopia. According to one account, he was recruited by the Ethiopian government to lead its air force and sailed there with the cover story of being an aircraft trader.
Robinson was born in Carrabelle, Florida, in 1903, and later relocated to Gulfport, Mississippi, with his family, where he stood on the beach as a child watching the “first aeroplane” arrive in Gulfport. He fell in love with the concept of flying right then and there. He was also interested in mechanics and technology, therefore he went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1921 to study mechanical science.
In 1927, he relocated to Chicago and founded a garage in Bronzeville after training to be an automobile mechanic there. He and his wife lived near the garage. Robinson would study to become a pilot and obtain his license. Despite his exceptional abilities, the Chicago Tribune stated that Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University rejected his application because it did not admit Black students.
So Robinson went to the university and got a job as a janitor. During lectures, he would sweep the classroom floors so he could pay attention to what was being spoken. He would also take notes from the chalkboard after classes. After some time, the school ultimately accepted him, and he graduated as a master mechanic at the top of his class in 1931. According to the Chicago Tribune, he would also become the school’s first Black instructor and lead the school’s first all-Black class.
Robinson said in 1935, as Italy was ready to go to war with Ethiopia, that he would assist Ethiopia in fighting the Fascist Italian army. He stated that he was willing to battle for Africa’s last independent nation, which he and many other Africans saw as their actual ancestral homeland and a symbol of redemption in the diaspora.
In August 1935, after arriving in Ethiopia, he assumed command of the country’s aviation force and began training many Ethiopians to fly and repair planes. Robinson commanded a fleet of roughly twenty Potez 25 biplanes, according to BlackPast, “which were however weaponless and utilized for reconnaissance and supply.”
Robinson, who is credited with shooting down two Italian planes on an observation flight over Ethiopia, aided the African country in its war against the fascists for more than a year, gaining the moniker Brown Condor. During the Second Italian-Ethiopian War, media organizations all over the world, particularly the Black press in the United States, attracted attention to him because he was a Black flier.
Robinson’s air force, however, consisted of “just a dozen or so aircraft,” according to the Tribune, which were “mediocre scouting planes.” Ethiopia was beaten by the Italians at the end of the day. Selassie was exiled to Europe. Robinson returned to the United States in 1936, when he was greeted as a hero. For his enormous contributions to the aviation programs he began at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in the early 1940s, he was eventually dubbed the “Father of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Robinson returned to a liberated Ethiopia after WWII to train pilots and build the country’s national airline. And it was there that he died in a plane crash in Addis Ababa in 1954. Gulele Cemetery is where he is buried.
“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,” said Michael Raynor, then the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, at a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery to honor Robinson in 2018.
“However, Col. Robinson’s narrative teaches us that our interpersonal interactions can have an even bigger influence.”