- John C. Robinson: Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, and: The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939–1949
The Tuskegee Airmen are an iconic group in the history of the United States, as well as Alabama. The success of these African Americans in military service is astonishing when compounded with the difficulties they faced at the hands of Jim Crow America. Officially considered a “mentally inferior subspecies of the human race” by the United States, these soldiers proved their loyalty and, most importantly, equality through their performance during the Second World War (The Tuskegee Airmen, p. 15). As a result, their story has been made legendary by novelists, historians, and popular culture as a whole. Two recent works have attempted to elucidate the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, Phillip Tucker’s John C. Robinson and Joseph Caver’s, Jerome Ennels’, and Daniel Haulman’s The Tuskegee Airmen.
Phillip Tucker narrates the life of John Charles Robinson, a leader in African American aviation and responsible for breaking many racial barriers that would eventually lead to black pilots being allowed to serve in aviation during the Second World War. Born on November 26, 1905, Robinson grew up in the racially segregated town of Gulfport, Mississippi. Tucker describes in detail the influences on Robinson’s childhood, from his early exposure to segregation and racism to the hard-working nature of his step-father and mother. These positive and negative experiences had a profound effect on the man Robinson would become. Through his determination and perseverance, he constantly sought to prove that African Americans were capable of more than the secondary role they were given in U.S. society. Robinson accomplished this while pursuing a dream he had first envisioned in Gulfport, the dream of flight (John C. Robinson, p. 17). [End Page 316]
Because there was no direct path for an African American to become a pilot in the United States, Robinson enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and at the age of 18 successfully completed a degree in mechanics. Realizing that he had a better chance of fulfilling his dreams outside the Deep South, he then moved north, finally settling in Chicago in 1927. It was in Chicago that he found Warren Melvicke, a Polish flight instructor who was willing to train Robinson. While receiving flight training, he also applied to aeronautical schools with the hopes of continuing his formal education. Although refused entrance on multiple occasions due to his race, Robinson ultimately broke the color barrier at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School. After graduating from his program as a master mechanic of aviation, he hoped to build on his success by extending opportunities to other African Americans interested in flying. Tucker describes how “his own success was not enough” for John Robinson as he always looked to increase awareness in aviation and open doors for African Americans (John C. Robinson, p. 39). This led to him not only becoming the first black faculty member at Curtiss-Wright but also instructing the school’s first all-black class of students.
Tucker then details the conflicting ideologies that would affect Robinson for the rest of his life. Robinson hoped to convince his alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, to start an aeronautical program. Around the same time, Mussolini’s Italian forces were amassing on the border of Ethiopia. Tucker describes the strong Pan-African movements in the U.S. at the time, in which Robinson was a believer. He yearned to use his skills of aviation to help his African brothers and accepted an invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to become an officer in the Ethiopian Air Force, ultimately becoming its commander. Although Robinson worked tirelessly to build the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force into a significant force, League of Nation restrictions and Ethiopia’s limited resources meant that they would...