What do Mississippi and Ethiopia have in common? For a while, I thought that answer was easily me because of the time that I spent in both places and the connections between cultures that I discovered. It’s funny, and outright scary, how a random path you thought you created was actually already made way before your time. Like way, way before your time. However, it brings me so much joy and excitement to be writing about this discovery because I think it truly represents a moment of destiny. But before I go into the incredible story of this said previous path, there is a little backstory that I must provide.
Two years ago I was living in Oxford, Mississippi to work at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi (such a mouthful, I know). I felt that it was the right move for me at that time in my life. And while I experienced constant support from my family, it was difficult for them to truly understand why I was choosing this path. Especially when within the first week of your arrival in the south, white male college students have the audacity to yell threatening remarks to you and your other black friends as you’re exiting a movie theater after having just saw Selma. To be honest, I couldn’t even understand how my path led me to Mississippi, but through that experience, it led me to believe that everything truly happens for a reason. Even if you don’t see that reason appear until much later.
My father has always supported the decisions that I make in my life, but that support is not without giving his honest opinion. While he was proud of the work that I was doing in Mississippi, he always encouraged me to look for better opportunities in other places, safer places. I always expected a list of alternative opportunities when we talked between the nine-hour time difference of Mississippi and Ethiopia. Majority of the suggestions often involved my moving to Ethiopia. And while I appreciated his insights, I knew my path was meant to lead me to Oxford.
My dad and I had our weekly talks, updating each other on our lives. And when I shared my experiences traveling to towns in Mississippi that hold such rich history, he found it interesting but never enthusiastic. I could sense that he wanted more for me.
One March afternoon however, I received a phone call from my father that surprised me more than I can say. He was in the states visiting some friends on the west coast when he told me that he was handed an incredible book that I must read. The books he recommends are rare but I always carefully analyze his inspiration for encouraging me to read them. He told me that the book was about a young black man from Mississippi, a pilot, who somehow found his way to Ethiopia during the 1930s. At the time, I was intrigued with the story but more so, I was touched that my father made is own connection between his identity, my living in Oxford and how it made sense to him. He told me to learn the story and share it with the kids I was mentoring. I was truly touched by his remarkable gesture.
Fast forward to my first month in Ethiopia in February 2016, I was familiarizing myself with the house, going through books when I stumbled upon a book titled “The Brown Condor.” I recognized the name instantly and asked my father if it was about the pilot he told me about. As soon as he said yes I jumped in a learned his story. This is what I discovered:
Colonel John Robinson
A young boy living in Gulfport, Mississippi was captured by the magic of seeing his first plane. This was the moment he was inspired to become a pilot. From that point on, he defied what was possible for a black man at that time. Robinson started this journey by educating himself in automotive mechanics at Tuskegee Institute. What was also incredible was that later in his life he made it a point to urge the Tuskegee Institute to establish an aviation school for their students which would later be the source of the historical and brave Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Robinson’s story is extremely incredible because he had no idea for sure that this path would lead him to be a pilot, but by the faith he had in himself, he kept aligning where the possibility might be able to come to fruition. After he graduated from Tuskegee, he became a full time mechanic in Detroit but kept persisting to move towards aviation. Robinson then tried to apply to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation in Chicago several times. However, in true American form, at that time the school did not admit black students. That did not stop Robinson whatsoever. Instead he applied to became a janitor and would intently listen during a particular class he attended. In turn he would then take what he learned, and share it with an black aviation study group that he created with other students eager to learn that profession. Impressively all of his time eavesdropping in the class, equipped him to lead his study group to build an airplane of their own. He wanted another chance at getting into the school so he convinced the teacher who’s classroom he cleaned for, to see the plane. The teacher was so impressed that he insisted on flying it. Unsure at first, Robinson was a bit hesistant as they hadn’t even tried. However, the teacher agreed that if he could fly the plane, Robinson could be admitted into the school. While the plane didn’t go quite far, the teacher was able to properly lift and land modestly without any serious complications which impressed him. Right there and then, John Robinson became the first black student at the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation.
Although Robinson was making incredible strides as a black pilot, there were still many barriers that held him back. He wanted to demonstrate his immense capability that he’s a great pilot and should be respected and looked at as such regardless of the color of his skin. During this time, Ethiopia was once again faced with the Italian army led by Benito Mussolini intruding through Ethiopia. Robinson was then introduced to Emperor Haile Selassie’s cousin Dr. Halaku Bayen, who thought Robinson would be the perfect person to assist Ethiopia in defending their land against Italy. Once Bayen convinced Emperor Selassie that Robinson must come to Ethiopia, there was no time to spare. Robinson left for his voyage to Ethiopia. On that voyage he distinctively remembers how he was treated. He was treated with luxury and thus looked as such. Already he was becoming exposed to an outside world that did not just look at the color of his skin. As Robinson arrived, not fully understanding the scope of the tensions between Italy and Ethiopia, he was immediately assigned to train Ethiopian pilots. He soon became the commander of the Ethiopian Air Corps.
At this stage, his job was to oversee the pilots and the aircraft as well as perform recon on where the Italians had invaded and their progress. He witnessed the inhumane bombings by the Italians in Adwa in 1935. Not fully comprehending how quickly the Italians were invading, once Ethiopia was under Italian occupation, and the Emperor fled to exile, he escaped back to the U.S. During this time, he was greeted by a cheering crowd in New York City of mostly black men and women that celebrated his valor and commitment to defending a black empire. He continued to teach pilots in the states. However once, the Italians were kicked out for the second time, he returned back to Ethiopia where he assisted in establishing the early beginnings of the now prideful and successful Ethiopian Airlines (back then what was known as Ethiopian Air Lines). He continued to live in Ethiopia until the day of his unfortunate death where he was killed in a plane crash while transmitting blood to rural medical clinics. His memory and his legacy however, will never be forgotten. As he is well known today and in Ethiopia, he is the Brown Condor.
I’ve highlighted his story from what I read, but this book tells so much more of his story and the story of Ethiopia during that time. This was an incredible man who built a bridge and future for black excellence both in America and in Ethiopia. I couldn’t believe this triumphant moment in history went by so long before I knew about it. I was even more proud to see that the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy in Addis Ababa honored Colonel John Robinson by inaugurating the academy’s lobby with his statue and his story. A lot of people both here and in America did a lot to preserve his legacy and to educate others about his sacrifice and for that I am truly grateful. This incredible recognition brings worlds that seem far apart much closer together. All that I could think of was, if more of us young black and gifted folks, anywhere in the world could learn about how much our histories are more intertwined than we know, we could literally change our realities. That may be extremely oversimplified but it is the truth. The history we’ve been taught is Eurocentric for a reason. Not only because Europe colonized the world, but because an intentional step was made, and is still being made, to keep people of color against one another.
Ethiopia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Michigan and everywhere that Colonel John Robinson touched is forever intertwined. Whether you know it or not, the impression you make in various parts of the world create a path. I feel much closer to my experience in Mississippi and Ethiopia knowing this story. As black people, we need to make more of an effort to find these powerful similarities before we allow other powers to divide and conquer us. The Brown Condor is a reigning symbol of that.
remember to always live fully expressed (l.f.e.)