Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mississippi to Ethiopia: Understanding ‘Brown Condor’

Unraveling mystery of Coast war hero 'Brown Condor'

By KAT BERGERON — Special to the Sun Herald

One more thread to unravel the mystery of the "Brown Condor" is now on national bookshelves.
This forgotten Mississippi Coast hero, a daring aviator who survived a dog fight with the son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, encouraged other blacks to fly when it was taboo in Jim Crow America.

He helped change a ragtag Ethiopian military into a force against fascism, itself a form of the racism the Brown Condor faced in his own country.

Before the latest biography, enough was known of Col. John C. Robinson, born in Gulfport's Big Quarter in 1905, to pique the interest of Mississippi writers and researchers who produced a book and newspaper articles and conducted an academic symposium.

Yet, to most Americans, even those enthralled by military and black history, the Mississippian who was once the best known black pilot in the world is an unknown.

Phillip Thomas Tucker hopes his "Father of the Tuskegee Airmen: John C. Robinson" will bring more awareness. The 329-page biography was published earlier this year by Potomac Books.

"The catch-22 with the Robinson story is that no

body knows about it," Tucker said in a recent phone interview. "You mention the name and it doesn't ring any bells. This book was written to shed light on what really happened. The Brown Condor was an early aviation pioneer and a war hero."

In the 1930s, Robinson's daring made him a household name among blacks. When he led the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force for Hallie Selassie, white Americans who followed the fascist aggressions leading to World War II also took note. But in the world chaos that followed and the making of new aviation heroes, the Brown Condor dropped off the radar screen.

Tucker contends that Robinson "initially laid the foundation for aviation at Tuskegee," a role not often acknowledged. Robinson was a 1923 graduate of Tuskegee Institute, nearly two decades before the Alabama black college opened its famous aviation school. As an alumni, Robinson advocated for the Tuskegee flight school, and as a civilian WWII instructor at Keesler Air Force Base, he trained aviation cadets sent to Biloxi before entering Tuskegee.

But before that, Robinson carved his own bit of history in the Ethiopian War, also known as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36. Tucker contends that if isolationists Americans had paid more attention to the Italian invasion in Ethiopia, entry into WWII might have been different.

American blacks read of the Brown Condor's exploits in the African country with great interest. Explained Tucker, "African-Americans across this country embraced the Double V campaign, meaning victory against fascism overseas and victory against racism at home."

Tucker, who has written or edited more than 20 books, specializes in ferreting out the little known or forgotten heroes, often minorities. Among his past topics are Cathy Williams, a slave turned Buffalo Soldier, and Father John. B. Bannon, a fighting Confederate chaplain. Tucker's Robinson book has been selected by The Military Book Club and he has had a book signing at the Smithsonian Institute's National Air & Space Museum.

This publication is not intended as a critical review of Robinson's 48 years -- he died in Ethiopia in a 1954 plane crash -- and much remains unknown about his personal life.

"Robinson wasn't a self-promoter," said Tucker. "He was a doer. The best way to get through a negative environment, like he faced in Jim Crow America, was to keep a positive attitude. The best revenge is success and obviously he came from that school."

The Brown Condor never wrote a book or memories and no giant stash of personal correspondence had yet surfaced, so Tucker pieced together Robinson's exploits from previous writings and primary sources, including black newspapers.

Those exploits included lifelong pursuits to overcome racial barriers, to graduate from college, to teach at a respected white flight school, to open his own Chicago garage and air field. Tucker, who prodigiously footnotes his sources, says the book is written from Robinson's own perspective.

"Generally speaking, whites don't put things in a racial aspect like African-Americans might," he said. "We are all products of our environments but unless you understand Robinson's perspective, you won't understand what he accomplished. Through research I immersed myself in the culture and racism of his time.

"When you do that you better understand how he could go to Ethiopia. Robinson was the first American standing up to actually fight against fascism. Fascists are all about the philosophy that 'we have the right to exploit people,' akin to slavery."

Tucker, who has an American history doctorate from St. Louis University, learned about Robinson when he was a historian at Keesler Air Force Base from 1998 to 2002. After more than 20 years as a Department of Defense historian, Tucker now lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and devotes his time to writing books.

Tucker lived here at a time when Robinson was being spotlighted locally by the newly formed John C. Robinson "Brown Condor" Association, whose board remains a mix of academics, local historians and civic leaders determined to open an aviation museum devoted to Robinson and other Mississippi pilots and astronauts.

Tucker's involvement with the association and his meetings with elderly Coast residents who remembered a young Brown Condor cemented the idea of a biography on the Gulfport aviator.

"Today, ironically, John Charles Robinson lies in an obscure grave in Gulele Cemetery in Addis Ababa," Tucker said, "and his name has been forgotten in America."

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