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The Dream of Abyssinia: Two Black Aviators and Ethiopia

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Feb 27, 2021

By Elizabeth Borja
On October 3, 1935 the forces of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini began their advance upon Ethiopia, known in earlier times as Abyssinia. Italy had long coveted the territory to expand their colonial influence in East Africa. In 1896, Ethiopians had turned back an Italian invasion at¬†Adwa (Adowa), serving as an example of a Black-led country‚Äôs defiance of Europe. Taking inspiration from Ethiopia‚Äôs long history as an independent Black nation, two Black aviators‚ÄĒHubert Julian and John C. Robinson‚ÄĒwere drawn to Ethiopia by the events of 1935.

Hubert Julian

Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was born in Trinidad a year after the Ethiopian victory at Adwa. He moved to Canada after World War I, where he claims he learned to fly. In 1921, Julian traveled to New York where he found many references to Ethiopia. The¬†Abyssinian Baptist Church¬†in New York City was formed in 1808 by a group of Black members of the First Baptist Church who refused to accept segregated seating. The¬†Mayor of Addis Ababa¬†was among a party of Ethiopian dignitaries welcomed to Harlem in 1919. After Julian met¬†Marcus Garvey, another Caribbean √©migr√©, he joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey often used Ethiopia as a metonym for Africa and the official anthem of the UNIA was entitled, ‚ÄúEthiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers.‚ÄĚ

Julian adopted the title of ‚ÄúLieutenant Julian of the Royal Canadian Air Force‚ÄĚ as he performed parachute stunts, which learning to better fly an airplane from¬†Clarence Chamberlin. Boasting a new nickname, ‚ÄúThe Black Eagle of Harlem,‚ÄĚ he announced a daring project on January 10, 1924‚ÄĒhe would become the first man (Black or White) to fly solo to Africa, a much more dangerous route that than the northern Atlantic flights previously completed. The goal was to leave New York in his Boeing seaplane (acquired with Chamberlin‚Äôs assistance) and head south to Brazil. From there he would fly the aspirationally titled¬†Ethiopia I¬†to Liberia (another independent Black nation) with the final destination being Ethiopia.

Julian encountered nothing but trouble on the way to his July 4th flight. He failed to gain the support of the NAACP. His advertisements for funding in Black newspapers attracted the attention of the US government, accusing him of fraud. His investors only released the aircraft to him after additional funds were raised on the spot in the name of Marcus Garvey. The flight itself was a spectacular failure, lasting only five minutes before Julian and Ethiopia I crashed into Flushing Bay.

Julian survived the flight but his transatlantic efforts were soon overshadowed by Charles Lindbergh and Julian’s own legal troubles. But his actions were noted by Ras Tafari, who was to be crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. In April 1930, Tafari sent his cousin, studying at Howard University, a historically Black institution, to request that Julian perform at the Emperor’s coronation. Within a week, Julian was on a ship across the Atlantic.

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Tafari had been building an Ethiopian Imperial Air Force with French pilots, paid by the French government; two German Junkers; and a British Gypsy Moth, the newly assembled unflown prize of the collection, a coronation gift from the owners of Selfridge’s department store. Amid tensions with the white pilots, Julian demonstrated his abilities in a Junkers and was rewarded with a commission as a colonel in the air force and the Emperor’s private pilot.

After a trip to New York to drum up American support for Ethiopia with mixed results, Julian returned to Ethiopia for the coronation. During a dress rehearsal for the ceremony, Ethiopian-trained pilots successfully demonstrated their flying abilities in the Junkers planes. Then Julian took to the air in the Emperor’s off-limits prized Gypsy Moth. The crash destroyed not only the plane but Julian’s relationship with Ras Tafari. Julian was already banished and out of the country when Tarafi was crowned Haile Selassie I.

Three quarter right view of monoplane. Black man in white flight suit, poses standing on the right front wheel, holding wing in right hand. Text under window reads: "Holder World’s Non-Refueling Endurance Record 84 Hrs 33 Mins" cracked upper right corner
Hubert Julian, dressed in white flight suit, poses standing on the right front wheel of his Bellanca J-2 “Abyssinia” (“Emperor Haile Salassi I King of Kings”, r/n NR-782W) at Floyd Bennett Field, Long Island, New York; three-quarter right front view of aircraft, close up; circa September 1933. [Partial, cracked glass plate negative.]

Unbowed, Julian returned to the United States, where he earned his government pilot‚Äôs license and formed a Black barnstorming troupe ‚ÄúThe Five Black Birds.‚ÄĚ He also developed a relationship with aircraft manufacturer¬†Giuseppe M. Bellanca, who refitted a Bellanca J-2 (registration NR-782W). The aircraft had been used by¬†Walter Lees and Frederick Bossy in 1931¬†to set a new world endurance record for non-refueled flight‚ÄĒ84 hours and 32 minutes (not to be broken until the¬†Rutan Voyager¬†in 1986). The aircraft proudly boasted its heritage under the front windows.

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Aviator Hubert Julian (center, standing on folding chair) poses for photographers in front of his Bellanca J-2 (r/n NR-782W, one-half left front view) at Floyd Bennett Field, Long Island, New York; the aircraft‚Äôs propeller is draped with an American flag. Peggy Harding Shannon, holding a bouquet of roses and a bottle of champagne, stands behind Julian on a second chair as a crowd looks on from either side. Date is presumed to be September 29, 1933, when the aircraft was christened “Abyssinia‚ÄĚ at a press conference.

On September 29, 1933 Julian held a press conference at Floyd Bennett Field, New York, christening the plane Abyssinia, Emperor Haile Salassi [sic] I King of Kings and announcing his intentions for another transatlantic flight. But he still needed to pay off the airplane and travelled across the United States and even to London with Amy Ashwood Garvey (Marcus Garvey’s ex-wife) to raise additional funds. By the end of 1934, it did not appear that Julian would attempt his flight anytime soon. (As a footnote, the airplane itself was later sold to the Portuguese Monteverde brothers who wrecked it at Floyd Bennett Field during their June 1935 transatlantic attempt.)

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Left side view of Bellanca J-2 “Abyssinia” (“Emperor Haile Salassi I King of Kings”, r/n 782W) on the ground, Floyd Bennett Field, Long Island, New York, 1934. ¬†Full length view of Hubert Julian posed standing by the nose of the aircraft, right hand in his jacket pocket.

John C. Robinson

In 1934, John C. Robinson was contemplating visiting his alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, for his 10th reunion and to propose an aviation school there for Black pilots. Robinson, born in Florida and raised in Mississippi, had been one of the first Black pilots to complete his training at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago. He and Cornelius Coffey formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, opened their own airfield, and created an aviation school to support Black pilots.

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“J.C. Robinson, U.S. Government Licensed Pilot and Mechanic. Instructor for Aeronautical University, Founded by Curtiss-Wright Flying Service. 1358 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. Phone Victory 7070. Get your training at a government approved school.” Business card of John C. Robinson; black text over blue line drawing of a biplane in flight. [From Dale L. White, Sr. untitled scrapbook NASM-9A16697, page 20, lower right corner.]

Italy made incursions into Ethiopia in late 1934, clearly announcing its intentions. The League of Nations did not act upon Ethiopian appeals in a way that discouraged Italy at all. David Robinson, editor of the Black newspaper the¬†Chicago Defender,¬†wrote in an April 6, 1935 editorial, ‚ÄúNews about the dispute between Ethiopia and Italy as published in your neswaper [sic] and also the white papers should bring to our hearts a feeling of sympathy for the last monarchy of our race‚Ķ.Men of our race who are more acquainted with the international sea are faced with a responsibility which stares us in our faces this very hour‚Ķwe are responsible for the future of our boys and girls who will grow up to find out that they have no chance of existing in a purely dominant white world.‚ÄĚ

John C. Robinson‚Äôs efforts in Chicago on behalf of Black citizens impressed Haile Selassie‚Äôs nephew. After Julian‚Äôs time in Africa, the Ethiopians were wary of another American-based pilot, but Robinson‚Äôs reputation won them over and he was asked to go to Ethiopia to serve in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. Robinson accepted, wanting to prove the mettle of Black pilots, both American and Ethiopian. He stated in a¬†1936 interview: ‚ÄúI am glad to know that they realize that Ethiopia is fighting not only for herself, but also for black men in every part of the world and that Americans, especially black Americans are willing to anything to help us to carry on and to win.‚ÄĚ

In May 1935, Robinson was on his way to Ethiopia. In their first meeting, Haile Selassie offered the American the rank of Colonel in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. Robinson also accepted Ethiopian citizenship, so that he could claim dual citizenship and not run afoul of a 19th century law forbidding American citizens to serve in a foreign army when the United States is at peace. He was quickly dubbed ‚ÄúThe Brown Condor of Ethiopia.‚ÄĚ Robinson found the 1935 Ethiopian Air Force with a few more airplanes and trained pilots than Julian in 1930, but not many. Akaki Field, just outside Addis Ababa, housed a few Potez 25s, a Farman F.192, a couple of Junkers (the same as flown by Julian), and a Fokker F.VII. There were only a few Ethiopian pilots; most of the experienced pilots were still French and would be discouraged from directly supporting war efforts (a 1936¬†Pittsburgh Courier¬†article¬†even mentioned a Ethiopian woman pilot named Mobin Gretta).

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“Col J. C. Robinson, Imperiale Ethiopienne Air Force. Addis Ababa, (Ethiopia).” Business card for John C. Robinson, circa 1935. Imperial standard of Emperor Haile Selassie I, featuring the Lion of Judah, appears in the upper left hand corner. Handwritten inscription on lower half of card reads, “To Dale / Say How is the old Chrysler / Hope to get a ride in it again — If I don‚Äôt go West / Johnny.” [From Dale L. White, Sr. untitled scrapbook NASM-9A16697, page 16, lower right corner.]

Robinson also found Hubert Julian, who had returned to Ethiopia in April, hoping still to serve Haile Selassie. The Emperor would not permit Julian to rejoin the Air Force, but he restored Julian’s rank of Colonel and assigned him to train employees of the Ministry of Public Works. Julian also appointed himself as a press liaison. Things came to a head on August 9 when Robinson and Julian came to blows in a hotel lobby. The incident was even covered in white newspapers and Julian was immediately stripped of his military command (though he was quietly reinstated and assigned to a far-off outpost). Julian left Ethiopia for good in November 1935, bitter after the loss of stature and additional court intrigue named him in a possible assassination plan against the Emperor.

Robinson continued to serve with the Air Force. His exploits were closely followed by his fellow Black pilots back in Chicago via Black newspapers. According to clippings in¬†Dale White‚Äôs¬†Challenger Air Pilots Association scrapbook,¬†six Black aviators¬†began the process to join him in Ethiopia, but were not granted passports. The¬†Pittsburgh Courier¬†published a list of licensed Black fighters acquired from the Negro Affairs Division of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. A photo feature on¬†Willa Brown¬†was headlined ‚ÄúWants to Fight for Ethiopia.‚ÄĚ

John Robinson was in the air on October 3, 1935 when the Italians crossed the Mareb River to begin their ground assault on Ethiopia. He was on the ground in Adwa when Italian Capronis bombed the town into rubble, returning to Addis Ababa to report. Italy took the town on October 6, claiming what they could not in 1896.

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Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 deeply disturbed Chicago’s aviation community. John C. Robinson, a licensed pilot, led an effort to aid Ethiopia, then one of only two independent countries in Africa.

An¬†October 12, 1935 article in the¬†Baltimore Afro-American¬†quoted a letter from Robinson to his fellow Chicago pilots cautioning them to stay where they were: ‚ÄúIf we have to face the Italians in our present planes, airworthy though they are, it will be no less than murder‚Ķ.It will be better for you to remain in America and carry on the good work which we have begun in interesting our people in aviation.‚ÄĚ He was resolved to stay himself. He was gassed and wounded several times, but continued to fly orders between locations, observe troop movements, and guide Red Cross missions.

Towards the end of April 1936, Robinson took Haile Selassie in a Beech Staggerwing for one last aerial look at Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie fled Addis Ababa on May 2 via train. Robinson flew the Staggerwing to Djibouti where it was impounded. He returned to the United States to acclaim and immediately began his work to develop the aviation school at Tuskegee.

Postscript

Hubert Julian did not return to Ethiopia, but he¬†lived a long life, becoming an arms dealer in Central American and Pakistan under the company name ‚ÄúBlack Eagle Associates.‚ÄĚ He kept in touch with Giuseppe Bellanca, requesting¬†price quotes for airplanes¬†and sending¬†location updates. Julian ran afoul of the United Nations in the Congo in the 1960s. Although he moved out of the spotlight, he continued to rack up a large file in FBI headquarters until his death in New York in 1983. Although Hubert Julian gained a reputation for self-aggrandizement¬†and empty showmanship, the fact remains that he promoted Ethiopia and supported its continued existence as a Black-ruled sovereign nation.

Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia in May 1941. He asked John C. Robinson to join him in rebuilding the Ethiopian Air Force. In 1944, Robinson and five Black pilots and mechanics made their way across war-torn seas to Addis Ababa where they established an aviation training school. Robinson continued to draw on his Chicago aviation ties, helping Ethiopian students attend school in the United States, recommending many to Janet Waterford Bragg. Robinson believed that he was being pushed out by an influx of white Swedish support and was arrested for attacking a Swedish representative. He resigned his commission in 1948. He remained in Ethiopia to work to build Ethiopian Airlines, as he had been instrumental establishing a relationship between Ethiopia and TWA Airlines to send a fleet of DC-3 aircraft and personnel in 1946.

John C. Robinson died in 1954, when he crashed a Stinson L-5 outside of Addis Ababa. His name survives in Ethiopia, including the John C. Robinson American Center at the National Archives and Library Agency in Addis Ababa.

Additional Resources

Bellanca, Giuseppe M. Collection, Acc. NASM.1993.0055, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Black Wings Exhibit and Book Collection. Acc. NASM.1993.0060. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Caprotti, Federico. ‚ÄúVisuality, Hybridity, and Colonialism: Imagining Ethiopia Through Colonial Aviation, 1935‚Äď1940.‚Ä̬†Annals of the Association of American Geographers¬†101, no. 2 (2011): 380-403. Accessed January 22, 2021.¬†http://www.jstor.org/stable/27980183.

Featherstone, David. ‚ÄúBlack Internationalism, Subaltern Cosmopolitanism, and the Spatial Politics of Antifascism.‚Ä̬†Annals of the Association of American Geographers¬†103, no. 6 (2013): 1406-420. Accessed January 22, 2021.¬†http://www.jstor.org/stable/24537559.

Federal Aviation Administration Aircraft Registration Files, Acc. NASM.XXXX.0512, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Frebert, George J. Delaware Aviation History. Dover, DE: Dover Litho, 1998.

Julian, Hubert F. Black Eagle: Colonel Hubert Julian, as told to John Bulloch. London: Adventurers Club, 1965.

Nugent, John Peer. The Black Eagle. New York: Stein and Day, 1971.

Shack, William A. ‚ÄúEthiopia and Afro-Americans: Some Historical Notes, 1920-1970.‚Ä̬†Phylon¬†(1960-) 35, no. 2 (1974): 142-55. Accessed January 22, 2021.¬†https://www.jstor.org/stable/274703.

Shaftel, David. ‚ÄúThe Black Eagle of Harlem.‚Ä̬†Air & Space Magazine, December 2008. Accessed January 22, 2021.¬†https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/the-black-eagle-of-harlem-95208344/?all.

Simmons, Thomas E. The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot. New York: Skyhouse, 2013.

Weisbord, Robert G. ‚ÄúBlack America and the Italian-Ethiopian Crisis: An Episode in Pan-Negroism.‚Ä̬†The Historian¬†34, no. 2 (1972): 230-41. Accessed January 22, 2021.¬†http://www.jstor.org/stable/24442848.

White, Dale L., Sr., Papers Collection, Acc. NASM.2013.0050, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. https://sova.si.edu/record/NASM.2013.0050.

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