U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia
at the Inauguration of Ethiopian Aviation Acadamy
Sunday, February 7, 2016
U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa
(As prepared for delivery)
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is with great pleasure to participate in this event today and to recognize the contributions of U.S. citizen John Charles Robinson who came to the aid of Ethiopia during its time of need in the struggle against fascist occupation in the 1930’s, and who again returned to a peaceful and independent Ethiopia following World War II to help establish a professional Ethiopian Air Force and Ethiopian Airlines.
The unveiling of this bronze sculpture of Colonel Robinson, created by the Los Angeles artist Mr. Nijel Binns, is entirely appropriate given John Robinson’s close connections both with Ethiopian Airlines and with training aviators. I am honored to be here at this event.
John Charles Robinson was born in 1903 in Florida and grew up in a very segregated South. In 1910, when John was 7, he saw his first aircraft, a float plane that taxied to the beach. John Robinson knew that he wanted one day to fly an airplane, and he set out to overcome the obstacle of segregation. He did this by learning to excel at school and later at work, to never let disappointments overcome his determination and to wear his successes with modesty.
He enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute and learned to become an automobile mechanic. He decided there would be better job opportunities in the North, so he moved to Detroit where he earned a reputation as an exceptionally good mechanic. Moving to Chicago, he wanted to enroll in the Curtiss-Wright Aviation School, but black students were not welcome. Although he had a full-time job in an auto garage, he signed on as a nighttime janitor in a Curtiss-Wright classroom, absorbing the instructor’s ground-school lectures. The instructor realized how determined John was and persuaded the school to let him enroll.
After graduation, John went on to form a small flying school, encouraging young black men to enroll. This fact came to the attention of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who was working to modernize his country. He invited Robinson to come to Ethiopia to head his Air Force. Robinson came to Ethiopia and built a cadre of black pilots and ground crews and was named the Commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force.
John Robinson joined Ethiopia in its fight against fascist Italy, but, ultimately, the Italians conquered Ethiopia, if only temporarily. Haile Selassie escaped to England and John Robinson to America. Back home, his aviation school thrived. Tuskegee, to which he had proposed an aircraft school in the 1930s, finally had one and turned out hundreds of who became the Tuskegee Airmen, who gained fame in World War II. After the war, Haile Selassie invited Robinson back to Ethiopia, first to rebuild his Air Force, then to create Ethiopian Airlines.
In the history of U.S.-Ethiopian relations, beginning with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1903, there have been many individuals from both our countries who have brought our nations together in common endeavors for our mutual benefit. John Robinson’s story stands out as a remarkable example of the individual bonds between the peoples of our two countries.
Today, we honor the spirit of this bond between the Ethiopian and American peoples.