Red Tail Angel
Curtis Christopher Robinson
Red Tail Angel
Curtis Christopher Robinson
"EASTERN AIRLINES DOES NOT HIRE NEGRO PILOTS"
"EASTERN AIRLINES DOES NOT
HIRE NEGRO PILOTS"
Serendipity is a happy accident. On the day I arrived at the Smithsonian to begin my Tuskegee Airman website research, author George Norfleet was signing copies of his book, “A Pilot’s Journey, Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” which details the life of Curtis Christopher Robinson, Sr. a distinguished member of the Army Air Corp’s 99th Fighter Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
I stopped and spoke with Mr. Norfleet and it was during our conversation that I became intrigued with Mr. Robinson’s riveting story. Hence, I purchased the book and decided to include Mr. Robinson’s memoir in my website.
Mr. Robinson’s story provided a view into the background, character and spirit of those who changed our nation. Many believe the Tuskegee Experiment was designed to fail; however, the Airmen’s intellect, tenacity and determination made the program successful. Curtis Christopher Robinson, along with the estimated 992 African-Americans who successfully completed the program, was considered to be among the best and the brightest. Curtis Christopher Robinson and his fellow airmen made the program successful.
Curtis Christopher Robinson’s grandfather, Thomas Robinson, was a former slave, who become a college graduate, teacher, farmer and land owner. His accomplishments are remarkable
given the systemic oppression that kept most African-Americans from attaining a basic education and gainful employment. African-Americans were prohibited from owning land in many southern states.
Angry whites burned down Thomas Robinson’s home because he was the postmaster for Bamberg County, South Carolina. At that time, it was unheard for an African-American to hold such a position. Most of followed Thomas Robinson’s example as subsequent generations of his family were driven, determined and academically adept. It was this environment that his grandson, Curtis Christopher Robinson, was born into.
Curtis Christopher Robinson, the sixth child of Christopher Caper and Ednora Green Robinson, was born on August 25, 1919. Christopher Caper was a college graduate, teacher, house painter and, like his own
father Thomas Robinson, Christopher worked hard to succeed and expected the same from his children.
The family’s finances were modest which meant that Curtis Christopher Robinson was expected to not only work to help support the family, but also obtain an education at the same time. The jobs that Curtis Christopher Robinson held in his youth, allowed him to form a strong work ethic which served him well when he became an adult.
In 1936, after he graduated from high school, Curtis Christopher Robinson attended Claflin College, located in Orangeburg, SC. Curtis’s grandfather, father, as well as many other family members were Claflin graduates; therefore, it was a logical choice. The historically black college instilled a spirit of academic excellence into its student body. A professor, having already taught his older brother Glenn, was displeased when he thought Curtis was not performing, as well as, Glenn had performed, when he was a student.
Curtis Christopher Robinson settled into the natural rhythms of college life. He was studious but also found time to play in a band. Though he didn’t join a fraternity, he did have an active social life. Like most young men, he enjoyed spending time courting female classmates. It was while a student at Claflin, that Curtis met his future wife, Florie Frederick; although they didn’t marry until after he returned from WWII. Science fascinated Curtis; therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to most when he aspired to become a physician. Unfortunately, the putrid smells he encountered during anatomy classes forced him to rethink his major and change it to chemistry. He could not have foreseen how fortuitous that decision would have on his life.
Curtis graduated college in 1940 and, unbeknownst to him, the seeds of his future were being planted. In September of 1940, President Roosevelt instituted the draft as Axis Powers aggression heightened. In case the U.S. was to enter the war, it became apparent that the U.S. would have to significantly increase the number of pilots. Most believed that whoever commanded the skies had the greatest best chance of winning the war. Therefore, the U.S. Government created hundreds of Civilian Pilot Training Programs (CPTP)
Many African-American groups, including The Black Press, NAACP and
Negro Aviation clubs forced the U.S. Federal Government to include African-Americans in the CPTP programs. In 1941, the Tuskegee Institute was
selected to train African-American men to become pilot fighter planes. Curtis knew that he would be drafted because three of his brothers were already serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Having seen the deplorable conditions most African-Americans endured, while in the military, he decided to take control of his future. An elder told Curtis about the Tuskegee program. He completed the requisite application, physical exams and aptitude tests and was accepted into the program. After a grueling journey, in August of 1942, Curtis and 50 others began their training class.
The Tuskegee program Curtis entered was as complex as a maze. It offered its cadets the unique opportunity to learn to fly airplanes but not surprisingly, the costs they’d paid were commensurately high, many vocal opponents in the War Department derided the program. Furthermore, cadets faced abject racism on and off base. Nevertheless, they rose to meet the challenge.
While at Tuskegee Curtis, who by then was known as Lt. Robinson, and his classmates, received rigorous training. Their studies included cartography, aeronautics, meteorology, marksmanship, and mechanics, in addition
to pilot training. The cadets were expected to learn the material quickly and learn it well. On a given day, instructors would give the cadets a complex topic and expect them to have it memorized by the next day.
A cadet could wash out of the program for a minor infraction. Not surprisingly, the program had less than a 50% completion rate. Other CPTP training programs had much higher success rates. Lt. Robinson was as studious in the classroom as he was in the cockpit. He credited his flight training success from a belief that the he controlled the airplane; not vice versa. Flight school is where he said he fell in love with flying, enjoying the freedom it gave him. The next phase would change his life.
In April of 1943, Lt. Robinson graduated from the program assuming he’d be shipped overseas to fight. Because the War Department was certain the program would fail, it never prepared a strategy to commit its’
African-American pilots to the war effort. Additionally, it was difficult to integrate the 99th Fighter Squadron into the segregated armed forces.
The War Department had yet to build separate military facilities for African-American pilots, officers, airplane mechanics and their support staff. The upside was that pilots, like Lt. Robinson, received extended training. He said, “I got to the point where the airplane felt like it was a part of my body after so many hours of flying.”
Lt. Robinson received his orders to travel overseas for war duty in September of 1943. After a few harrowing weeks at sea, and a month long land search for his unit, he joined the 99th Fighter Squadron in Italy. He and his squadron were assigned to remote locations. They rarely encountered German airplanes and spent most of 1943 becoming adept at bombing land-based targets.
The 99th Fighter Squadron was assigned the important task of escorting bombers to and from their targets. Previously, bombers had high loses because fighter escorts peeled off to pursue enemy planes, leaving the bombers vulnerable. Lt. Robinson
and his fellow airmen were told not to give chase during their escort missions. The result was that the 99th only a handful of the bombers they escorted.
Initially, most bomber crews never knew that their escorts were African-American. Lt. Robinson enjoyed flying during the war. He flew missions over Africa, Sicily and Europe and was proud that he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen helped the Allies win the war; now it was finally time for him to return stateside.
Lt. Robinson spent the next few years serving in technical and instructional roles after his overseas tour. He didn’t enjoy his military service as much as he did when he was a pilot. In 1947, after six years in the military, Lt. Robinson was
honorably discharged. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he married Florie and started a family.
He wanted to become an Eastern Airlines pilot, but unfortunately, when he went to apply, the front desk person said, “Eastern does not hire negro pilots.” Racism kept Eastern Airlines from hiring highly-trained pilots who had sacrificed their lives for their country.
Though barred from becoming a commercial airline pilot, Curtis Christopher enrolled in Howard University’s pharmacy program, while working full time to support his family. He graduated from the program and in a few short years became a successful entrepreneur. At his zenith, Curtis Christopher Robinson owned five pharmacies, real estate and other profitable enterprises. He credited his success to faith in God, hard work and a drive to succeed. Curtis Christopher Robinson died at the age of 90 on October 12, 2009. He is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA.
Curtis Christopher Robinson’s story is remarkably similar to those of his fellow airmen. Though they faced insurmountable odds they, endeavored to not let the race down. As a consequence, the airmen’s heroics galvanized the civil rights movement.
The airmen broke records and broke down barriers. Furthermore, many Tuskegee Airmen became successful after completing the program.
It has taken many years to fully recognize and learn the impact the Tuskegee Airmen has had on our lives. Thankfully, their recognition, though slow, has finally arrived.
I am indebted to Mr. George Norfleet, author of ’A Pilots Journey Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman’ without whose book this article could not have been written. Mr. Norfleet’s book provides me a heightened sense of cultural, civic and humanitarian pride.