Six degrees of separation, a small world, or fate — however you look at it, it’s unmistakable that the “most forgotten” aviation pioneer in American history left an indelible mark on a pilot and commander at the 186th Air Refueling Wing (ARW).
Col. Edward Evans, Jr., commander of the 186th ARW and pilot, received the opportunity of a lifetime when he was chosen by the Mississippi National Guard to represent his state and speak at a wreath-laying ceremony June 2–7 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The ceremony was to honor the legacy of Col. John Robinson and was also in conjunction with the delivery of a C-130 from the U.S. to Ethiopia.
To better understand the significance and relationship between Evans and Robinson, you have to first get a glimpse of the historical context between the two.
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Robinson was an African American pilot from Gulfport, Mississippi, as is Evans. Their families knew each other being from the same neighborhood. In fact, had Evans been 60 years older, they would have lived across the street from one another.
Robinson earned his pilot license in the 1920s and was a Tuskegee graduate. During that time, there was not an aviation program there. Yet, he pursued his dreams and not only became a pilot, but also founded an aviation program at his alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute. Robinson is touted as the “Father of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
During the 1930’s and prior to World War II, Italy wanted to colonize the independent Ethiopia and began attacking them. Robinson volunteered to lead their air force and became an aviation hero. During his time in Ethiopia, Robinson took on Italian planes attacking with guns. He delivered messages, moved soldiers, was shot and still survived.
After World War II, Robinson was responsible for the Tuskegee Airmen helping train the Ethiopian air force. Robinson came back to America and started the John Robinson Airlines in Chicago.
“That’s what attracted the Ethiopian government; a black American who knew about aircraft. He was a mechanic and could fly,” Evans said. “In all his efforts there, it gave more credibility to blacks in aviation. After the war, he came back to the U.S. and received the opportunity to go to Tuskegee.”
After learning of Robinson, Evans began reading books about Robinson’s history. In his research, Evans found that his great grandfather, John Hall, was mentioned in one Robinson’s books.
During that time in the U.S., communities were segregated. Evans’ great grandfather owned a business across the street from Robinson’s home.
“I’d like to think that my grandfather contributed to the entrepreneurial spirit that Col. Robinson developed,” said Evans. “Not only was he a pilot, but he had the desire to go into business and start an airline in Ethiopia. I’ve benefited from Col. Robinson’s work, his sacrifices, and his legacy.”
Robinson’s ambition to fly directly affected Evans’ family, because Evans’ grandfather, retired Master Sgt. Sidney Evans, became a Tuskegee Airman with more than 33 years of military service. His father, retired Tech. Sgt. Edward Evans, Sr., and uncle, retired Col. Sidney Evans, Jr., both were U.S. Air Force members. Evans followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and also joined the Air Force.
“There’s a part in a book that talks about him flying from Tuskegee back to Mississippi,” Evans said. “He stopped over in Meridian and was received by over 4,000 black Americans who came to see him fly in and welcome him. It’s just a heartwarming story to hear that he’s been where I’ve been and that I’ve walked in his same footsteps.”
Earlier this year, the Mississippi National Guard received an invitation from the Defense Attaché’ at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a Mississippi representative to speak at the wreath laying service at the Col. John C. Robinson Library.
While in Addis Abba, Evans also attended a Foreign Military Sales event to deliver a C-130 to the Ethiopian Air Force. Local Ethiopians, Ethiopian airport members, U.S. Embassy diplomats, U.S. Air Force representatives from the United States Africa Command, and others also attended the events.
“I was honored to be invited and have the opportunity to represent Mississippi,” said Evans. “To have the chance to promote his legacy was indeed an honor for me. My family and I stand on the shoulders of Col. John Robinson’s sacrifices, service and accomplishments.”