By Stu Harris ’84
For the first time ever, Ohioans are commemorating Ohio Tuskegee Airmen Day today, March 29, 2021, to honor the first African American fighter pilots to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While overcoming great barriers, such as segregation and discrimination, they became one of the best fighting groups in World War II.
My wife, Alison Hauck Harris ’85, and I had the privilege of befriending a Tuskegee Airman, Maj. Herndon “Don” Cummings many years ago. We met Maj. Cummings when we helped him refurbish his home. We were on a team organized by Christmas in April, called Rebuilding Together these days.
The Tuskegee Airmen gained an outstanding reputation while fighting in the skies over Europe under the leadership of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. They flew P-51 Fighters and painted the tails of their planes red. The Red Tails earned the admiration of the U.S. Army Air Force for their skilled pilots and stellar record of protecting our bombers. Ultimately, they were recognized with 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars and eight Purple Hearts.
We got to know Maj. Cummings while painting and running to the hardware store to purchase supplies, and learned about his family and friends and his life.
Fighting for a desegregated military
Training with other pilots and flying B-25 bombers, Maj. Cummings moved to Columbus when the Tuskegee Airmen posted to Lockbourne Air Force Base, now known as Rickenbacker Airport.
A grand parade of African Americans from all over Ohio gathered to show their support for the 477th Bomber Group when they arrived at Lockbourne to train for the Pacific theatre of WWII. After serving our country, many of the original Tuskegee Airmen stayed in Columbus to raise their families. Today, they are an important part of the history of Columbus and the United States.
Maj. Cummings told us stories about his leader, Col. Davis, a Black West Pointer, who graduated 35th out of 276 in his class. He applied to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1936, but the U.S. did not have a Black unit. His application was rejected. Shortly after, many newspapers jumped on the story, advocating that all military units be open to African Americans.
Over the course of our weekend with him, Maj. Cummings told us about being a pilot and what it was like living in the United States after his service in World War II. His story matches the history of a dichotomy known to many.
Maj. Cummings related how Eleanor Roosevelt played a crucial role in the desegregation of the U.S. Army. When the First Lady heard about the mistreatment of Black soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces, she was appalled. Over and over, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “What a lot we must do to make our war a real victory for democracy.”
Maj. Cummings and fellow officers impacted this history when they challenged the existence of two officers’ clubs – one white and one Black. Ultimately, the military was desegregated through the efforts of Mrs. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman.
Nothing kept this good man down
After his service, Maj. Cummings obtained his commercial pilot’s license. Unfortunately, he had to pursue another profession because there were virtually no opportunities for employment of Black pilots. Subsequently, he decided to become a mason to support his family and send his two daughters to college. Always the optimist, Maj. Cummings related his experiences and exclaimed that nothing could keep a good man down.
As the weekend wound down, one of the last remaining projects was the installation of a flagpole. On the first day of the project, our task was to set the concrete and install the pole. The next day was a beautiful day in early May – the sky was a crisp blue and the sun was shining. After we presented Maj. Cummings with the flag, we hoisted it up to the top of the newly installed pole.
We still have his thank you note. It says:
I will always remember and appreciate the wonderful work you did in repairing, refurbishing and beautifying my home and property. It gives me a daily lift to see and feel the difference. I also enjoyed the warm friendly conversations with all of you and your helpers. Thank you for the birthday party and the delicious American flag birthday cake. … I wish all of you the best for the future.
Maj. Cummings passed away on July 2, 2009, but not before attending the inauguration of President Obama.
A fine example of integrity
In Ohio, this month, we honor the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. There are exhibits where you can learn more about these heroes including at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum in Dayton and Don Scott Field in Columbus. There are historical markers and more in Oberlin and Rickenbacker Airport; plus paintings at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport and other commemorations.
You can watch the movies: “The Tuskegee Airmen,” a 1995 movie starring Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr., and “Red Tails,” a 2012 movie starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (again).
A new documentary by “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts is an excellent recounting of these heroes featuring Robert’s father, a Tuskegee Airman.
We should continue to recognize these heroes because their brave legacies should be commemorated, and they should be honored for breaking barriers in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen are a part of Ohio history and an example of selflessness, honor and integrity.
Alison and Stu Harris, a Miami Merger of 31 years, majored in public administration and political science/history respectively. They live in Columbus, Ohio. Alison works for the YMCA and Stu works at Nationwide Insurance.