Downtown mural marks Kokomo’s Tuskegee legacy

Written on 05/15/2024
Patrick Munsey

Community gathers for unveiling of historic art

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The Tuskegee Airmen have entered the realm of legend. The historic group of African American fighter and bomber pilots are known across the United States as great soldiers and patriots for their efforts in World War II.

As the first black airmen in the country’s history, they excelled. Their combat record was virtually unmatched, and their impact on the fight for civil rights is still felt today. And Kokomo was home for five of them.

On May 14, the community gathered in downtown for the unveiling of a mural commemorating the service of these five men. Located in the 200 block of North Main Street, the artwork is stunning, stretching across the entirety of the northern wall of the Dechert Law Office.

Known for its many military memorials and monuments across the community, the Howard County Memorial Corp. joined with the Arts Federation as the motivating force behind the mural. Its vice president, Robin Williams, explained that the idea evolved from a plan to create an exhibition honoring the Tuskegee Airmen locally.

The memorial corporation secured a grant from the Community Foundation of Howard County for the exhibition, but when the organizers learned that five of the airmen were from Kokomo, the project took on much more importance.

“We wanted to do something special,” said Williams. “We will leave this here as a permanent tribute to our local hometown heroes.”

The organization began looking for mural locations and artists. The Dechert Law Office was a willing donor for the space, and the artist – Malcolm Byers of Amarillo, Texas – was specifically chosen by Williams, based on other of his works she had seen and appreciated.

It took Byers two weeks of work and nearly 200 hours to complete the mural, and the end result is awe-inspiring.

“Leading into this project, I didn't really know much about the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Byers.  “I was just fascinated with the subjects, and the portraits were great. So, I took this job pretty last minute, but I was really excited about it.

“Painting something like a dedication of individuals, like these Tuskegee Airmen, is really different from just doing my own art. I think educating individuals with a mural really elevates the project. Hearing people walk by asking questions, it just really starts a conversation, and that really means a lot to me. I'm really glad I was selected for this project, and I want to thank you all for allowing me to paint in your community.”

For the families of the five airmen, the mural means even more. These were their fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers. Some of the airmen downplayed their involvement in the historic units, barely mentioning their service. Others acknowledged it humbly, but never sought special treatment or accolades.

With their legacy now revealed and preserved, the families expressed the great pride and appreciation such recognition fostered.

“He was our Uncle Bennett; he wasn't a Tuskegee Airman,” said Celestine Johnson, of her uncle LTC Bennett Hardy. “He was our uncle. He was an integral part of our family. And after he flew for the Tuskegee Airmen, he came back to Kokomo and worked at the post office. And the call came for him to go back into the military where he served and flew for another 30 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

“His dedication to this country did not end with the Tuskegee Airmen. I just want to thank everyone in the community who has contributed to this because this is a lost legacy. People in this community didn't know it.”

Indeed, few knew that Gordon Morgan, Sgt. Andrew T. Dunnigan, Lt. John McClure, and Maj. John O. Cunningham all joined Hardy in Tuskegee. Only two of the five were actual pilots, but the designation Tuskegee Airman is extended to all who served in the 332nd Fighter Group and 477th Bombardment Group, including navigators, mechanics, nurses, cooks, and other support personnel attached to the units. There were 922 Tuskegee pilots in all.

“I have goosebumps every time I look at the mural,” said Brian Morgan, grandson of Gordon Morgan. “Hopefully, it will be able to inspire our youth to achieve greater things. Definitely, it will inspire my grandchildren to look at it and say, ‘I can do that also.’”

Carolyn Reed, great niece of Maj. John O. Cunningham, explained that her family settled in New London, where her father was a homebuilder. Not coincidentally, the small unincorporated town was a “station” on the Underground Railroad, where the New London Friends Church offered shelter and safety to the thousands escaping the grips of slavery.

Though Reed has lived in Noblesville the past 30 years, she was proud to return to Howard County to celebrate the legacy of her great uncle. She also expressed excitement for the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit scheduled to open at the Grissom Air Museum on Memorial Day – another effort of the Howard County Memorial Corp.

“I'm so excited to participate on Memorial Day,” said Reed. “I hope everybody can attend. And I know Heaven is smiling because of everybody here today.”

The celebration wasn’t limited to Kokomo. State Rep. Mike Karickhoff also presented the families of the Airmen with a proclamation from the Indiana General Assembly, recognizing the contributions made.

Williams closed the unveiling by calling the mural “a healing moment.”

“This mural has the power to heal us as a community because this community hasn't always been one of brotherly love,” said Williams. “There's been a lot of division here. Over 100 years ago, what was once a parade route for hatred and racial injustice is now going to honor five strong black men.

“This July 4 parade will have a very different vibration, a very different feeling. It's a time for us to heal, and what a beautiful way to do it.”

The Tuskegee Airmen mural was made possible by contributions from Dechert Law Office, the Community Foundation of Howard County, Sunbelt Rentals, The Severns Family Fund, UAW Region 2B, UAW Local 685, the UAW Local 685 Veterans Committee, the UAW Local 685 Women's Committee, the UAW Local 292 Retirees, the UAW Local 685 Retirees, UAW Local 1166, UAW Local 2209, VFW Post 1152, Royal Custom Painting, the Kokomo Fire Department, Fortune Co., Solidarity Community Federal Credit Union, the Charles C. Anderson American Legion, Community First Bank of Indiana, Financial Builders Credit Union, Jenkins Family Dentistry, DAV Chapter 28, Voiture 1103 (40 & 8), Eriks Chevrolet, the Wyman Group, Indiana Black Expo of Kokomo, American Legion Post 317, Chariot Automotive Group, the Howard County Historical Society, Caldwell Monument, and Lowe’s.