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Lt. John Leahr memorial concept sketch by Jarrett Hawkins

Kennedy Heights Community Council Honors Tuskegee Airman Through Artwork

A new piece of art is set to highlight an Ohio community’s connection to a history-making group in the militaryLieutenant John Leahr.

This summer, a monument commemorating Lt. John H. Leahr of Kennedy Heights, Ohio, will be unveiled outside of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, said Carren Herring, treasurer of the Kennedy Heights Community Council.

As a student at North Avondale Montessori School, Leahr was one of only a few African-American students in Miss Pitchell’s third grade class. Later in life, Leahr joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African-American military aviators to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps. During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 missions in Europe and North Africa.

Leahr flew 115 combat missions, including two in which he escorted Lt. Herbert M. Heilbrun, who also hailed from Ohio. The two learned that they had attended the same school, but the pilots had not been close during childhood because of racial divisions in the community.

After the war ended, Leahr and Heilbrun reconnected and discovered that they were once again only living a few minutes away from each other. They became fast friends and worked to spread the word of how the Tuskegee Airmen helped lead the U.S. military to integration.

While their story had already been told through various newspaper articles, television features, and White and Black Airmen: Their True History, a book by John Fleischman, Herring said Kennedy Heights desired a physical memorial that celebrated Leahr’s bravery and commitment to his country.

“We wanted an original work of art to honor First Lieutenant John Leahr on the grounds of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center,” she said.

The community got its wish in July 2017, when it received an ArtSTART grant from the Ohio Arts Council (OAC). Providing flexible and accessible funding to organizations, the ArtSTART program helps grant recipients complete short-term projects while addressing a wide variety of goals and objectives.

Using this grant funding, the Kennedy Heights Community Council commissioned a public art memorial to honor Leahr and the Tuskegee Airmen. It will be installed later this summer and celebrated with a culminating community event during the 2018 Juneteenth Festival.

Lieutenant John Leahr memorial concept sketch by Jarrett HawkinsDeer Park-based artist Jarrett Hawkins was selected to design the memorial. He said he was inspired to bring Leahr’s story to life through art.

“I don’t think that our veterans get enough credit, and veterans of color even less credit,” he said. “Anybody who does what people like Lt. Leahr did, you’ve got to hold them in pretty significant esteem. And the fact that he was fighting for a country that was treating African-Americans as it was at that point, there’s a profound irony there for me.”

Hawkins, who previously completed a veterans’ memorial in Deer Park in 2000, said the Kennedy Heights memorial will be a bronze relief plaque of Leahr.  

“There is certainly research involved," he said of the artistic process. "There’s good photographic imagery of (Leahr) in his uniform and we have good reference for the kind of plane he flew. I am not an historian by any means, but I have a serious interest in the conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in.”

Honoring Leahr’s connection to Kennedy Heights and sharing the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is the goal of the project, Herring said.

“We wanted our community to know this man lived here,” she said. “(We think) it will be a draw to people outside of the community.”

For Hawkins, the memorial is a chance to honor Leahr and thank other veterans for their sacrifice and service.

“I hope this will impact the community in a very positive way. I think it is really important to do appropriate memorial work for our veterans, that’s the simplest way to say it,” he said. “These guys were exemplary individuals by any standard. And I want to do whatever I can to make the community more aware of the contributions that its members have made.”

For more information about the Kennedy Heights Community Council, visit kennedyheights.org.

To learn more about ArtSTART and other OAC grant programs, visit oac.ohio.gov/grants.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Kayla Draper, 2017-18  Social Media and Events Fellow
Photos courtesy of he Kennedy Heights Community Council and Jarrett Hawkins



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