Legacy Matters: Tuskeege airman’s daughter Rhonda Leonard Horwith speaks on legacy of Black patriotism

By April Eberhardt The Black Lens

Rhonda Leonard-Horwith grew up all over the United States as the daughter of Tuskegee Airman, Lt. Col. Harlan Q. Leonard, Jr. (her grandfather was also Harlan Leonard, Sr., an American jazz musician from Kansas City who formed the band “Harlan Leonard and His Rockets”). She remembers hearing her father talk about being a “dog fighting Tuskegee Airman’’ when she sat on his lap listening to stories as he looked at old photos. Seeing familiar faces, he would remark “he’s gone” each time his young daughter pointed to someone in the pictures.

“I grew up mostly seeing my dad in uniform or in a flight suit, and maybe sometimes the leather jacket with his helmet,” she says. By “gone,” Lt. Col. Leonard was either referring to the 80% washout rate imposed on Black aviators during training, or simply being shot out of the sky as they practiced in shoddy aircraft during simulated dog fights.

Lt. Col. Leonard was a part of the Strategic Air Command and had to be ready at a moment’s notice to jump into the cockpit under the threat of attack as The Allies raged to defeat Nazi Germany. He flew 9 different aircraft.

The Tuskegee Airmen were pioneers who integrated the Air Force. Rhonda shares that they were more like an experiment because detractors earnestly tried to sabotage them. There was, indeed, another mission besides WWII; the one to prove that Blacks were capable of flying planes. For every 10 pilots, only 2 made it through the training program. Trainers maintained double standards and were much harder on the Black pilots. But Rhonda still remembers the declaration that her father echoed throughout her life: “Don’t you ever give up. You always complete the mission.”

Rhonda recounts her father’s narrative. She details how, as a 19-year-old student at UCLA, “he got on the train and went all the way to Alabama. I can’t even imagine that in those times, in the 40s, because there were serious things happening down there.” He had heard that there was aviation training at Tuskegee Institute. In 1939, Public Law 18 expanded the Army Air Corps, and called for Black colleges to develop training programs that would prepare Blacks for jobs to support the Air Corps. Thus, the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee was established under the direction of Charles Alfred Anderson, the first Black person to earn a pilot’s license.

In 1941 Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit, curious about the work being done there. After being flown in a plane piloted by Anderson, she put her support behind the aeronautical school. Tuskegee became the door through which Black aviators, the Red Tails, would integrate the military. Yet, even with proven skills, many never made it off the ground. Black pilots were given the planes that White pilots could no longer use, were selected for menial flying assignments, or in some cases, were left unprotected during combat.

There was also clear and present danger for the Leonard family in the community that surrounded the military base on which they lived in Maryland. “I grew up in the time period of the 60s; the Klan and racism was hot.” She recalls how a classmate witnessed his father’s murder. A curfew was enacted for Black members of the military and their families. In the deep woods that she passed daily on her way to school, it was not uncommon to hear about lynchings and torture of Black men caught by the Klan, and it didn’t matter if you were a member of the Armed Forces.

Watching her father become crestfallen each time he was skipped for promotion was hard enough because she knew how dedicated he was. She remembers how he would lay on the couch solemnly each time the promotion cycle came around. This, compounded with sheer, guttural fear for his life at the hands of the Klan on any given day of the week, created a type of trauma that dug into her soul and even caused her physical sickness. In the safety of her home, she saw her father suit up to fight for his country. Outside of those walls, she willed that nothing nefarious would happen to him if he stayed out too long. This was the real war in her life.

The Grand Dragon of the KKK would show up every few months to recruit, Rhonda remembers. “We had a 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock curfew (to be back on base). I was always afraid my dad would not come back.” Her high school was off base, and it was not uncommon that crosses were burned at night in the cow pasture next to her school. When her guidance counselor told her that she would embarrass her race by attending UCLA, one of several colleges that she was accepted into, Rhonda refused to tell her father. “I did not tell my dad that that happened because I was afraid that he would go out there and yell at them, and what if he didn’t make it back?”

During these times, she would repeat her father’s words in her mind: “Always complete the mission.” Rhonda went on to become a trial attorney and is now retired. Lt. Col Leonard continued to fly planes and also worked in the National Security Agency while on active duty. He served just over two decades in the Air Force as both an aviator and an engineer, retiring in 1968.

In 2007, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. When he was seated on a Red Tails float during the 2016 Rose Bowl Parade, Rhonda recalls the smile that would not leave her father’s face. She describes her dad as a humble man who never bragged about his accomplishments and chuckles as she recalls what he said while signing autographs when the 2012 movie “Red Tails” premiered: “I didn’t know being famous was so difficult!” One of his last full circle moments was being invited to the inauguration of President Obama. She recounts that he never thought this would be the America he knew when he started his mission in the 1940s. Lieutenant Colonel Harlan Q. Leonard, Jr., born in 1926, passed away in March of 2023. “Always complete the mission” are the words of his legacy.

Narratives of patriotism are rarely told from a Black lens. Whatever opinions exist about Blacks serving in the military, their pursuit of liberty cannot be unheeded. Black people have fought in every war since the American Revolution. Our battles have always been about the relationship between survival and erasure. Liberty, for us, was so critical that risk takers would forfeit their own lives just to afford their families a mere chance to have it. Allegiance in the face of oppression became the residue of a desperate fight for our humanity under the assault of racism. Yet, generations have endured.

“Growing up with him was like living through history. The legacy is that they taught us respect and to never give up,” shares Rhonda. The Tuskegee Airmen, and countless others, are patriots of a different mold. They have shown the world that liberty is our inalienable right. For that, they must be remembered and honored.