Theodore “Ted” Lumpkin Jr., a member of the Tuskegee Airmen whose service as a member of the all-Black unit during World War II helped desegregate the U.S. military, has died at age 100.
Lumpkin, a native Angeleno, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 26 at a hospital, just days shy of his 101st birthday, said his son Ted Lumpkin III.
“We’re carrying on his [legacy], but it’s an end of an era,” his son said.
Lumpkin lived a full life. He was drafted into the military in 1942 when he was a 21-year-old student at UCLA. He was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron of the all-Black unit in Tuskegee, Ala., as a 2nd lieutenant with the U.S. Army Air Force.
He said his eyes weren’t good enough to become a pilot, so he served as an intelligence officer, briefing pilots about missions during his overseas combat tour in Italy.
During his tenure in the military, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from USC. He met his wife, Georgia, while he was a student and got married soon after. Years later, he retired from the the Air Force Reserves as a lieutenant colonel.
He started a new era of his life working for Los Angeles County, serving as a social worker among other jobs over 32 years. He later shifted gears again, becoming a real estate broker and opening his own real estate company.
Although Lumpkin played a role in changing the military’s culture, his family knew only that he served during WWII, not that he was one of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen.
“He didn’t talk about it much. He’d maybe mention some incident or a buddy, but we were married for a number of years until I heard about them,” Georgia Lumpkin said. “When I realized who these guys were and what they’d done, I was just overcome at how much they persevered. They did not bow down. They achieved things that detractors said they couldn’t, weren’t capable of doing.”
Lumpkin’s son said that when he was young he was watching the television show “That’s Incredible!” when the announcer introduced members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“Who the heck are these guys? Then, there’s my dad walking onstage,” he said. “He never talked about it, but from there it took off like wildfire.”
The Tuskegee Airmen received the highest civilian recognition in 2007 with the Congressional Gold Medal. Nearly two years later, then-President Obama invited the surviving squadron members, including Lumpkin, to his inauguration.
Now, only eight original Tuskegee combat pilots and several support personnel are still alive, said Rick Sinkfield of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.. All are in their 90s or older.
Lumpkin traveled frequently across the nation and abroad with the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. He served as president of the Los Angeles chapter, a national board member and western regional representative. He was also a board member with the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation.
During presentations alongside other colleagues, Lumpkin often encouraged people to do their best every day to overcome what he described as their “own Tuskegee experience.”
Although these projects took up most of his bandwidth, family members said he always carved out time to spend time with them, even if it meant boarding a flight and heading directly to a music recital or a wedding.
“I think he really enjoyed doing it,” his other son, Kelly, said. “I couldn’t have kept up with his travel schedule.”
Before Lumpkin tested positive for COVID-19, he was able to live life on his own terms. He enjoyed taking drives down Pacific Coast Highway and had recently purchased a new white Kia Sport. He wore his mask during errands. He’d occasionally call in a takeout order at the Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen in Inglewood for a breakfast sandwich. He learned how to use Zoom for virtual conferences and board meetings.
“As tragic as it is with COVID taking him, he still won in the game of life. He still got to do everything anybody should want to do,” Kelly said.
Lumpkin Jr. is survived by his wife, two sons, one daughter, several grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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