GEORGETOWN, Del. — Georgetown native Artishia Mae Conaway Stephens finally has her Tuskegee Airman wings.
And they are golden.
Seven-plus years after her death at age 87 in June 2011, Ms. Conaway Stephens — who served in the U.S. Army/Air Force from 1945-49 — posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest distinguished civilian award, during a luncheon ceremony Saturday at the CHEER Community Center.
Family members, including daughters Marcealeate Ruffin of Georgetown and Stephanie Stephens of Claymont and grandson Robert Ruffin Jr. of Boston, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal presented by U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. The medal recognizes Ms. Conaway Stephens being officially vetted as a documented Tuskegee Airman, according to the Delaware State News.
"It's pure excitement," said Ms. Ruffin. "When we were younger, we heard the stories, but it was like — whatever. But now that we are older, we understand what an accomplishment that it was. My family and I have been overwhelmed with the love, the honor and the respect you have shown to our mother."
"I'm beyond proud. I'm virtually speechless," said Stephanie Stephens. "I just wish she was here to witness this and receive all of the accolades. That is the only sad part about today."
"I've got to echo my mom and my aunt," said Mr. Ruffin. "I'm very proud and very excited that my grandmother is being honored in this way. It brings back a lot of lessons that she taught me when I was young — to be brave, to be a leader and to think that you can accomplish anything. I think her participation in the Tuskegee Airmen and being one of the leaders there is something that has been a driving force in my life and inspiration."
Col. Charles McGee — an original Tuskegee Airman, veteran of three wars, and aviation legend — still clearly remembers the day he shot down a German Luftwaffe fighter.
A graduate of Howard High School in Wilmington and the Berean Business College in Philadelphia, Ms. Conaway Stephens served in the U.S. Army/Air Force from 1945-49 as a clerk-typist/stenographer. She was assigned to the 99th Squadron, a division of the Tuskegee Airmen commanded by the late four-star Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. She attained the rank of staff sergeant.
The Tuskegee Airmen, often called the Tuskegee Experiment, was an Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African Americans who were pilots, navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, ground crew, flight instructors and support personnel who kept planes in the air and in service.
Ms. Conaway Stephens enlisted in the Women's Army Corps in June 1945 and was honorably discharged as a highly decorated airman on Dec. 23, 1949. During her military assignments she was awarded the:
- World War II Victory Medal;
- Good Conduct Medal; and
- Army Commendation Ribbon.
“Today, we honor a documented original Tuskegee Airman,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David B. Rich, of the John H. Porter First State Chapter/Tuskegee Airmen Inc. “It is truly our honor to know that Tuskegee Airmen are still represented and honoring those who served. As we know a lot of our originals have passed, but not forgotten. We are proud we were able to get this done with the family here to say, ‘Thank you.’”
After military service, Ms. Conaway Stephens worked for 39 years as a state of Delaware employee, for many years as secretary at the William C. Jason Comprehensive High School in Georgetown, and after that school closed as a bookkeeper at Delaware Technical & Community College's Georgetown Owens Campus.
Tuskegee Airmen served during an era of racial inequality. A Tuskegee Airmen battle cry is that before the Air Force shattered the sound barrier, these airmen shattered the race barrier.
Former Sgt. Maj. Thomas Ellis will be laid to rest Friday at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.
Retired USAF Brig. Gen. Ernest Talbert of the John H. Porter First State Chapter said Artishia Stephens' story is truly remarkable.
"Tuskegee Airmen spoke about the 'Double V' — victory overseas and victory at home," said Mr. Talbert. "Miss Stephens fought a third battle and that was the battle for women to establish their place in the airmen's society as well. So, we honor her for a number of things here this evening."
"Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war and they helped change our nation," added Mr. Talbert. "The medal that we're doing is a small part to ensure that the story of Artishia Stephens will be told and honored for generations."
Rep. Blunt Rochester filled with emotion during the medal presentation.
“All of a sudden I got very emotional. And I think it is because when I look at this picture, it reminds me that I am standing here … representing our state and being a servant because of a woman who came before me and who was of service; a person who served,” said Rep. Blunt Rochester. “This medal is the highest civilian honor that Congress gives out. She is being awarded the highest medal for service to our country, service to our state whether it was working in the field of education and service to our community. I am humbled to be here on behalf of the United States Congress, presenting this gold medal to Staff Sgt. Artishia Stephens.”
Recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen reached a high point Feb. 28, 2006, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, the largest group ever to receive the award. On March 27, 2006, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation, authorizing then-President George W. Bush to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Dr. Reba Hollingsworth, who was a teacher at the William C. Jason High School, shared some remembrances.
"Artishia Stephens was a professional all the way, a no-nonsense secretary who was dedicated to the students, the faculty and the community. She was the liaison between the administration and the faculty. Artishia Stephens was one of a kind," said Dr. Hollingsworth.
"As I have gotten older, I see how a woman who maybe 4 feet 11, maybe 100 pounds was never ever afraid to tell me whatever was on her mind," said Mr. Ruffin of his grandmother. "It is a blessing. It means the world to us that you are all here."
“Being the child of a military person can be interesting,” said Ms. Ruffin, the oldest of Ms. Conaway Stephens' two daughters. “She was in the military during a time that you could stay in once you got married, which she did, but once you became pregnant you had to leave. So, when she became pregnant with me, she left. Had the policy been what it is today she would have been career. She loved her family, but the military was a close second. Many people have said to me, ‘I didn’t know your mother was in the military.’ But then they said that once they learned, it wasn’t surprising, because she was sharp, to the point and no nonsense.”