Caswell County resident Connie Steadman has an experience in her life that she doesn’t like to speak of that often.
It was 1958, not long after the United States military had integrated its branches in 1948, and Steadman and a group of her friends — all in basic training in Atlanta — were walking in uniform, trying to catch a train.
While the military had adopted an open-minded policy towards not only women, but African-American women, not all of American society had adopted the same views at the time.
Steadman, along with a few of her other African-American friends, expressed concern to their white friends about experiencing prejudice on the bus, but the group brushed it off, thinking their military uniforms would save them from any harassment.
That wasn’t the case …
“I think I knew they weren’t going to let us all sit together but they thought since we were all inn uniform, they would let us, but they didn’t,” Steadman recalled. “Sure enough when we stepped on the train, they yelled out to us loud and clear, ‘You have to go to the back,’ so that was one of my memories that I have that remain in my mind.”
However, that wasn't the case this past Thursday as Steadman along with fellow Caswell natives April Durden, Carolyn Southern, Deborah Bushnell, Anetta Whitsett, Gail Davidson and Ruby Thompson were honored for their military service in a luncheon hosted by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the county's Extension & Community Association (ECA) Club in the kitchen of the Caswell County Agricultural Building.
“I’d say it’s particularly nice to be honored as a group of females who have served because it’s not every day you receive such honors,” said Davidson. “Even though these type of things are given out to military often, it’s not every day the females get honored and aren’t forgotten or pushed to the side.”
Considering the time the seven have given in service of the country, letting them go unnoticed wouldn’t do them due justice. In all, the seven have a combined 117.5 years of service, serving in the United States Air Force, Army, Navy and North Carolina National Guard.
When the United States ended the draft for military service in 1973, transitioning to the all-volunteer force that currently exists. At that time, women represented just two percent of the enlisted forces and eight percent of the officer corps. However, in 2019, those numbers are slightly higher, coming in at 16 and 18 percent respectively.
While they are quick to not take all the credit, Durden, Southern, Bushnell, Whitsett, Davidson, Steadman and Thompson do acknowledge the role they played in the increase.
“I think we are all groundbreakers,” Bushnell said. “We were then and we are now. A lot of people’s minds and opinions have changed. The mindset in the military. I joined in 1976 and I was still among a minority. Being a woman, being black and joining the Air Force and at that time, there was also still the undertow of recent integration so we lived through that and it actually helped me being in the service. It made things hopeful. You did get more of a voice and got a lot of great opportunities. You still get a lot of great opportunities. It’s a great opportunity and a great place for people to start.”
Thompson added, “I would just like to let young ladies know that it is an honor to serve. No matter if you go for three years or for 20, it’s still a great privilege to serve your country. It opens your eyes and allows you to grow and build and become a stronger person in anything you do moving forward.”
Davidson also learned a valuable lesson she still carries to this day.
“I would just like to add also as far as what I got from the military going forward and I often look at people and when you tell them something they don’t really listen. You have to repeating things to them but in the military, once you’re out of basic training, they tell you to look at the bulletin board,” Davidson said. “Any time you walk past the bulletin board, you better stop and look. And even now, I go to the Senior Center and every time I pass the bulletin board, I look. It’s makes you independent and teaches you how to stand on your own two feet.”
“The biggest thing they teach you is attention to detail,” Thompson said, concurring. “I have three sons, [Michael, Jalen and Sean] and I tell them details are very important. I need to know what, when, why how and because so I think it’s paying attention to details and being aware of everything going on around you.”
Whitsett recalled being a shy kid in school. In fact, she was so shy, she was often tempted to play hooky from school when she had to speak in front of her class due to her fear. However, her time spent in the service changed all of that. Her service helped give Whitsett her own voice and own two feet.
“I just want everybody to know that the military gave my independence and like was said earlier, I was able to take care of myself and never depend on anybody else so if nothing else, you will learn independence in the military,” Whitsett said.
For Bushnell, the military helped her not only gain her independence, but also gain a world view and perspective that could’ve only been provided by the military. She hopes to pass that message on to other young women from all walks of life thinking of joining the military.
“I want to say that for females of any race or nationality is that from the time you’re out of school, look at the service as an opportunity because it’s still a great opportunity,” Bushnell said. “The other thing is you get to get away from home. There’s a maturing aspect to it. It’s a chance to experience how other people live in not only other parts of the United States, but the world as well.”