First Black Female Naval Officers: Frances Wills, Harriet Pickens
For Frances Wills and Harriet Pickens, December 21, 1944, was one of the most exciting days of their lives. It was the day they were commissioned as officers in the United States Navy. It was also the day they stepped into history as the first African-American women ever to receive such commissions.
Two Very Accomplished Women
Frances Eliza Wills was a native of Philadelphia but later lived in New York. She was a Hunter College graduate who had worked with famed African American poet Langston Hughes while pursuing her MA in Social Work at Pitt. She then worked at an adoption agency, placing children in adoptive homes. Under her married name, Francis Wills Thorpe, she would eventually write a book, Navy Blue and Other Colors, about her experiences as a pioneering naval officer.
Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health administrator with a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Columbia University, was the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP. The July 1939 issue of “The Crisis,” the NAACP’s monthly magazine, has an article about Harriet moving into the job of Executive Secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association. She had previously been a supervisor of recreation programs in the New Deal’s WPA. The article notes that Harriet was a 1930 cum laude graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was one of only six seniors to receive the “S” pin, the highest honor at Smith for all around merit.
Obviously, these were two accomplished and well-educated women, highly qualified to serve their country as military officers in time of war. It was only their race that stood in the way. This remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down.
The two were forever linked in November of 1944 when together they were sworn into the US Navy as apprentice seamen, then went on to join the last class of the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (Women's Reserve) at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Starting Their Officer Training Course
As a graduate of Smith College, it must have felt like something of a homecoming for Harriet to be on that campus again. But getting through the training program, there was a challenging assignment for both women. It was only on October 19, 1944, that the Navy had finally announced its decision to integrate its female reserve program. By the time Harriet and Frances arrived at Smith in November, they were already well behind the other officer candidates in the program and had to work very hard to catch up. But catch up they did. By graduation day in December, they were on par with the rest of the women officers-to-be. In fact, according to the Negro History Bulletin, Volume 11, page 88, Harriet graduated as the top ranking member of her class.
The Female Naval Captain Who Helped Make It Possible
That they were there at all, in a fully integrated environment, was due in no small part to the efforts of another pioneering female naval officer, Captain Mildred H. McAfee.
Mildred McAfee had become President of Wellesley College in 1936. When the United States was drawn into World War II, she took a leave of absence from that post to enter the US Navy. In August 1942 she was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve, becoming the Navy's first female commissioned officer.
At the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, Congress had authorized the formation of the "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” program, popularly known as the WAVES. Mildred McAfee became its first director. Unlike the Army’s Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, the WAACs, the WAVES were an official component of the US Navy, its members holding the same ranks and ratings, and receiving the same pay as male members of the service.
A Totally Segregated Military
The question of the admission of African Americans to full and equal participation in the US military was being fiercely debated at that time. The NAACP and other black organizations were putting the Roosevelt administration under intense pressure to end segregation in the armed forces and allow African Americans to serve on the same basis as other groups.
All arms of the US military were segregated, with blacks relegated to non-combat, supporting roles. However, it was the Navy that was most resistant to calls for desegregating the services. The Navy command structure had been especially insistent that the only role it saw for African Americans was as servants, mess stewards and the like. But in 1944, things began, ever so slowly, to change.
Early that year, unable to withstand the pressure being applied by the NAACP, other civil rights organizations, and especially, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Navy commissioned its first male black officers, a group that came to be known as the “Golden Thirteen.” Still holding as much as it could to its tradition of strict segregation by race, the Navy limited the new officers to serving in segregated units involved only in shore duty. Still, it was a breakthrough.
The Navy Continues to Resist Integration
Now came the question of what to do about the female arm of the service. Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., in a study of the integration of the military sponsored by the US Army, details how resistance to integrating the WAVES was overcome.
The Navy was clear that it saw no need for blacks to be recruited into the WAVES. The Bureau of Naval Personnel argued that since the WAVES were designed to provide female replacements for men who could then be released for combat duty, and since there were more than enough black male sailors available for all the duties to which the Navy was willing to assign them, there was no need to admit black women.
"Over His Dead Body"
Mildred McAfee, promoted to Captain in 1943, firmly resisted that line of thought. She became an aggressive advocate for the full integration of the WAVES but faced an uphill fight. According to MacGregor, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told Captain McAfee that blacks would be enlisted into the WAVES "over his dead body."
Well, that’s exactly what happened. Knox died in office in 1944 and was replaced as Navy Secretary by James Forrestal. The new Secretary, a long time member of the National Urban League, a major civil rights organization, brought an entirely new attitude to the office. He immediately began working on a plan for the gradual integration of the Navy, including the WAVES. However, because of the continuing fear that attempting to integrate naval vessels while the war was still going on would cause too much turmoil, Forrestal’s plan envisioned commissioning black officers to serve only in segregated units.
Captain Mcafee’s Commitment to Integration
When Forrestal consulted Captain McAfee for her advice regarding enlisting blacks in the WAVES, she strongly insisted that there should be no segregation. She wanted blacks to be recruited into her unit on a fully integrated basis. Forrestal remained unconvinced of the practicality of such a course while the war lasted. However, the combination of Captain McAfee’s tenacious insistence, and not having enough African American WAVES applicants to justify a blacks-only arm, finally prevailed.
Under Captain McAfee’s direction, the WAVES became the first fully integrated arm of the US Navy. Their experience training officers and enlisted personnel on a fully integrated basis, routinely and without incident, became a model for the integration of the rest of the Navy.
Role Models for the Navy
Frances Wills and Harriet Pickens also became, in their own way, models for the rest of the Navy. In her memoir recounting her experiences as a naval officer, Frances shares an incident that shows the impact these women had personally on a previously totally segregated Navy:
Soon after her commissioning, Frances, along with other female officers, visited a ship docked in Brooklyn.
I became aware of a brown face, staring, wide-eyed from the galley opening. I tried to appear casual as I smiled lightly in his direction. The face disappeared and another brown one took its place immediately, equally wide-eyed....(This was) a reaction which I would soon become accustomed to see in various places, with different people. It was the first time that these stewards (the only job available for many years for Afro-Americans in the Navy) had seen a person of color in officer’s uniform. It may well have been the first time they had seen WAVES of any color since they had just returned from duty.
The Navy seemed to be proud of its accomplishment in commissioning Harriet and Frances. As Frances recalls in her memoir:
Navy photographers were everywhere. Harriet and I were asked to pose pushing down together to close a suitcase. Although the photograph itself was first-rate and has been shown many times in the years since that day it was entirely fictional. By the time that the photographer approached and described the shot he wanted, both Harriet and I had long since stowed away all our gear and were waiting with the same undisguised eagerness as all of our classmates for train time. It was not difficult to smile a happy smile.
A Lasting Legacy
By the time the war ended on September 2, 1945, 72 black enlisted personnel had joined the two pioneering African American officers among the Navy's 86,000 WAVES.
After receiving their commissions, both Frances Wills and Harriet Pickens served at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, NY, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES recruits.
Frances Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests. She died in 1998.
Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions. After suffering a stroke, she died in 1969 at the age of 60.
Mildred McAfee continued on active duty in the Navy until February 1946. She then returned to her post as President of Wellesley College. She died in 1994.
What these three remarkable women accomplished lives on. By helping to demonstrate that racial integration could work in the military service most resistant to it, they contributed to making possible President Harry S. Truman’s executive order of July 26, 1948, mandating full equality of treatment and opportunity in all elements of the United States military.
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© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin