By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
“Navy to admit Negroes into the WAVES,” so read the newspaper headlines Oct. 19, 1944. For the first time black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program.
The program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It would be two more years before the WAVES became open to all women.
It was not an easy journey. During the Congressional hearings Thomasina Walker of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Non-Partisan Political Council testified the legislation creating the Navy’s female reserve program should include a non-discrimination clause so all eligible women could volunteer to serve. Her argument fell on deaf ears. Public Law 689 creating the program did not specify blacks could not be recruited, yet they were denied the opportunity to do so for most of the war.
Whites and blacks representing civic, religious, and civil rights organizations across the country urged the Navy to recruit black women. The black press published articles about blacks being turned away at recruitment offices and the individuals and organizations demanding the Navy reverse its policy of exclusion. During a campaign speech in Chicago, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1944 presidential election, accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES.
Citizens expressed their opposition to the Navy’s policy of excluding blacks from the WAVES by sending letters and petitions to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” Knox. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a meeting with military and civilian leaders to discuss the issue.
Capt. Mildred McAfee, the WAVES director, supported diversity but she was well aware of Secretary Knox’s objections. She is reported to have overheard him saying that “[Blacks] would be in the WAVES over his dead body.” James Forrestal succeeded Knox after a fatal heart attack in April 1944. The new Navy Secretary did not believe a segregated Navy was cost-effective or made the best use of naval personnel. Under his leadership, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.
Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health worker, and social worker Frances Elizabeth Wills distinguished themselves in mid-December, 1944 as the first black women to receive their commissions in the U.S. Navy. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program.
Interestingly, there were Japanese and Native American WAVES before Pickens and Wills. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter. More than 70 blacks joined the enlisted ranks by Sept. 2, 1945. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy.
During the past 72 years, black women across the ranks, ratings and communities have had outstanding careers in the Navy, including the following:
Edna Young was the first of her race and gender to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.
Brenda Robinson, the first black aviator, and Matice Wright, a naval flight officer, excelled in naval aviation.
Vivian McFadden integrated the Navy Chaplain Corps.
Janie Mines was the first black woman Naval Academy graduate.
Joan C. Bynum, a Navy nurse was the first black woman naval officer to attain the rank of captain (0-6).
Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, was the first of her race and gender to reach the rank of rear admiral in 1998.
Fleet Master Chief April Beldo is one of a select few men or women to become a fleet or force master chief.
Annie Anderson is the third black woman flag officer
On July 1, 2014, Michelle J. Howard reached unprecedented heights with her promotion to the rank of four-star admiral and assignment as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s first woman to hold that rank and position. Media outlets around the world celebrated her achievements. Howard made history and did a job that was reflective of her outstanding warfighting, leadership, and command abilities.
Just as the Navy was better with Pickens, Wills and the 70 enlisted women who followed them, it was better with Adm. Howard. Howard, like the first black female naval officers before her, paved the way for even greater opportunities for women.
Regina Akers, Ph.D., is an archivist and historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command based out of the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.