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Perseverance: LTJG Harriet Ida Pickens and ENS Frances Wills

By Denise Krepp, Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command

In November 2020, CNO and Mrs. Gilday installed a new exhibit entitled “Celebrating Navy Women: Perseverance and Achievements” in the Tingey House. The pioneers proudly served their country and in 2021, the Naval History and Heritage Command will be sharing their stories.

Two women who persevered were LTJG Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Thorpe. In 1942, Congress amended the Naval Reserve Act of 1938 which had barred women from the Naval Reserves. The law did not affirmatively permit African American women to serve so Secretary of the Navy Knox, a determined opponent of African American advancement, refused to let them join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

Frances Wills (left) and Harriet Ida Pickens are sworn in Nov. 16, 1944 as Apprentice Seamen by Lt. Rosamond D. Selle, USNR, at New York City. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archive

The African American community was determined to participate in the program so as individuals and groups they lobbied congress and the Roosevelt administration to permit African American women to serve in the WAVES and to serve in an integrated WAVES program.

Secretary Knox died in April 1944. Secretary Forrestal, his replacement, supported integration of the Navy.  On October 19, 1944, the Navy with President Roosevelt’s support announced that African American women could serve as WAVES.

A few months later on December 22, 1944, Lieutenant Junior Grade Pickens and Ensign Wills became the first African-American women to be commissioned as Navy officers.

Ensign Frances Wills (left) and Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens enjoy lunch following their graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, circa December 1944.

Naval History and Heritage Command Historian Doctor Regina Akers has written extensively about Lieutenant Junior Grade Pickens and Ensign Wills, and the African American community’s determination to achieve equality in the military. Her work can be found at:

After the war, Ensign Wills wrote her memoir “Navy Blue and Other Colors”.  A copy of the document is included in the Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Project.  Ensign Wills shared the significant hurdles she faced as a female African American Navy officer and the remarkable solutions she created to overcome them.(https://memory.loc.gov/natlib/afc2001001/service/37683/pd0001.pdf)

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, circa December 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers and graduated with the Northampton school’s final class. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Bill Pickens, an Air Force veteran and the nephew of LTJG Pickens shared information about his aunt with the Sag Harbor Express in 2019. He shared that William Pickens, the son of freed slaves, Yale graduate, and co-founder of the NAACP, told his government contacts that his daughter was interested in being the first African American WAVE.

Bill Pickens also shared a special letter First Lady Mrs. Roosevelt sent to LTJG Pickens “I have a letter from your father telling us of your being commissioned in the WAVES and of the splendid record you made while training. With congratulations and good wishes for your continued success, I am very sincerely yours…”

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left), and Ensign Frances Wills congratulate each other after being being commissioned as the first African-American WAVES officers, December 1944. They were members of the final graduating class of the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Dr. Akers gave a presentation on civil rights in the WWII Navy on January 28th and she shared information about LTJG Pickens and ENS Wills with attendees. The presentation can be viewed here.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1944. They were members of the school’s final class, and were the Navy’s first African-American WAVES officers. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

If you’re interested in learning more about female African American Navy pioneers please visit the Naval History and Heritage website here.