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