Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills became the first African American women to be commissioned as naval officers known as WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service in the US Navy.
The Navy’s female reserve program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES and even though 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.
WAVES comprised women from all different ethnic backgrounds who became air traffic controllers, translators, lawyers, hospital corpsmen, bakers, couriers, draftsmen, cryptologists and meteorologists but black women were ruled out
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It took two more years before the WAVES became open to all women. Both 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 reportedly accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES.
After a long battle, black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program in 1944. The US Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor while Wills was assigned as a classification test administrator.
Citizens went as far as expressing 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”.
The then WAVES director, Capt. Mildred McAfee was said to support diversity but Secretary Knox had objections. She was reported to have overheard Knox saying that “Blacks would be in the WAVES over his dead body.”
But Knox suffered a serious heart attack in April 1944 so James Forrestal succeeded him. Under his leadership as the new Navy Secretary, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.
Meanwhile, whilst blacks were not allowed in the WAVES program, there were Japanese and Native American. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reportedly advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program
Harriet Ida Pickens was a public health worker while Frances Elizabeth Wills was a social worker. These two in mid-December paved way for many black women in 1944 when they broke the racial barriers in the U.S. Navy.
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.
According to Tina L. Ligon, an archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, WAVES Director Mildred McAfee and activist Mary McLeod Bethune were both influential in getting the Navy to accept black women into the program.
By Sept. 2, 1945, more than 70 blacks had joined the enlisted ranks. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy.
In her memoir “Navy Blue and Other Color”, Wills wrote about her experience as one of the first of two African-American women officers in the Navy.