Frances Wills began working for the writer Langston Hughes after her graduation from Hunter College. While she was working for him, she began attending Pitt to get an M.A. in social work. She later began working in social work, placing children in adoptive homes.
It wasn’t until fall of 1944 that the Navy finally agreed to accept African American women in fully integrated units doing the same jobs as white women. The issue was a lack of vision on the part of the Navy: some assumed that since African American men mostly worked as cooks and janitors (i.e. non-fighting positions), African American women wouldn’t be needed to “free a man to fight.” It would take two long years of negotiations to convince the naysayers that African American women could replace white and “colored” men.
As Frances wrote in her memoirs:
In October 1944 when the Navy said it was ready for me and I said, ‘Take me,’ I was not consciously making a statement about race relations. It was true that in the adoption agency where I was employed I was one of only two non-white social workers. My African-American colleague and I were probably in the same numbers to total staff as we were in the population overall. I doubt that this ratio had been planned, but since the numbers of person of color who applied to adopt children were small, we experienced minimal pressures from work demands in contrast to the rest of the staff which was obliged to handle a large volume of applications.
This photograph of Willis swearing in come from the National Archives.