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Wills at Smith College

February 27, 2012

Frances Wills Thorpe arrived at Smith College in October of 1944. Classes had already begun for the group of officers. She and fellow African American trainee Harriet Pickens trailed the other recruits.

The first evening was disorienting, as Frances recalled in her memoirs:

We had hardly any time to wait in the brisk November weather before a young WAVES office appeared, greeted us and led us to a station wagon parked nearby.  We were driven forthwith to the uniform supply depot — only weeks later would we learn that this operation was under the famous Filene’s Department store of Boston.  We were measured for uniforms, raincoat and dress coat, but when we finally emerged from the ministrations of the fitters we were changed in appearance only by the brand new Navy blue hats which marked us unmistakably as Navy property.  Collected anew by our Navy escort and ushered back into the van, we were driven to the mess hall which was within hiking distance of the dormitory and only about a fifteen minute ride from Filene’s.  (These vital facts we learned within a few days.)

Dinner was already in progress when we were brought to the wide entrance of what appeared to be a ballroom fitted with dining tables.  Our escort pointed out two vacant seats which seemed to be in the exact center of the room — about a mile away.  At that moment all those women in uniform looked exactly alike and from another planet:  two brown-skinned women, one a head taller and a little darker than the other, in city suits and Navy hats.  Next day I realized that we were seated according to our room locations in the dormitory.  We also marched approximately in this order when we went from living quarters to classes or meals.  “Approximately” because we were expected, while in formation, to be more or less in size places.  After that first strange afternoon and evening Harriet and I never found ourselves marching or walking side by side.  She was several inches taller than I.

This photograph of Frances and Harriet dining comes from the National Archives.

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