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A Strange Sight

February 29, 2012

One of the first things Frances Wills Thorpe did as an officer was to visit a Navy ship docked in Brooklyn. There she became acutely aware of her status as something unusual, as she recalled in her memoirs:

I became aware of a brown face, staring, wide-eyed from the galley opening.  I tried to appear casual as I smiled lightly in his direction.  The face disappeared and another brown one took its place immediately, equally wide-eyed.  Seconds later, it seemed, the soup was brought to the table.  The steward who had seen us first, came to me.  Nellie smiled at me, obviously trying to hold onto her dignity because she recognized that I was beginning to be embarrassed.  I thought that any moment she would fall into giggle but both she and Anna watched and waited demurely until the steward crossed to their side, as this were the expected way to be served. Only after I passed the third serving plate did I realize how I had almost missed a reaction which I would soon become accustomed to see in various places, with different people. It was the first time that these stewards (the only job available for many years for Afro-Americans in the Navy) had seen a person of color in officer’s uniform.  It may well have been the first time they had seen WAVES of any color since they had just returned from duty.

When asked, near the end of our training, to state a preferred location for assignment, I had written ‘East or West Coast.’ After I had completed my entire Navy duty no more than forty-five minutes from where I lived and had signed on, except for three days temporary duty in the distant ports of Philadelphia and Washington, I often wondered if my Navy experience might have been altogether different had I written ‘West Coast’ first.

Frances was assigned to the Hunter College boot camp for the duration of the war. This photograph comes from the National Archives.

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