Among the WAVES graduating from the last officer class at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College, Northampton, MA were Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Lt. Frances Wills (right). The were the only two African American women commissioned as officers in the WAVES during World War II.
Lt. Rosamond D. Sells, USNR, swears the first African American WAVES into the Navy, November 16, 1943. Miss Frances Willis and Miss Harriet I. Pickens being sworn in as apprentice seaman. They would head to Smith College in Northampton for officer training.
Lt. Rosamond D. Sells, USNR, swears one of the first African American WAVES into the Navy, Miss Harriet I. Pickens on November 16, 1944. She and Frances Willis, would head to officer training at Smith College.
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.
Officer’s training was tough for Frances Wills Thorpe. Since she had started after the other women, she needed to work doubly hard to catch up. The same was true for Harriet Pickens. They would be part of the last officers’ training class at Smith College, graduating just before Christmas in December of 1944.
Navy photographers were everywhere. Harriet and I were asked to pose pushing down together to close a suitcase. Although the photograph itself was first-rate and has been shown many times in the years since that day it was entirely fictional. By the time that the photographer approached and described the shot he wanted, both Harriet and I had long since stowed away all our gear and were waiting with the same undisguised eagerness as all of our classmates for train time. It was not difficult to smile a happy smile.
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.
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.
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.