Frances Wills Thorpe

Frances was one of two African American female officers in the Navy during World War II. She grew up in Philadelphia, but eventually moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City with her mother.

In her memoirs, she recalled getting little or no guidance about college.

When I learned that without high Regents grades in both geometry and algebra, I would have no chance at all of beings considered for college, I was devastated.  I do not recall feeling, at the time, that I had been overlooked by the school system.  Later, when I realized that there were people called guidance counselors in all the schools and that there must have been one or two in George Washington (high school), especially since it was among the more highly rated schools, I was angry.  Whoever had the job had not cared at all that I was there.  It must have been true — what people in the African American community always said — that no effort was made to ‘guide’ us because it was assumed that we would go to trade school or get a job — any job — on leaving high school.  It had never occurred to me that I would not go to college.  I wanted to be a journalist and heard that the University of Pennsylvania had an excellent school of journalism.

She ended up taking remedial courses and qualified to attend Hunter College in Manhattan.

This photograph of Frances Wills being sworn into the Navy comes from the National Archives.

The Importance of Education

Education was important to Jean Byrd’s family, especially as African Americans living in the Northeast.

You had to if you wanted to move in life and be something. Even the girls were going to school, learning a trade.  Something to do.  Because the men didn’t make the kind of money that the white men made, or the family.  Maybe the husband made enough money that the wife didn’t have to work. And she could do community work or belong to the women’s club. Because my aunt worked for a lady like that.  Her husband was the head of a bank.  And she was active in the community, head of the woman’s club. So I said, “That was an angle I can go.” You watched the different ones. Up the street lived lawyers, there was a councilman and there was so much to draw on that you could easily pick what you think you would like to do.

Jean dreamed about going to Brown College after high school, but it was a men’s school at the time. Instead, she went to Patterson State College. Part of the reason was economic: the school was nearby her home, so she could carpool with a friend who lived around the corner.

This is a copy of Jean Byrd’s high school diploma. It comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.