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.

Meet Jean Byrd Stewart

Jean Byrd grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge from New York City. She would become one of the first African American WAVES during World War II.

Jean’s father had his degree in chemistry, and worked for a chemical company in nearby Maywood. During the Depression, things were tough for everyone, but Jean remembers things being doubly difficult for African American families. Her father was paid less than the white workers at the chemical company. Still, she said, the family did well enough – her father had a job and most of the time was working full time.

Aside from the lack of parity on on-the-job, Jean doesn’t remember any overt prejudice in her neighborhood.

I never paid any attention because where we lived was a mixed area.  I mean, mixed. So you were a person there who had to qualify and be as up as you could so that you would blend with others and would show that you had intelligence and keep up with people.  My mother and father went to school and they passed along a lot of things. So as one lady said later on in life, her parents didn’t raise any dummies.  I was surprised to hear her say it. She was a white girl, but that was the way she expressed it. So you live up to what you know, and have learned and picked up watching by seeing others. You just kept on moving.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.