On July 30, 1942, Public Law 689 went into effect, establishing the Women’s Reserve force within the US Navy. Known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), these women were reservists restricted to service within the United States, and though the law did not specify, African American women were excluded by default—evidence of the deep vein of racism which existed in the United States and the armed forces. With the establishment of the WAVES in 1942, numerous African American women attempted to enlist, but the Navy, under Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” Knox, refused to accept them.
As Secretary of the Navy, Knox was able to deter the advancement of African Americans in the US Navy, preferring to keep African American sailors in the Steward’s Branch, relegated to servient roles men, like then-Mess Attendant Second Class Harold Ward, found demeaning and disappointing. Through the continued work of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and support of others like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Knox was pressured to allow African American men into the officer corps in the early part of 1944. African American women, however, were still denied entry into the WAVES.
In the face of opposition, activists continued their work to open the WAVES to African American women. Individuals and groups pressured lawmakers, while activists worked with the head of the WAVES, then-Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee, who was a steadfast supporter of bringing African American women into the organization. The major hurdle to opening up the WAVES was when Secretary Knox died suddenly from a heart attack in April 1944. Pressure was put on President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1944 election to open up the WAVES, and on October 19, 1944, he finally authorized African American inclusion in the WAVES. Not only would African American women be allowed in, but they would be fully integrated, a major difference from the experience of their male counterparts, but a step advocated by the new Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal.
With acceptance approved, the search began for the first African American women to participate in the WAVES officer training program. Two women were chosen, Harriet Pickens and Frances Wills. Pickens, born in Talladega, Alabama, was the daughter of an early member of the NAACP, William Pickens. She had graduated with an undergraduate degree from Smith College and had further studied at Columbia University and Bennett College for Women. Pickens was the executive secretary at the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee when she enlisted in the WAVES on November 13, 1944. Born in Philadelphia, Wills had an equally impressive resume, with degrees from Hunter College and the University of Pittsburgh. She was employed as a social worker in New York City when she enlisted alongside Pickens.
By the time Pickens and Wills had enlisted and arrived at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the other prospective officers of their class had already been studying for three weeks. The two women were given a room together, not because people of color were usually housed together due to segregation, but because it was the only space still open. At “Hamp” as the trainees called it, Wills and Pickens were playing catchup, spending all of their free time making up for the three lost weeks of training, with only five weeks left. Undaunted, the two women worked tirelessly. Wills recalled that each morning Pickens would say, “Here we go again,” “rousing me to battle one more time.”
At Midshipmen’s school, women were trained in the particulars of navy life while learning required skills such as plane and ship recognition and basic signal communications. After five weeks, graduation day arrived. On that final day, Pickens, climbing down from the top bunk in their room, smiled a big smile and said, “We made it, friend.”
On December 26, 1944, Harriet Pickens and Frances Wills became the first female African American officers in the US Navy. Pickens commissioned as a lieutenant (junior grade) and Wills as ensign. They were both assigned to the enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York City. Pickens and Wills had trained at Pickens’ alma mater, Smith College; they would be working at Wills’.
Affectionately known as USS Hunter, WAVES enlistees spent six weeks there for basic training. The two women were once again roommates, living in the same apartment building as other WAVES officers stationed at Hunter. In Wills’ memoir, she recalled the icy nature of the “beautiful lieutenant” who served as the executive officer. Only later did she learn that the woman had stood in the meeting during which the officers were made aware of Pickens and Wills’ imminent arrival and declared that should either of them sit by her in the mess hall she would get up and walk out. The school’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Elizabeth Reynard, told the lieutenant should she do that, she could continue to her office to submit her resignation. Though WAVES administration could not stop instances of racism within their ranks, they drew a firm line against it, discharging anyone who became a problem.
At Hunter, Wills performed various duties before settling into the Classification Department, which was responsible for administering tests and making evaluations as to any specific rates which enlistees might have shown some inclination. As part of Wills’ work, she interviewed seamen (the term was used for WAVES in training) as part of the evaluation process, allowing her to pull from her experiences as a social worker. Pickens, who had been a star athlete at Smith College, was assigned to the physical training program.
Though the two women shared accommodations, their lives moved independently at Hunter, and Wills recalled being the more social of the pair. She became good friends with Lieutenant Helen Strauss, who was the senior WAVES officer in charge of the Classification Department. If there were further incidents of overt racism against Wills after learning of the executive officer’s attitude, she did not recount them in her memoir. Wills did recall the difficulty enlisted African American women faced as simple things like having their hair done were not possible on the base. The facilities did not have the staff or equipment for working on their hair. It would take until the 1970s for that discrepancy to fully be addressed.
Pickens and Wills served with the WAVES until after the end of the war. With the war’s end, the Navy had no need for its Women Reservists, and most were discharged or transferred to the inactive reserves. Though their service was brief, they laid the groundwork for future African American women to serve in the US Navy. Following in their footsteps have been remarkable women who have slowly chipped away at the restrictions placed on how they can serve. In 1980, Lieutenant Commander Brenda Robinson became the first African American woman to earn her wings as a naval aviator. That same year, Janie Mines was the first African American woman to graduate from the US Naval Academy, in the first class to have any female graduates.
April Beldo is a woman of many firsts, becoming a Fleet Master Chief and serving as the first woman, and first African American, in many distinguished positions. And in 2014, 70 years after Pickens and Wills became the first two African American naval officers, Michelle Howard became the first female graduate of the US Naval Academy promoted to flag rank when she was promoted to admiral. In 1999, with shipboard service no longer closed to women, then-commander Howard became the first African American woman to command a US Navy ship, something Pickens, Wills, and their fellow WAVES could only have dreamed of.