December 26, 1944 - Navy Commissions First Black Female Officers

Story Number: NNS100220-18Release Date: 2/20/2010 11:37:00 AM
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By Regina Akers, PhD Historian and Naval History and Heritage Command Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- "Navy admits Negroes into the WAVES" read the newspaper headlines announcing the Navy's Oct. 19, 1944 decision to integrate its female reserve program.

Black History Month - 2010 - provides an opportunity to highlight the historic early integration by the Navy of two African American women twenty years before the Civil Rights Act.

The announcement during WWII came somewhat as a surprise. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Council for Negro Women, and other organizations met the announcement with skepticism born of the military's history of institutional racism and its discriminatory policies toward black service members.

The original plan for admitting black women was to have them serve separated from the rest of the fleet. However, when only a few African American women enlisted in the WAVES corps, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal integrated them into the force.

The first two African American women to answer the Navy's call were Frances Eliza Wills, a social worker, and Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health administrator and the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP. They entered the last class of WAVES officer candidates to be trained at Northampton Training Station at Smith College, New Hampshire. Upon graduation on Dec. 26, 1944 they became the Navy's first African American female officers.

Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests and Pickens led physical training sessions at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, N.Y., the main training facility for enlisted WAVES recruits.

From the very beginning, the WAVES were an official part of the Navy, and its members held the same rank and ratings as male personnel. They also received the same pay.

When the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, there were 2 black officers and 72 black enlisted personnel among the Navy's 86,000 WAVES.

Overall, African American women constituted less than one percent of the nearly 300,000 military women in the "greatest generation," making their number statistically insignificant. However, their fight for inclusion and equal treatment were significant chapters in the Civil Rights movement.

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