At the end of the year 1944 while the nation was still at war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent shockwaves through the nation. On October 19, 1944, he gave a presidential order to his Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, to begin allowing African American women into the U.S. Navy WAVE Corps. This was a stunning change for the Navy and for the nation. Like all such changes, the first people involved had to be remarkable people. The first two African American women to join the WAVE Corps were just that. And the history of the Navy (and of the other military services since then) has been shaped by the courage, the competence, and the dedication of many who were “firsts” like them.
A social worker, Frances Eliza Wills, and a public health administrator, Harriet Ida Pickens, were the first two African American women to join. They entered the WAVE officers training program at Smith College in New Hampshire and were commissioned on December 26, 1944. They would become the first African American female officers in the history of the United States Navy.
Wills would go on to teach naval history and Pickens would lead physical training at the Hunter Naval Training Station in the Bronx, New York.
Today, African Americans, male and female, serve in all specialties and in all ranks in the United States Navy. For example, the highest ranking African American female officer in the Navy today is Admiral Michelle Howard. I wrote an article about her last year when she was promoted to the rank of a four star Admiral by Secretary Ray Mabus.
Among her prior duties, she had been in commanded of the Navy task force that was involved in the Maersk Alabama rescue, which was memorialized in the Hollywood movie, Captain Phillips. She is currently serving as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
History’s strength is to reveal to us the past.
Throughout human history, it has been our experience that “change is inevitable,” but we have not been so good at recognizing that “growth is a choice.” When, in ignorance, we look only at the dark sides of history and respond to them with only blame and anger, the injuries of the past remain open wounds and growth becomes impossible.
It takes courage to learn from the past and to take on the challenges to grow that come with change. Because of decisions like those made by President Roosevelt and Navy Secretary Forrestal and the other military services during WWII, real growth began to slowly take place in terms of equal opportunities for racial minorities. We can be proud that the military led the way in the early stages of the nation’s growth in terms of addressing racial inequities and opening up equal opportunities for African Americans and others.
It has not been easy, nor has it been smooth.
There is much yet to do, but with each new experience —each small or great success— we get closer to the dream we all seek, that is, to truly become a nation “of the people, by the people and for the people.” This does not mean that racism is a thing of the past, but because we have served and suffered together in the nation’s wars since that time, much has changed for the good of individuals, for the good of the military services and for the good of the nation.
Because of that decision made by President Roosevelt 71 years ago,
we can look back with pride at the courage, the dedication, and the love of country that people like Frances Eliza Wills and Harriet Ida Pickens exhibited in 1944.
The Veterans Site wishes to honor and to thank these women and all others who met the challenges of being “firsts.” Though much remains to be done in our growth, you, Frances Wills, and you, Harriet Pickens, gave us all a great start in our efforts to grow toward the ideal of “One nation under God.”