February is Black History Month, so it is but fitting to share a little bit of Navy history that highlights what is considered as a milestone: the early integration of African-American women into the service two decades before the Civil Rights Act.
The Navy website shares this little bit of history in a feature. The date was October 19, 1944, and newspaper headlines helped spread the announcement: “Navy admits Negroes into the WAVES”. WAVES is an acronym that stands for a division in the US Navy, circa World War II, that consists only of women; it stands for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”.
Two African-American women enlisted in the WAVES corps: social worker Frances Eliza Wills, and public health administrator Harriet Ida Pickens. Pickens is the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Frances Wills and Harriet Pickens were among the last class of WAVES officer candidates who were trained at the Northampton Training Station at Smith College, New Hampshire. They became the United States Navy’s first African American female officers when they graduated on December 26, 1944.
Frances Wills served by teaching naval history and administering classification tests, while Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, New York.
At the end of World War II, there were 86,000 WAVES serving in the Navy, and among them were 2 officers and 72 enlisted personnel. This may not constitute a statistically significant number, but their existence nevertheless forms an important part of the history of the Civil Rights Movement.