“Navy admits Negroes into the WAVES:” so read the headlines following the Navy Department’s October 19, 1944, press release announcing this change.
This was indeed good news to the civic, religious, and civil rights organizations, the Afro-American sororities, Mary McLeod Bethune and others who had urged the Navy to have an integrated female reserve program since its inception. Captain Mildred McAfee, the director of the WAVES program, also advocated for their inclusion. The White House received petitions and numerous letters from whites and blacks a like arguing that not allowing blacks in the WAVES was discriminatory and inconsistent with America’s democratic values. Thomas Dewey, President Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1944 election, also supported their cause. He asked the audience during a speech in a Chicago suburb why they wanted to vote for President Roosevelt when his administration had excluded blacks from the WAVES. Within weeks, the Navy announced its intention to have black WAVES.
Harriet Ida Pickens, the daughter of William Pickens who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Frances Elizabeth Wills, a social worker were sworn into the Navy on November 13, 1944, and entered the last class of officer candidates to be trained at Smith College, Northampton, NTS in Massachusetts. Pickens’ father encouraged her to apply. Wills read the announcement in a newspaper. Having no brothers to serve, she decided to do her part for the war effort. Like those who volunteered before them, they left their jobs and lifestyles to submit to naval rules and regulations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the duration of the war plus six months. Moreover, they entered the Navy knowing its record of institutional racism against blacks. They became the Navy’s first black female officers on December 21, 1944. The Navy assigned both to the WAVES enlisted naval training station at Hunter College in Bronx, New York. Pickens taught physical fitness training and Wills administered classification tests. By the war’s end 2 black officers and 70 black enlisted served among the Navy’s 90,000 WAVES. Four blacks joined the Navy Nurse Corps and the Coast Guard’s female reserves. The Marine Corps remained all-white until 1949.
Pickens, Wills and the other black women in the sea services may not have fully appreciated the historical significance of their participation or seen the struggle for their inclusion as an important chapter in the civil rights movement during World War II. The fight to integrate the WAVES is a reminder that change is sometimes possible during an election year and a war that otherwise would not happen. Moreover, persistent agitation for change keeps the issue alive and emphasizes the activists’ determination to succeed. The diversity of the advocates committed to this cause and the various methods used strengthened their message and carried it to the right halls within the White House, the War Department, the Navy Department, and the Congress. Support from McAfee and other significant persons within the Navy and the endorsement of their cause by Dewey proved critical to effecting this policy change.
The 72 black WAVES may not have imagined how far women, especially Afro-Americans, would move toward equality in the Navy over the next seven decades. If they were living, they would be proud and overwhelmed by the achievements of those who followed them. Nurse Joan C. Bynum became the first black female promoted to the rank of captain in 1978. CAPT Marjorie Turner helped to manage logistics during the first Gulf War. The Navy promoted Lillian Fishburn to be its first black female admiral in 1998. Angela M McShane, the first black woman promoted to Master Chief in the Coast Guard, helped establish the Chief Petty Officer Academy in New London, CT and taught increasing human effectiveness courses. Vernice Armour, the Marine Corps’s first black female naval aviator and an Iraq war veteran, is an inspirational speaker. LTJG Jeanine McIntosh-Menze became the first black female Coast Guard aviator on June 24, 2005. DeCarol Davis was the first black to graduate first in her class at the Coast Guard Academy on May 21, 2008. Evelyn Banks, Command Master Chief, U.S. Naval Academy continues to inspire and provide outstanding leadership as she encourages sailors and officers a like at home and overseas. Michelle Howard is one of the Navy’s finest officers. Her distinguished career marks many firsts including the being first female Naval Academy graduate promoted to flag rank and the first black woman to command a ship. Howard commanded TF 51 that rescued the captain of the Merske Alabama held hostage by pirates. Pickens, Thorpe and the 70 enlisted black WAVES would be amazed!