“Navy admits Negroes into the WAVES” read the newspaper headlines announcing the Navy’s 19 October 1944 decision to integrate its female reserve program. 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 Navy’s history of institutional racism and its discriminatory policies toward black sailors.
The original plan for admitting black women was to have them serve on a segregated basis. However, when too few African American women enlisted to develop a separate WAVES corps, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal integrated the few who had.
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 26 December 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, New York, 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 2 September 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.