PEP (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Lieutenant (JG) Harriet Pickens (1909-1969) & Ensign Frances Wills (1916-1998)

In honor of African American Women’s History Month, we are highlighting the first two African American women who were commissioned as officers in the US Navy.  Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills were commissioned in the United States Navy on December 21, 1944.

Lieutenant Harriet Pickens, a public health administrator with a master’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University, was the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP.  Prior to her military service, Harriet was the Executive Secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.  In addition to this position, she was a supervisor of recreation programs in the New Deal’s WPA (Works Project Administration). 

Ensign Frances Wills was a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Hunter College.  While Frances pursued her MA in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, she worked with famed African American poet, Langston Hughes.  She worked in an adoption agency, placing children in adoptive homes.   Her experiences as a pioneering naval officer led Frances to eventually write the book Navy Blue and Other Colors under her married name, Frances Wills Thorpe.

Obviously, these were two accomplished and well educated women, highly qualified to serve their country as military officers in time of war.  It was only their race that stood in their way and the remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down.  They were sworn in as apprentice seamen in the US Navy in November 1944. 

After receiving their commissions a month later, both Harriet and Frances serviced at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, NY, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) recruits.  Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions up until her death in 1969 at the age of 60.  Frances Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests.  She died in 1998.

Lieutenant Pickens’ and Ensign Wills’ military files are two of the records in our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) collection at the National Archives at St. Louis. Due to the high volume of attention and research on their military career, Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills’ record was placed in the PEP collection and digitally copied. The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes PEP records by placing the documents in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples and undertaking any required repair actions that will extend the life of the documents. An entire record is then scanned and placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas, thus preventing damage to the original documents.

We are proud to highlight the lives and achievements of these two courageous women who in the face of segregation and hatred overcame and changed the face of the United States Navy forever.


Tape is Evil …

Archivists and conservators both know all too well. Numerous methods of tape manufacture and composition lead to an infinite ways to degrade items, yet the worst is that classic, yellow, creeping, oozing, oily, incredibly sticky mess.

Full treatment can be lengthy and difficult. So what can NARA do when a record needs to be accessed right away,  but there are a number of pages firmly stuck together? Cellulose powder to the rescue! Once the pages are carefully separated and the tape carriers are removed, cellulose powder (AKA Ashless powder) can be used to remove the adhesive. The loose fibers that make up cellulose powder are soft and stick to the adhesive once in contact with it. With careful handling, the powder picks up the adhesive, allowing removal of the adhesive layer from the page. Although this treatment does not reverse the damage to the page from the degraded tape, the pages are free and usable!


To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the creation of the National Archives, staff from around the country submitted contemporary photographs of their workplace and people to show what we look like in 2014 for anyone interested now and in the future. 

You can see more photos of staff at the photo set on Flickr

Images from top:

Mickey Ebert, Education Specialist; and Chris Magee, Archivist; practice “NARA and National Symbols,” a distance learning puppet show for kindergarteners with Hairy History and War Eagle, puppet  at the Interactive Distance Learning Lab at the National Archives at Kansas City. Photographer: Jessica Hopkins. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Audrey Amidon showing a close-up of acetate film in an advanced state of vinegar syndrome in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives at College Park. The film base has shrunk more than the emulsion causing the wrinkly surface you see here. Photographer: Richard Schneider. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Brad Brooks, Brian Swidal, Laurice Clark, and Amy Bunk hanging up the seal of the National Archives at the Office of the Federal Registrar. Photographer: Jim Hemphil. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Devon McKeown cleaning archival records at the National Archives at Chicago. Photographer: Mary Ann Zulevic. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Ancestry.com contractor digitizes Los Angeles Naturalization Petitions at the National Archives at Riverside. Photographer: Joseph S. Peñaranda. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Places in England recently given protected status

  • Lostwithiel Battlefields, Cornwall. 1644

The two Civil War battlefields sites near Lostwithiel are the first additions to the Register of Battlefields. The Lostwithiel Campaign was the culmination of a long-running conflict enacted in Devon and Cornwall between the Parliamentarian force led by the Earl of Essex and the Royalists led  by King Charles I. The battles which took place were among the worst defeats suffered by a Parliamentarian army during the War, and among the Royalists’ greatest successes.


Last week I visited the Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers.  I took the Metro North and walked up quite a hill to get there, and it was worth it!  The gardens have really beautiful views.  It is a small property compared to the botanical gardens I have been visiting, so it didn’t take long for me to see everything, but it’s the kind of place that makes you want to stop and stay awhile, I brought a book and enjoyed reading on benches throughout the gardens.  There were a handful of succulents, but overall a nice mix of different plants (marigolds were in abundance when I visited).  The architecture was beautiful (the water feature in the walled garden was a favorite).  Some of the garden areas feel like ruins, with columns still standing, but their former states have been lost.  The gardens are located in an unusual area, surrounded by medical buildings, but stepping into the walled garden you feel like you have entered into a very special place.  The grounds have a lot of potential and I hope that the idea is to preserve as well as to rebuild some of the areas to their former states.  A lovely day trip.

Check out their lovely tumblr page here.


Congrats to our girl Yagazie Emezi on the launch of her beautiful new website, yagazieemezi.com! Dedicated to the cultural preservation of the African aesthetic, the site features work from photographers, filmmakers, writers, artists and other creatives in the African diaspora and it’s exciting as fuck!! 

Last year, we talked to her on the podcast about her vision for the website and her work towards the preservation of African art and photography - you can listen to that discussion here. 

Congrats, Yagazie! 

Keeping Milk Fresh — With Frogs

Long before modern refrigeration, people in Russia and Finland reportedly placed living Russian brown frogs in milk to keep it fresh.

It turns out the curious practice has a basis in science: Recent research on the amphibians’ skin secretions led by Moscow State University organic chemist A.T. Lebedev shows they’re loaded with peptides, antimicrobial compounds as potent against Salmonella and Staphylococcus bacteria as prescription antibiotics.


Our next feature from the Adopt a Book program is Audubon’s Quadrupeds of North America.  

Audubon, John James, 1785-1851. The quadrupeds of North America. New-York, V. G. Audubon, 1854-55.  MERLIN library catalog

Before conservation work, these volumes were practically unusable.  The spines were cracking, and a misguided person had at some point covered the spines in clear tape.  Here’s a before shot:

The conservator removed the tape and repaired the spines and text blocks, and now we can see all the great images inside. How could anyone resist those cute bunnies?