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.