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This Day In History: October 19th
During the time of World War II and much racial tension, two qualified recruits were able to make history as the first African-American women to be accepted into the Navy’s reserve unit. This was all made possible due to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s authorization to open the Navy to African-American women on October 19, 1944.
Two years prior to this decision, the Women’s Reserve force within the U.S. Navy, also known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) was established. The women selected were restricted to serve only in the United States, and African-American women were essentially excluded from service by default.
African-Americans sought acceptance into the WAVES, but their efforts were halted by former Secretary of the Navy William Knox. Knox was a segregationist and also delayed the progress of integrating African-American men into the service. Under the leadership of Secretary Knox, African-American sailors were not able to excel to their full potential and were placed in subordinate roles that would often be viewed as demeaning.
However, Secretary Knox died in April of 1944 and was replaced by James Forrestal who proved to be the more progressive leader. With new leadership and pressure from African-American activists, President Roosevelt made the move to grant women of color entry into the WAVES in October of 1944. With the authorization in effect, the recruitment for African-American women was underway.
The first two women to enter the WAVES were Harriet Pickens and Frances Wills. Pickens was an educated woman from Alabama with an impressive career history. She held roles such as supervisor of a large-scale Works Progress Administration program and executive secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee. Similar to her fellow officer, Frances Wills also held notable work positions in her field of social work.
Both women were sworn in during November of 1944 and were commissioned as the first female African-American WAVES officers in December of 1944. The acceptance of Pickens and Wills into the WAVES paved the way for many more African-American women to come. By the end of World War II, 70 more African-American women were enlisted. One of the 70 women was Edna Young who eventually became the first African-American woman sworn into the regular Navy in 1948 and the first to achieve ranking as a chief.