African Americans have been an integral part of the U.S. Navy. This includes African- American women. Women in the navy have had to fight for their place for years. This has especially been the case for the submarine force, which did not see women on submarine until after 2010. For African American women, this fight was twice as hard. However, women of all races have always been there to step up when needed. This week we honor some of these women who stepped up when called and along the way paved the road for those who followed.
[The section about the first African American officers is By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division]
“Navy to admit Negroes into the WAVES,” so read the newspaper headlines Oct. 19, 1944. For the first time black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program. The program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It would be two more years before the WAVES became open to all women.
It was not an easy journey. During the Congressional hearings Thomasina Walker of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Non-Partisan Political Council testified the legislation creating the Navy’s female reserve program should include a non-discrimination clause so all eligible women could volunteer to serve. Her argument fell on deaf ears. Public Law 689 creating the program did not specify blacks could not be recruited, yet they were denied the opportunity to do so for most of the war.
Whites and blacks representing civic, religious, and civil rights organizations across the country urged the Navy to recruit black women. The black press published articles about blacks being turned away at recruitment offices and the individuals and organizations demanding the Navy reverse its policy of exclusion. During a campaign speech in Chicago, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1944 presidential election, accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES. Citizens expressed their opposition to the Navy’s policy of excluding blacks from the WAVES by sending letters and petitions to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” Knox. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a meeting with military and civilian leaders to discuss the issue. Capt. Mildred McAfee, the WAVES director, supported diversity but she was well aware of Secretary Knox’s objections. She is reported to have overheard him saying that “[Blacks] would be in the WAVES over his dead body.” James Forrestal succeeded Knox after a fatal heart attack in April 1944. The new Navy Secretary did not believe a segregated Navy was cost-effective or made the best use of naval personnel. Under his leadership, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.
Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health worker, and social worker Frances Elizabeth Wills distinguished themselves in mid-December, 1944 as the first black women to receive their commissions in the U.S. Navy. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program. Interestingly, there were Japanese and Native American WAVES before Pickens and Wills. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter. More than 70 blacks joined the enlisted ranks by Sept. 2, 1945. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy.
Edna Young was the first of her race and gender to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.During the past 72 years, black women across the ranks, ratings and communities have had outstanding careers in the Navy, including the following:
Brenda Robinson, the first black aviator, and Matice Wright, a naval flight officer, excelled in naval aviation.
Vivian McFadden integrated the Navy Chaplain Corps.
Janie Mines was the first black woman Naval Academy graduate.
Joan C. Bynum, a Navy nurse was the first black woman naval officer to attain the rank of captain (0-6).
Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, was the first of her race and gender to reach the rank of rear admiral in 1998.
Fleet Master Chief April Beldo is one of a select few men or women to become a fleet or force master chief.
Annie Anderson is the third black woman flag officer
On July 1, 2014, Michelle J. Howard reached unprecedented heights with her promotion to the rank of four-star admiral and assignment as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s first woman to hold that rank and position. Media outlets around the world celebrated her achievements. Howard made history and did a job that was reflective of her outstanding warfighting, leadership, and command abilities.
And so marks the path of a trailblazer. Just like Pickens and Wills, Howard was in uncharted territory and was building the road for others to follow. When she was accepted into the Naval Academy at 17, it was only the third class to accept women. It was in 1980 that the Navy opened logistics ships to women, allowing for opportunities for women to serve at sea. In 1999, Howard took command of the USS Rushmore, becoming the first African-American woman in such a role. Howard would become a household name in 2009 only three days into her new job as head of a U.S. Navy task force when a cargo ship sailing under a U.S. flag was hijacked by pirates. The captain, Richard Philips was taken hostage and it was Howard’s job to get him back. The events of the incident inspired the 2013 movie Captain Philips. Howard recalls the incident saying “There certainly wasn’t anyone I could turn to and say, ‘How do you rescue someone from a life raft? How do you do negotiations with pirates at sea? It had never been done before.” For anyone who has seen the movie, we know that Howard and her team were successful in rescuing Captain Philips. It was only another first her and one that helped put her on the map and another step to her Historic promotion in 2014.Michelle J. Howard, in a 2014 interview with the New York Times, recalled a uniform issue after her promotion. When she called looking for a new insignia for her white Navy dress she said “I need to order a four-star women’s shoulder board, and there’s this silence, then the lady goes, ‘Um, I’m not seeing any in the system.’ And I said Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”
Howard recalls in her early career only knowing of the possibility to become a one star. She comments that today’s sailors “have never known a life when there hasn’t been a woman admiral, women three-stars, women in command of ships, women in command of destroyers.” Such a remark shows how much the Navy and the world has changed. Howard noted in 2009 that one of her keys to success and to that of today’s armed forces is diversity. The advisors who helped her come up with the rescue plan in 200 came from various backgrounds and experiences. Howard emphasized, “the value of both inherent diversity-gender, race, and ethnicity- and the acquired diversity of learned experience….we harvest their good ideas. We empower them. We listen to them. And we are successful as organizations.” Moreover, the navy has embraced these ideals and Howard is only one example of this. In 2015, we saw the first woman to serve aboard a fast attack submarine report to the USS Minnesota. These steps forward for women were taken because of women such as Harriet Ida Pickens, and Frances Elizabeth Wills .