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 armed services. 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 armed forces forever.
Anna Fisher, astronaut, with stars in her eyes on the cover of Life magazine in 1985. She was the first mother in space. (via The 60 Most Powerful Photos Ever Taken That Perfectly Capture The Human Experience)
And during a retrospective clip on heroes, it becomes quite clear that the female voice is well overdue to become a mighty roar - one to resonate with the power to shatter mountaintops.
Sometimes reading about heroes is an exercise in the bittersweet, so easily does the heart thrill to the narrative arc, and so quickly does the mind recognize it all to be fiction. That disharmony, desire warring with the seemingly static, can hint at a sorrow that is akin to witnessing a bird in flight - consistently a window’s view, the audience seat, watching wings make the horizon attainable. A majesty unshackled, form and function made beautiful in its fluidity. It’s a power we’ll never know, never feel - hands will never stretch out into feathers touching the breeze.
We must resign ourselves to being earthbound yet we can still learn from the sight, still draw inspiration from the keen-eyed resolve, from the metaphoric perspective. A fraction of the magic to absorb and make our own.
So it is with the tales and legends of the armor-clad and caped, the peacekeepers wielding weapons of fire, light, and wit. Each story tells us something about the world and about ourselves, knowledge wrapped in the make-believe but made accessible and cogent through words that swiftly hit their mark. The heroes make us cheer and weep, and in so doing, they teach us to be human, and extraordinary in our own right.
We may never see the wonders their worlds boast with our own eyes, may never experience their particular might and prowess within our own limbs, but we can take from the heroes a piece of courage, a measure of confidence, a portion of empathy. Thus we are able to take flight, after a fashion, because of their influence.
Women daredevils of the early 19xx’s and their motorcycles, from the book The American Motorcycle Girls: 1900 to 1950 (GV1059.52 .S55 2009 Quarto).
Pictured from the top: Easter Walters, Margaret Gast, Doris Gray (and Barney Page), Marjorie Kemp & Kemp’s Motor Maniacs, Mickey Apple, Viola Pelaquin, Cookie Ayers Crum, Louise Scherbyn, Dottie Herbert, Cookie Ayers Crum.
“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” - C.S. Lewis.
When we find in our heroes something familiar, some quality or trait that we recognize in the shape of our own hearts, we become better able to acknowledge our potential for greatness.
It may not be the stuff of dungeon crawls or magical relics, of dragons guarding hoards or sages doling out quests. We may not be wielding swords or harnessing magicks, but sometimes the bravest act we can perform is to wake and greet each day. To meet the challenges eye to eye, to learn from our mistakes, to discover something new no matter how minuscule it may seem, to cherish the small measures of joy even if the sorrows seem the greater weight, to battle our demons, to look into the mirror and accept that we are works in progress.
Each day holds a promise of victory, another chance to be our own hero, another moment to propel forward to something better.