Uniform image, Collection of the Intrepid Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens III. 2008.41.01. 80-G-297449 Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills

Honoring American Naval Officer Harriet Pickens

Feb 20, 2024 - 1:00pm

In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting the contributions of Harriet Pickens, one of the first Black women* to serve in the U.S. Navy.

During World War II, the Navy founded a women’s reserve, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Other than the Navy Nurse Corps, founded in 1908, this was the first time since World War I that women were permitted to enlist in the Navy.

The Navy did not permit Black women to serve in the WAVES until 1944. At this time, Black men serving ashore were admitted to general service ratings, but Black men on ships were only permitted to serve as stewards, cooking and cleaning for officers. 

Civil rights organizations pushed the new Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, and President Roosevelt to open the service to Black women. Harriet Pickens and Frances Wills were the first two Black women admitted into the WAVES. They attended Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College and officially earned their commissions on December 26, 1944. Pickens was commissioned as a lieutenant junior grade and Wills as an ensign*.

Born in Talladega, Alabama, Pickens was the daughter of educator, writer and NAACP activist William Pickens. Pickens graduated with a degree in public health from Smith College and later took courses in political science at Columbia University. She lived in Harlem for fifty years, where she was an active community member.

Pickens spent most of her naval career at the WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City. Among other duties, Pickens supervised the physical training of WAVES recruits. After the war, Pickens returned to her work at the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee.

Intrepid Museum is proud to preserve Pickens’ story and legacy in our collection. Visit her uniform jacket on display in the Hangar Deck, and explore her papers in our digital archive here.

A man and woman read an exhibit panel on Intrepid's flight deck while their child points at the propeller of an aircraft.

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