For Bill Pickens, 83, of Ninevah Place in Sag Harbor, Veterans Day is all about remembering his aunt, Harriet Ida Pickens, who “made American history,” he’ll tell you, as the first black person of any gender to serve as an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Press flashbulbs were popping when she was sworn in at age 35 to the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a division of the Naval Reserves, 75 years ago this December at the Navy’s Harlem recruiting office.
Later commissioned a lieutenant junior grade, she was followed immediately into the service by Frances Wills Thorpe, 26, who was sworn in next and later commissioned an ensign. They were roommates during their training and became fast friends; Frances, a Hunter College graduate who had been working as a secretary, would later marry a Pickens family friend, Charles Thorpe, and become, like Harriet, a Sag Harbor summer resident.
“By 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt and some Progressives were saying we have to integrate the Navy,” Mr. Pickens recalled, “and they were looking around for someone like the Jackie Robinson of the time. They needed an African American woman and they selected my aunt.”
They were helped along in their search by Harriet’s father — Bill Pickens’ distinguished d grandfather: William Pickens Sr., a son of freed slaves, a Yale graduate, college professor, orator and co-founder of the NAACP. He “was working for FDR at the time” selling War Bonds to African Americans, Mr. Pickens said, and proposed his daughter to be the first black WAVE.
“He said, ‘I’ve got somebody to take a look at,’ Mr. Pickens said, quoting his grandfather. “’She’s 34 years old; she’s Columbia and Smith — not bad. She’s working, unmarried and interested.’”
Harriet had studied Greek, chemistry and history at Smith College, where she’d had three majors and still managed to be a star on the basketball court. She graduated in 1930 and earned a master’s degree in 1933 in history at Columbia University.
At the time she was commissioned, she was living at the 14-room family brownstone on a block still known today as Strivers Row in Harlem. Engaged to Lena Horne’s favorite uncle at the time, a sergeant in the then-segregated U.S. Army, John Burke Horne, Harriet was involved in local politics and working for the city as a public health administrator, fighting tuberculosis in the black community.
“Everybody there was a striver,” Mr. Pickens said of his grandfather’s neighborhood of stately brownstones, “either a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer or a professor. Almost the entire block was replete with these guys. So, grandpa was right in the middle of them. And they were all his colleagues, Booker T. Washington III, all these guys.”
“She was a star and she knew all the politicians,” Mr. Pickens added. “She grew up with [prominent Harlem Congressman and Civil Rights leader] Adam Clayton Powell; they were childhood friends. As a matter of fact, Adams’s father, Reverend Powell, helped my grandfather when he was at Yale because he was from New Haven.”
Harriet and Frances made big news as the first black WAVES at the time and, being the Pickens family historian, Mr. Pickens has the clips and news photos to prove it, including a letter from Mrs. Roosevelt congratulating his aunt.
A month or so after her enrollment, when she and Frances were at a Navy training school in the Bronx, the First Lady, wrote her, “I have a letter from your father telling us of your being commissioned in the WAVES and of the splendid record you made while training. With congratulations and good wishes for your continued success, I am very sincerely yours …”
There was resistance from some quarters. Not knowing she was a Smith College grad, “The senators and congressmen from the South wouldn’t let her go on for further naval training to Smith College,” where a WAVES officer training program was based, Mr. Pickens said. “They kept her and Frances out for the first three weeks of training, thinking they’d fall behind and never catch up,” he explained. “Harriet caught up in her first week there. She finished third in her class.”
Harriet and Francis traveled the country recruiting for the Navy and the WAVES. When the war ended, she stayed in the Reserves for a time then went back working for the city again on human rights issues under mayors Vincent Richard Impellitteri and Robert F. Wagner. “She did that work until she passed” in 1970 at age 60. “But she knew everybody, all the politicians, the corporate people, the Harlem businesspeople. She was a sharp, brilliant speaker and writer.”
An Air Force veteran and retired business executive who ran his own worldwide consulting firm from the Pan Am building, Mr. Pickens is the only family member left who knew Harriet personally. She made regular visits to Ninevah all her life and was the first guest to stay with Mr. Pickens and his wife in their then-new home on Ninevah Place in 1972.
“My aunt was politically savvy, socially aware, historically relevant and she was widely known around the country,” Mr. Pickens said. “With the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion this year, I was thinking about her — you know, how she made history. Who’s going to tell her story? I’m her nephew; I’m her surviving family. There’s no one else. So, I said, well, I’ll approach The Sag Harbor Express because it’s a Sag Harbor story.”
Frances Wills Thorpe, who wrote a memoir of her service, “Navy Blue and Other Colors,” died in 1998.
Lena Horne’s daughter Gail Buckley, another Sag Harbor regular, was the grandniece of John Burke Horne, Harriet’s fiancé until their lives parted ways. In her 2001 book “American Patriots,” she wrote how Harriet had inspired her, “dazzling in her white dress uniform … I knew that I wanted the war to last long enough for me to wear the uniform. Like any other world War II child, I aspired to heroism.”