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Who’s that Lady?

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It might have been her eyes. Perhaps it was that hint of a knowing smile. Or maybe it was the culmination of it all—torso leaning in, chin on fist, legs crossed, nails polished and hat tilted. Whatever it was, it grabbed my attention when I first saw the sepia-toned image several years ago. Its subject exudes a kind of confidence I hadn’t come across too often in Veterans History Project (VHP) collections from World War II-era women veterans. To me, she was saying, “I’m here!”

Before reading anything about her, I could already tell that she was smart, no-nonsense, unapologetically African American and unapologetically a lady. These are the same characteristics I ascribe to the women in my own family, even those born long before it was acceptable—safe even—to live that way in the United States. Perhaps that’s why the photograph resonated with me so. It still does. Although I never had the honor of meeting her, Frances Wills Thorpe is familiar.

Sepia photo of woman in uniform with legs crossed, resting chin on hand
Frances Thorpe seated in military uniform. Frances Wills Thorpe Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/37683.

Thorpe was one of the first two African-American women commissioned as officers in the segregated Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES) during World War II. She overcame several race-related obstacles, including a delayed admission into the WAVES training program, which caused her to miss several weeks of critical instruction. Never to be deterred, Thorpe, a highly-educated woman who worked as a social worker before joining the military, quickly caught up with her white counterparts. She graduated on time the following month.

Thorpe is one of 15 veterans from the VHP collections featured in, Equality of Treatment and Opportunity: Executive Order 9981, an Experiencing War Website feature marking the 70th anniversary of the landmark order that abolished racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, and eventually led to the end of systematic segregation in the military. Go here to read Megan Harris’ post about the feature, which just launched last week.

In addition to that stunning portrait, Thorpe’s VHP collection includes a 344-page untitled memoir [pdf]. In it she recounts her experiences as a pioneering naval officer, as well as her interactions with other Navy women who still did not want to give Thorpe her just due as an officer. Recalling one such encounter from 1987, Thorpe writes,

After more than four decades, I thought, ‘Here we go again.’

Inspired by the re-visualization of a tri-fold brochure that was created for VHP’s 2015 Do Your Part Campaign, I was tasked earlier this year with updating VHP’s informational brochure. Leadership requested that I not only update the text, but also the look of the publication, which gets circulated to thousands of veterans and potential volunteers across the country each year. The finished product was to be visually appealing and inclusive—clear that VHP is actively seeking stories of service from all veterans, including those from underrepresented groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

I sent the text file and several images, including Thorpe’s, to the graphic designer with minimal suggestions on the layout, as I never want to stifle the creative process. As serendipity would have it, the designer selected Thorpe’s photograph as the focal point of the front cover. She is the new face of VHP, and I think that’s awesome!

You can access the full brochure on our website at this link: . Afterward, let us know what you think in the comments section below.

I never thought to ask the graphic designer why he chose to highlight Thorpe’s photograph on the front of the new brochure. Maybe it was her eyes. Or perhaps he too heard, “I’m here!”

Comments (4)

  1. Thanks for the compelling narrative about your personal reaction to this powerful image and story

    • Thanks for reading!

  2. Your new brochure is lovely, and I especially am happy to see mention of the Gold Star Family Voices Act. Thank you so much for this!

    • Thank you, Carol. Gold Star Families–parents, spouses and adult siblings or children of a service member who died as a result of combat injuries–are welcome to participate with VHP. Contact us at [email protected] for more information.

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