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Who’s that Lady?

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.

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: //www.loc.gov/vets/pdf/2018-vhp-brochure.pdf . 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!”

Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military

The following is the second post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month. (Note: Due to the closure of all DC-area Federal Government buildings on March 2, 2018, the Women’s History Month book talk  featuring Liza Mundy  has been canceled. Stay […]

“People Who Stood Up”: Mississippi Women in the Civil Rights Movement

This guest blog post comes to us courtesy of Catherine Turner, a high school senior working at the American Folklife Center this Spring on her service project for Park School in Baltimore, MD. Catherine is entering Brown University in Fall 2017, and has spent the last six weeks diving into the collections at the Library […]

Cutting the Tension – VHP Narrators’ Cracks, Jokes and Quips

The following is a guest blog post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). Among VHP’s oral histories, memoirs and correspondence, we frequently find humorous anecdotes about jokes, pranks and creative punishments. This post began as an “April Fools” ruse developed from some of the more absurd scenarios recounted by veterans […]

Bringing the Church into the World: The Civil Rights Struggle & the Student Interracial Ministry

(This guest blog is provided courtesy of our old friend, David Cline, assistant professor of history and director of the graduate certificate in public history at Virginia Tech. Many Library patrons will be familiar with David, through the dozens of video interviews he has conducted for the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) and also because […]

Dr. King Remembered

In remembrance of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Library of Congress and other federal agencies, will be closed on Monday, January 16th (to be faithful to the facts, the Reverend’s actual birthday is January 15, 1929). To commemorate the occasion, this blog draws from the American Folklife Center’s documentary collections to present selected […]

The Inspiring Life of Texan Héctor P. García

The following is a guest post by Christy Chason, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). Until recently, Dr. Héctor P. García was someone about whom I knew precious little. In fact, knowing what I know now, I am embarrassed to say that I had only ever heard his name in the context of […]

Consider Making Monday a Day On, Not a Day Off

Every year, on the third Monday of January, America pauses to celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His widow, Coretta Scott King, along with many civil rights leaders, public figures and everyday people campaigned against the odds—and many resistant politicians—to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. I […]

Lead Belly, Alan Lomax and the Relevance of a Renewed Interest in American Vernacular Music

The following is a guest blog post by Dom Flemons, a musician and singer who currently tours and records as “The American Songster.”  Dom was one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom he has played at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, and with whom he won a GRAMMY Award.  Dom […]

Marching In Montgomery, 1965, Reconsidered

Montgomery in March, 1965, Reconsidered:
The Perspective from the Other Side of the Lens

Marchers with "One Man, One Vote" signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

Marchers with “One Man, One Vote” signs & watchful police, 03/17-18/1965, Montgomery, AL; Glen Pearcy Collection (afc2012040_067_13.jpg)

This week’s blog is a companion piece to my previous post on the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Campaign in Alabama. Both blogs have provided a great opportunity for the AFC to share examples of Glen Pearcy’s singular photo documentation from the front lines of the freedom struggle in Montgomery from March 15 to 19, 1965.  Glen’s reflections below on his experiences in Montgomery help draw a frame around the scenes he photographed during those dramatic days. He also offers an interesting self-critique of his fledgling documentary skills and approach to documentary photography.

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