The U.S. government built Oak Ridge in 1942 to develop the world’s first atomic weapon.
By Casey Quackenbush
June 11, 2022
When a reported 7,000 African Americans from the Deep South were recruited to work on the Manhattan Project starting in 1942, they knew little except that the positions were well-paid. Drawn by newspaper ads, word of mouth and recruiters subcontracted by the military, the workers arrived by train or bus in a heavily patrolled town outside Knoxville, Tenn. Signage around the plants commanded: “See nothing. Hear nothing. Say nothing.”
What exactly their blue-collar work was supporting, and the profound ways it would alter the course of history, would remain a secret until after the United States unleashed atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, killing approximately 100,000 to 200,000 people.
But even now, the eastern Tennessee city of Oak Ridge is not widely recognized for the contributions of its African American work force to a monumental project in U.S. history and its role as one of the first public school systems to desegregation.
Until the federal government returned Oak Ridge to local control in 1959, the city was not even on the map. It was one of three “secret cities”— along with Los Alamos, N.M., and Hanford, Wash. — that the government built in 1942 to develop the world’s first atomic weapon. Over three years, a town of 59,000 acres quietly sprung up in the foothills of the Appalachians, booming to the fifth-largest city in the state at the time.
Because racial discrimination by federal agencies was outlawed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, Oak Ridge offered better-paid jobs than what were generally available in the South. But the African Americans were still limited to menial positions: construction workers, janitors, domestic help.
The only housing available to them were muddy “hutments,” 16-by-16-foot plywood structures without plumbing. Even those who were married were separated by sex with fences topped with barbed wire; their children were banned from the area until after the war.
L.C. Gipson, 81, moved from his home in Lexington, Miss., to Oak Ridge in 1950 to live with his uncle, a janitor for the Manhattan Project. Six days before he started school, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. Mr. Gipson said he focused only on his classes, and did not participate in extracurricular activities for fear of trouble.
“If anything happened,” he said, “it would be my word against 1,700 others.”
As a federal enclave, the town had to act quickly when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.
Two years before school integration in Little Rock, Ark., and five years before Ruby Bridges was escorted into a New Orleans school, 85 students from Oak Ridge’s African American community, Scarboro, quietly entered a junior high school and high school in town. Locally, they are known as the Scarboro 85. Nationally, they are hardly known at all.
Although there were racial slurs, fistfights and feelings of isolation and anxiety during the desegregation of Oak Ridge’s schools, said Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, the federal enclave benefited from a lack of political posturing. One member of the Scarboro 85, Archie Lee, said the successful result should have been a positive example for other communities.
Much like the Scarboro 85, the community’s contributions to the Manhattan Project have frequently been overlooked. “It’s a little trickier to imagine a ‘Hidden Figures’ movie about the Manhattan Project,” said Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian and professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “You could show their contributions, but you’d also have to end with a mushroom cloud at the end.”
But that narrative must account for the realities of Oak Ridge and African American life at the time, said Dr. Wellerstein — not least because of the workers’ unawareness of the project. Based on several oral histories with them and their descendants, their legacy appears to be less about what they contributed to, and more about their ability to have even contributed at all.
Most people do not realize, Dr. Wellerstein said, that the Manhattan Project had a cumulative work force of some 600,000, which included women and people of color, including about 15,000 African American workers in Hanford.
There is a version of nuclear history, Dr. Wellerstein said, “that’s warped by both secrecy and the sort of prejudices and priorities” of the white male officials at the top. That history erases the vital contributions of the African American workers.
But once the bomb dropped, they shared a wide range of emotions: excitement, fear, disbelief, astonishment, pride. “It made me sick,” Mrs. Strickland said in a 2005 interview about learning of the attack. “It was hard for me to know that bomb killed so many people.”
Those feelings, however, could not erase her pride in the contribution of African Americans. “I thought it was great,” she said in an earlier interview. “I was proud to be there.”