Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

African-American Scientists in the Manhattan Project

Ernest Wilkins (image courtesy of Dan Dry/Wikimedia Commons)

For Black History Month, the Knoxville News Sentinel published two in-depth articles on African-American scientists in the Manhattan Project, Bias kept black scientists out of Oak Ridge’s atomic bomb work and 15 African-Americans who were hidden heroes of the Manhattan Project. Written by Brittany Crocker, the articles describe the contributions the scientists made to the project, the discrimination they faced throughout their careers, and segregation at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project.

The articles shed light on the “hidden heroes” of the Manhattan Project, such as J. Ernest Wilkins (pictured; image courtesy of Dan Dry, Wikimedia Commons). Wilkins became the youngest person admitted to the University of Chicago when he was accepted at age 13. He received his doctorate at age 19, and was 21 when he began working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago.

In 1944, Edward Teller recommended Wilkins to Harold Urey at Columbia University: “Mr. Wilkins is in [Eugene] Wigner’s group at the Metallurgical Laboratory and has been doing excellent work. He is a colored man and since Wigner’s group is moving to (Oak Ridge) it is not possible for him to continue working with that group.” As Brittany Crocker explains in her article, in Oak Ridge African-Americans were limited to labor positions and assigned to crude housing. Wilkins continued to work with Wigner in Chicago and had a very distinguished career in applied mathematical physics.  

George Warren Reed was a chemist who also worked at the Met Lab. He later told his son, “My life story would be very different had not World War II intervened with the need to more fully utilize all the nation’s manpower.” Reed went on to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He worked in the chemistry division at the Argonne National Laboratory and for NASA.

The articles also profile Jasper Jeffries, Carolyn Parker, Blanche Lawrence, and other African-American scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project.