On the Job
Narrator: Scholar Jackie Peterson elaborates on African American women’s roles at Hanford.
Jackie Peterson: Unfortunately, though, when most women, African American women in particular, arrived at Hanford, they were pretty much offered cleaning positions or kitchen positions, very traditional women’s work.
One of the elders of the Pasco community in an oral history interview was talking about how she had actually been trained as a welder in, I want to say it was somewhere in California. She was living the life. She was earning a paycheck, she had a skill, like she felt so good about her life and she was very happy to stay there. But her husband was just not satisfied and he kept hearing about this job in Pasco, this Hanford thing, and kept harping on it. Finally, she gave in and said, “You know what? Fine. Let’s go out there and see what this is all about.”
But she was confident that she would be able to get similar work because she had a certificate. She had gone through this training program. She had been earning a good salary. Unfortunately, they got to Hanford, and he got whatever job, probably a construction job. She showed up and she’s like, “Oh, I have my certificate. I’m a trained welder.” They’re like, “Well, you can work in the kitchen or you can clean. Take your pick.” She was flabbergasted and she thought, “How is it possible that I have a trained skill that clearly you probably need in this project and you’re turning me down?”
The other side of it was most of the people who were recruited and ended up coming to Hanford were men. So you have a situation where you have a bunch of men, probably a lot of them were single, and the small population of women. So there was certainly lots of harassment. I heard at one point the security detail at Hanford had to build a fence around the women’s barracks, and people had to have like written permission to visit the women’s barracks, because the situation had gotten so out-of-hand.
African American workers were predominantly assigned to general labor crews, where they provided essential labor for the construction of Hanford’s facilities. Crews were segregated by race, typically with white foremen managing all-black crews.
Narrator: Jackie Peterson describes how black laborers were treated during the war years.
Jackie Peterson: Most of the needs early on in the Manhattan Project were for construction, and so there was a large need for all manner of labor, skilled, unskilled. But the majority of folks, African Americans in particular, who came to work at Hanford were unskilled, fell into the unskilled labor category. And so, most of them worked in construction, so building barracks, building a lot of the office facilities, building the reactor facilities, you know, running the cement trucks, waste management, all the different odd jobs required to actually like build things.
Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for people to advance in terms of being promoted. A lot of the construction foremen in particular were usually white. A lot of the more administrative positions were all occupied by white people. There were some folks who were able to take on very specialized jobs. Concrete pouring, for example, was a job that sort of paid slightly more than the sort of basic construction-level crews.
It’s really important that that particular story is available to people and people really understand that it wasn’t just a construction, it wasn’t just a construction job for a lot of people. It was the start of something much bigger and it took people a lot to get there. While people were willing to put their lives on the line in a foreign country, people had to put their lives on the line in our own country.
Narrator: CJ Mitchell remembers working on construction crews in 1947.
CJ Mitchell: I worked on all-African American crews, and had an African American boss. I worked with common laborers, primarily what I did, when I first came. Well, the trailer park in North Richland, that was my first job, helping put in the wash houses. The plumbers would go in and put the pipes together, but they needed little holes dug up so they could work. My job was to dig these bell holes for these guys.
In the fall, I worked on the 100 H Area. I worked the swing shift there. I was on a cleanup crew there. That is where they’re getting ready to pour cement, and you would go down and get all the trash out and get everything all clean and picked up there, and preparing for that.
As a top secret government initiative, the Manhattan Project operated on a “need-to-know” basis. Like many white workers, African Americans were not informed of the purpose of their work.
Narrator: While working in New York laboratories, George Warren Reed and James Forde knew very little about their work’s real objective.
George Warren Reed: atom bomb program in New York. They were talking about something, and it turns out later on that probably what they were talking about—and I wasn’t aware of at the time—was the atom bomb and whether or not to use it. So, at that time, I was totally in the dark.
I knew I was working on uranium and whatever it was the uranium had something to do with it.
James Forde: Little did I know what they were doing there. At the time, I was seventeen years old and I was a lab assistant. But lab assistant meant you did cleanup work and you cleaned the beakers and the other materials that the scientists used. But the main job that I had was cleaning these tubes in a sulfuric acid bath. I did not know what these tubes were, what they were for, or anything.
I didn’t ask many questions. I don’t recall talking to anybody in any depth about it, except that the people that I did talk to said, “We did not know. It was either some sort of gas or a bomb. But whatever it is, it was probably going to impact the war and probably end the war.” That much we knew. But we didn’t know exactly what it was that we were doing.
Narrator: At Hanford, DuPont revealed even less about what the construction crews were building, says Willie Daniels.
Willie Daniels: A lot of people, well, none of us did not know what we were doing. We were just working. DuPont would tell us, “If anybody asks you what are you doing? Tell them you’re working. What are you building? You’re working.” That is what he would tell us. So, we did not know what we was building. Had no idea.