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Kattie Strickland’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Kattie Strickland left her three children in Alabama when she began working in the secret city of Oak Ridge for the Manhattan Project. Strickland was part of the janitorial staff at Oak Ridge. Unlike the white women whom she worked along side, Ms. Strickland was prohibited from sharing living quarters with her husband, who also worked on the project. In this interview, Strickland discusses the bad food at the mess hall and the special biscuit pan her husband made in the machine shop.

Date of Interview:
August 13, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Today is Tuesday August 13, 2013, I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. With me is Denise Kiernan and Valeria Steele and her [grand]mother, Kattie Strickland, and we are so delighted to have you here today. Our first question for you is to say your name and spell it.

Kattie Strickland: My name is Kattie Strickland.

Kelly: And how do you spell that?

Strickland: K-A-T-T-I-E S-T-R-I-C-K-L-A-N-D.

Kelly: Can you tell us what your birthday is and where you were born?

Strickland: August the 21st, 1916.

Kelly: And where were you born?

Strickland: Let me see, Opelika, Alabama, in Macon County.

Kelly: Macon. And can you tell us about your family?

Strickland: Oh my goodness, all my brothers were born in Opelika, Alabama. And that is all my brothers and my sisters were born in the same place, Opelika, none of them was born in Macon.

Kiernan: So were you the baby? Were you the youngest?

Strickland: No, I am the first, second, third daughter.

Kelly: And how many children were there all together?

Strickland: My momma had nine, four girls and five boys is nine, I think.

Kelly: And you were the third daughter? The third, did you say?

Strickland: Third daughter.

Valeria Steele: What did Papa do, Grandmamma? What kind of work did he do?

Strickland: He farmed butterbeans, peas, taters and all that stuff. He farmed, anyway.

Kiernan: Did you help out on the farm?

Strickland: Um hum, I go to the field and pick four hundred pounds a day.

Steel: Of what, Grandmamma?

Strickland: Cotton. And I pick a bale of wheat by myself, after all of them, with Mary and me.

Kelly: That is a lot, wow.

Strickland: It was.

Kelly: So did you go to school? What kind of schooling did you have? Where did you go to school?

Strickland: Opelika, Alabama, it was between Tuskegee and Montgomery. And I did not get no further than seven.

Kelly: Seven?

Strickland: Grade.

Kelly: Seventh grade. So that would put you, let’s see, in seventh grade you were probably like 1930. You finished school in 1930 thereabouts? 

Strickland: I did not understand.

Kelly: I am just trying to figure out—you might have been fourteen years old when you left school, when you finished the seventh grade?

Strickland: Fourteen because we would pick—we would go to school three days and help in the farm two days a week. I did not have any chance in school because I had to help.

Kelly: So what did you do after you finished school?

Strickland: Well my Daddy raised butterbeans and peas and a lot of stuff like that. And I am the one that carried them to town. So he raised lots of butter beans and peas, of course. The people in town, they put in their order, how many they need, so I knew how many to bring. And I had so many quarts of black beans and so many quarts of beans. Made good.

Kelly: So you kind of managed for your dad’s farm.

Strickland: That is right.

Kelly: We are approaching the depression years. 1930 is when you left, and you were working all through the 30s, 1930s, on your dad’s farm and helping to market the goods. What was that like? Did you have a hard time during the 1930s? There were a lot of areas of the country that were struck by drought, very little rain, and the economy was very poor. What was it like for you?

Strickland: Where we lived, lived out in the country, we moved to Opelika, Alabama, I mean Auburn, Alabama, because we stayed between there and us moving to the main library area for eight years.

Steel: At the college, Grandma? In town or at the college?

Strickland: It was over in Auburn College, you know. It was over and I was at the main library, I had to be there every morning to open up the doors for the students.

Kelly: So how did you like that?

Strickland: Well by then my husband had come up here [to Oak Ridge] and he would send me money back every week. And he said, “Take this money and buy the children winter shoes.”

And I would pick enough cotton and bought all the children winter shoes and put some of it in the bank. 

My Daddy said, “Oh, he is sending it to the hog hanging because she is not gonna throw it away.”

And he would send it every week, and I’d leave the library across the street and I go there. 

She said, “Ain’t got here yet?” 

I said, “Well I will be back after a while.”

She said, “Oh yes, here it comes now.” 

And she said, “Is that your husband, or boyfriend or what? He send this money every week to you?”

I said, “That is my husband.” Because we had five children then.

Kelly: You had five children, did you say?

Strickland: Uh huh.

Kelly: Wow.

Strickland: Let’s see four, four.

Kiernan: So your husband was here first?

Strickland: Yes he came and stayed about a year before. He come to Tennessee, and my uncle was in Georgia. And when I come home, he was back at my Momma’s house. And they come to carry me back, but I had never asked Momma to keep the children.

She said, “Don’t look at me.”

And my uncle said, “Now you just leave that girl alone, let her go on with her husband.”

And I’d gone, I got to Tennessee but she kept them.

Kelly: She kept the children.

Strickland: Momma kept them [the children] until we got them. My older daughter got, oh no she really told me, “Oh Momma, I want to come where you are at now.” And we went and got them because they did not allow no children up at a certain time, but they just had opened up for children, you could bring your children. And we went and got them and brought them up here to Oak Ridge.

I was working at the Carbide’s cafeteria, and I could not eat their food. We get free tickets and I let him have them, and they would eat them, golly. I could not eat. I was done on that Saturday, Sunday, and I said, “I am so hungry.”

I looked over at that leg looked like a turkey leg, I thought it was a turkey drumstick. And I got over that piece on the plate, and I could not stick my teeth in it.

I said, “Now this must be a buzzard back!”

And my husband said, “Put down that [inaudible], it may get soft.”

And I said, “I done bought it,” and I said, “It got harder.” And I had not eaten anything else since, and it tore my mouth up.

And so many were in the restroom, my husband said [inaudible], “You mind she coming in?” he said. Oh, he was looking at my food and I was looking at him. That buzzard! I had to go in the men’s restroom.

But my husband laughed at me, he said, “I ate the same thing.”

And I would not eat no more. And I was cooking on the stove. I tell everybody that you cannot eat that food they cook at the mess hall, I couldn’t, but some of them loved it.

Kelly: So you then started cooking for yourself?

Strickland: Yes, I started cooking on the stove. See, I make my biscuits and the stove get red hot. My husband made a little block thing. I can sit the pan and turn it up to the stove, you know, it burned the bottom, then when the bottom browned then I turned it over and let the top biscuits brown. Oh it was really good, nice cooking on that.

Steele: You and Granddaddy lived together in the huts, right?

Strickland: We supposed to stay in there. We had a vine that would come down through like this, we had a vine go across, and two can stay on each side of their room, man and wife.

Steele: When you first came to Oak Ridge you all could not live together, you and Granddaddy?

Strickland: Oh, no I stayed in the Pen with the guards. Only made a big old place and the guards’ house and all our houses made around in there, and mine was made right next to the guard house. And my husband, he figured all the others, when they go down, he was gonna crawl over on top of the wire. He had the planks up so high then, he put two strands of barbed wire up top and he was up there.

I heard somebody beating the wall and I went around there.

He said, “Get me unhung, my straight arm is in the top of the tack.”

I said, “What are you doing out here?”

He said, “The guards are gone, I heard them go, make sure you get me down before they come back.”

Lord, I laid down and cried. It did not hang him, on the bottom it hung, the top string hung him in the back of his shirt and he could not get it loose, and he was way up there too.

I just could touch his leg and I said, “You know I am right next to the guard’s house.”

He said, “But I see them. They are all going out to get them girls and come back.”

And I went and let him down.

Oh lord we had fun though, but you see nothing, had nothing. That was the first thing you see when you got through that gate. And I finally got where I got in the restricted part. I had two badges. If you did not have that restricted badge you could not go up in that apartment. 

And me and my friend had 100 restrooms apiece, go down and get back to the bin now, she go around this side and I go around that side and then I would call her, I would wave at her at the window. She would wave back. We got on down about 20 some restrooms and the water was not the same, they had 100 bathrooms, I mean a water fountain. And I had half and she had half. She would go that way and I would go this way. 

And I said, “Well golly, look at that bathroom it is dark, ain’t nobody in there.” And I went on down and nobody worked at night there but me and her.

And every day we did the bathroom the same way. You clean them and then have a few to clean because a lot of them did not go to the same restroom all the time, and we just skipped a bathroom because we did not have to clean. I had got so all I wanted to do was hit the clock, and get inside.

I would write my Mom and them and tell them, “I am riding a freight train.” I tell them I was riding a train every day. And I see that freight train would come down the track, and pick us up at—there a light turn there when they load up. He has to go back up the track about half a mile, let that load off, come back and get more, and that was it.

Kiernan: Why don’t you tell Cindy how you got your biscuit pan?

Strickland: They cutting off a piece of that tin, the pipe, and he would look down and say, “Hey want another pan?”

I said, “Yes, make me another one.” I had about five or six made, but I let the girl have one, I gave her some and she did not bring it back. And I got others at the house but this is my main one, the first one he ever made me. And I have been cooking on it ever since. About how many years? And now I cook biscuits in here, and they brown so pretty.

When I was at the building, my husband built the thing and set it up to the stove and it would be red hot and I set it up to the stove, not close to it, hot oven, and they would brown on the bottom and I turned around and facing it and browned the top. And so he make me a pan and holler all the time, he, “You want another pan?”

“I do not want one today.”

And I would scrape them and grease them and then I go to cooking on them.

Kelly: So how many thousands of biscuits were made on that pan?

Strickland: Oh goodness, I have made them, I do not know how many, I do not know how many I made at the plant then, and see I make them now at home.

Kelly: So you still use the pan?

Strickland: I said some of them would not think about having them make no pan, you know, and he made me a lot of pans. Make some about that deep and make a pan about that big around. But that is my—it is black but it is really clean because I try to bring it, you know.

Kiernan: They are tearing K-25 down and you have a little piece of it right there.

Strickland: I got three or four pieces at the house. They sure are tearing my building down, I went there eight years straight.

Kelly: So what did you do at K-25?

Strickland: There were about sixteen of us just like this here, in the building a little wider than this, and go from one end to the other end. And one girl, he let me and her sweep the floor if they throw the sawdust [to absorb grease, oil, and other sludge]. And we would sweep it up and sweep it down, sweep it up and sweep it down, until you get like dry and you pick it up and put it on the wheelbarrow and go empty it. And then when we get to the end, go back the same way. It would be twenty times a day, as long as we are supposed to be on the job. That concrete floor was cleaned like glass when we worked with it, so much you would not get a bit of dust off it, no way.

And I said, “Lord have mercy.” They had the same building, start the building off and all of us were scared, everybody’s nose is in everything and them big old tanks. She would be on one side, there were two of us to the thing, but they talk in the room with [inaudible] had bushels of regular cotton or rags. And that is a real good thing, until you get those big tanks that you got this shining like looking glass, with no dust in that building nowhere, but so long until we got and they are throwing that sawdust and killing that dust. It was shining like a piece of glass, the floor.

And so at the same time when they go turn it loose, you know, turn it on and let it go, everybody was looking at one another when he says, “And you all, when you hear this whistle blow, I am hitting this button and that thing [Sound Effects].” And we were scared to death and everybody was scared. It went right, but boy I wanted to go home.

And somebody said—that big building, because as big as it was and they did not know for sure that it would be all, right but it was. So then when they were building it and there when they turned it on them big old—and all of the secretaries, they were scared. I said, “Do not look at me, I am scared too.” That thing was a sight.

Strickland: How hot? It stayed Monday morning, after it turned on with the thing on, everybody was scared, did not know whether it was gonna go wrong or go right, and it went right. Those big buildings and the whole building went off at the same time. And they did not know, the man who built it didn’t know, they were hoping it was gonna be right. And it was, and everything scared me to death. If I could have checked out and went home I would have, but he would not let anybody go home.

Me and my girl were working. And Loreen, she said, “It is the night, the war is over.” And they called on the loud speaker and said, “Miss Loreen,” I forget her last name now, “Your husband is at the gate.” And boy, she threw that broom down and like to hit me with it, to that gate she pulled it. And I went behind her to the gate and he was at the gate. We got out, the war was over with.

Kiernan: Did you make more money in Oak Ridge than in Auburn?

Strickland: I thought I was rich! All that money, and you know one time we paid a dollar and a half for a week for a bed, rent and get a change twice a week. And the first time, we were not making that much money but more than I had ever seen, and just keep doing it, she don’t have that much in Alabama.

My brother used to work at the library and Ms. Moore, she was a white lady, she was crazy about my brother and he had to go to the Army. And Bill wanted me to work in the library in his place when he left, and he worked at the library. And this lady knows she was crazy about my brother. Up in that alley, all those lines of books, that is the dustiest dang old, I said, “Bill, you ain’t that good, you ain’t doing nothing.” Ms. Moore, she did not care what Bill did, she liked him, she was crazy about Ben.

And so they had a meeting and they did not want to pay me what they were paying him because I was a woman. And Ms. Martin, she went to that meeting, she got them told because they didn’t messed with her. She told them, “The place is cleaner than it has ever been,” and tell them, “Pay her as much as what you were paying him.” And so they paid me the same amount he was paying Bill because they beat the head vote on it, sure did.

I worked with Joan a good while. I left Joan and went in Carbide. I went to Chattanooga and stayed a week and I came back and met May Anna. And she had been in Mississippi and of course she had lost her husband. And we come on back and stopped on the way. I said, “I am going in to see if they will start back to hiring when I left Chattanooga.” And I stopped by there, “Oh yeah, are you hiring?” And they hired us.

When they hire you, they pay you by two weeks and you ain’t never started in. You go to this lady and go to that one, and it takes about two weeks, and they pay you for the whole time you were in the library. I mean in the–oh I cannot recall, the only time you were hired back in, before I left Joan and came to Carbide.

Kiernan: When you made your biscuits, where did you get the ingredients? Where did you go shopping for flour and butter? Where did you get it?

Strickland: Oh, uptown, oh, I am thinking in Knoxville, but—

Kiernan: Jackson Square?

Strickland: Yeah, Jackson Square.

And this man would—he had been there a long time before we were, and he said he was going home. He made a case, he made a freezer there, but we did not have any freezer there. He made that freezer there about like that there, that long there, and he lined it with that silver paper, silver paper inside. And he could not leave it where he had it, and he told Lee he was gonna leave it and he could have it. And that thing would hold two watermelons, two or three cases of drink, about four cases of beer because my husband sold a dollar cigarette and happy to have a store right there. On Friday, they could buy all the beer they wanted. They like to come and sit-down and drink it with their girlfriend, or they come in, give me two cigarettes and I give two and they gave me two dollars, and he is drinking beer and stuff and smoke cigarettes.

And see, he would allowance cigarettes and whatever that they were allowance, but anyway, when they allowanced a cigarette my husband smoked and they would buy cigarettes and let my husband have them because they did not smoke. They allowanced everything like that after a while.

But I thought this was the worst place I had ever come in my life. I went to crying when we go to Chattanooga. I said, “Leaving my children for going around the bend and things.” And after I got here and got to working, oh I loved that money, then but I was sending Mama money home every week.

Kiernan: But you missed your babies?

Strickland: Uh-huh.

Kelly: How long was it before you were together, before your children came here?

Strickland: When I came up where he was, a year.

Kiernan: A year after the war?

Strickland: Oh.

Kiernan: When did your kids get to come live with you?

Strickland: Oh I kept them, they stayed down there about three years, so they did not have to go too far to school [inaudible].

Kiernan: Tell Cindy about the recreation hall near the huts. The rec hall near the huts.

Strickland: Yeah, we had one right there by where the big kitchen was. And back then there were so many people there, you could stir them with a stick. Oh the yard was full, your huts were full, cafeteria was full, and it is full everywhere. And finally the folks would ease them back going to Memphis enough because about eight come one time and week to week and they said, “Oh, I am not used to this kind of work.”

I said, “What kind of work you did?” I said, “This ain’t no work, this is a plaything to me.” And they finally got their red paper, to terminate.

Mr. Man said, “All you all are going to terminate, get them eleven and the rest stay here to the right,” but about nineteen of them went to the left because they wanted to go back. They made a little money, they wanted to go back to Memphis and they said, “We are tired of work.”

I said, “Oh shoot, it is not anything but a plaything to me,” I said what I had to do at home; picking that cotton and shoving that cart, I said it is a plaything to me because they were not used to doing this like that. I do not know anything about this work. And I mean they left and went back.

Kiernan: Why don’t you tell Cindy about going to church during the war?

Strickland: Well we went to—we had a church we went to called the House on the Side of the Road. We went with Reverend, what was his name, Val? Reverend Sam. He went with us and the other children. But he went with us and he said—we would tease him, “We are going to be with you at Mt. Zion.” Oh Lord, he would not stand for that.

And when we made our church I took or my husband, he pulled my cart and the church, they said they would get a new church and the whole church and me and my husband had to pay for it to become or to move it over to our section. And he moved it on, all of it on. And this guy worked at the plant, he was a—he knew how to do things. And we got him this, fix it back right, so now we got a pretty church.

Kiernan: That is a pretty church.

Steel: What did Granddaddy do when he came to Oak Ridge?

Strickland: He was working on the railroad. My husband never liked to work inside. And I was just praying for him for the railroad and he liked it and he should go where they was and they all sang that song from—“Boys can’t you move it, boys can’t you move it.” And so when he was getting paid for something he was not doing, you know, he had a breakdown how many he had and that jackhammer, he never did work the jackhammer but he was getting paid for the jackhammer. And he made good money.

Strickland: Well that is just about all. When I first got there they said, “See nothing, say nothing.” And it was all right because I did make more money than I did when I was in Alabama, but that was something to see around there, I am telling you.

Copyright 2013 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.