The Forgotten African American Scientists Who Helped Develop The Manhattan Project

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During the height of World War II between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. government’s top-secret program to build an atomic bomb, code-named the Manhattan Project, cumulatively employed some 600,000 people, including scientists, technicians, janitors, engineers, chemists, maids and day laborers. While rarely acknowledged, African American men and women were among them—their ranks bolstered by greater wartime employment opportunities and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 of 1941 outlawing racial discrimination in the defense industries.

At the project’s rural production sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington, Black workers were relegated to mostly menial jobs like janitors, cooks and laborers, regardless of education or experience. But in the project’s urban research centers—the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and at Columbia University in New York—several Black scientists were able to play key roles in the development of the two atomic bombs that were released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, effectively ending the war. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, at least 12 Black chemists and physicists participated in primary research at the Metallurgical lab, a small fraction of the more than 400 scientists, technicians and laboratory staff members tasked with designing a method of plutonium production that could fuel a nuclear reaction.

Chemist Benjamin Scott, who worked in the Chicago Met Lab, described the atomic bomb project to the Chicago Daily Tribune as a “not only a successful experiment in physical science, but also in sociology,” adding that white people working on the project had maintained a spirit of fair play.

Arthur Compton, the Manhattan Project director in Chicago and a Nobel Prize winner in physics, said the project was unique in bringing together “colored and white, Christian and Jew” for a common cause. Yet beyond Compton’s lab and the Columbia University site, opportunities for Black scientists on the project were often limited by racism.

Decent Pay, Segregated Facilities

Situated in the South, where Jim Crow segregation was in full force during the war, the rural community of Oak Ridge ballooned as the Manhattan Project production facility grew. Black workers, drawn to the high pay and free housing advertised at the site, filled menial roles in the Tennessee site, only to be housed in groups of five or six in hutments, 16 x 16-foot plywood structures that had shutter windows, one stove and no plumbing. Women were segregated from men, even if they were married. “There are few other areas of the South where the plight of Negros, as compared with that of their white neighbors, is as wretched as it is here,” reported Enoc Waters, a columnist for the Chicago Defender.

At the Hanford, Washington site, where the plutonium was produced to build the first atomic bomb, Black workers faced similar discrimination. They lived in inferior living conditions and were refused service at many stores and restaurants. Lula Mae Little, who had migrated from the Midwest and South to the Eastern Washington desert with thousands of other African Americans in search of better wages, referred to Hanford as the “Mississippi of the North.”

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SOURCE: History.com, Farrell Evans

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