What was life like at Hanford for blacks during WWII? WSU Tri-Cities project will research

Commissaries were segregated at the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II, with blacks using Commissary No. 2.
Commissaries were segregated at the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II, with blacks using Commissary No. 2. Courtesy DOE

African American workers recruited to Hanford during the World War II Manhattan Project found conditions that were both separate and unequal.

Many of the workers are believed to have been recruited from the South, expecting to find less discrimination in the Northwest.

Instead, they were assigned to blacks-only barracks, offered entertainment separate from white coworkers and worked on crews that were all black aside from a white foreman.

They made up the majority of unskilled labor at the site and also were assigned to domestic work, such as cleaning and serving, according to an exhibit last year at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.

The late Velma Ray told the Herald in 2002 that she was a welder on warships under construction until she and her husband came to Hanford. Then she was assigned to waitressing in a mess hall.

Through the years, pieces of the history of black workers in the early Hanford years have been gathered.

“But we want a clearer picture,” said Michael Mays, director of the Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

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The commissary for blacks at the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II included a tavern that seated 508 patrons. It was a popular place for socializing. Courtesy DOE

The National Park Service, which now includes historic areas of the Hanford nuclear reservation in one of its newest parks, shares the interest. It has awarded WSU Tri-Cities a $73,000 grant as part of a national initiative to study civil rights at national parks.

“The history of the science of the Manhattan Project is well known, but the social history, especially with regard to questions of race, class and gender, is much less clearly understood,” said Michael Mays, WSU Tri-Cities director of the Hanford History Project.

The first step will be gathering existing research, including oral histories already recorded by the WSU project and work done by Robert Bauman, a WSU Tri-Cities associate history professor who was awarded the Charles Gates Award for an article based on his study of black segregation in the Tri-Cities in the 1940s.

Researchers will be looking for African American community members to interview.

The Hanford History Project will be working with the African American Community Cultural and Educational Society in the Tri-Cities to find people with memories of early Hanford and the Tri-Cities and also will advertise in the Seattle and Portland areas, Mays said.

A calendar of entertainment for Hanford nuclear reservation workers and their families in 1944 shows separate and unequal activities. Courtesy Northwest African American Museum

Although qualified black people applied for permanent Hanford work after the war, none were employed, according to a 1949 American Civil Liberties Union report. Some remained in the Tri-Cities, but most dispersed, with some moving to Northwest cities where they believed they could find better opportunities.

Researchers want to interview whose who worked at Hanford during WWII, but with many of them no longer living, they also are looking for people who were children then or have family stories to tell.

Before the war, 27 black people lived in the Tri-Cities. But DuPont, the Hanford contractor assigned to build an industrial complex to produce plutonium for atomic bombs, reported that it had 4,200 to 6,000 black people working at Hanford, according to the Northwest African American Museum exhibit.

The Hanford History Project will research where African Americans lived before they came to Hanford, and then where they settled and what kinds of jobs they found after they left Hanford.

The project also will look into what life and work was like for them at Hanford, Mays said.

A group of construction workers pose for a photo at the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II. Courtesy DOE

Researchers will verify the information generally believed about the African American experience at Hanford and begin to develop a more nuanced understanding, he said.

The completed interviews will be available through WSU Tri-Cities and also through the National Park Service and at the Hanford unit of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The funding will pay for two years work, including up research findings.

“What we hope is we are laying a foundation for scholars in the years to come to build on,” Mays said.

Another organization, the nonprofit Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., also is using grant money for work to expand knowledge of the African American experience at Hanford.

It plans to produce a “Ranger in Your Pocket” program that will highlight the contributions of African Americans who worked at Hanford. The online series of programs allows visitors to learn about Hanford history before they visit the Manhattan Project National Historical Park or play videos or audios on their smart phones while visiting the park.

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World War II recreation facilities at the Hanford nuclear reservation were largely segregated and separate entertainment was planned for black workers, some documents show. Courtesy DOE

The foundation also plans to record and publish nearly 100 new interviews with workers, family members and experts on the Manhattan Project and its legacy at the sites across the nation that helped develop the atomic bomb during WWII.

Priority will be given to minorities who worked on the project, residents such as farming families who were displaced, and people off site who were affected by contamination.

“It is clear there is strong interest in the kaleidoscope of voices of those displaced and minorities,” said Cynthia Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, after attending the National Park Service scholars forum on the new national park.

The Atomic Heritage Foundation recently received a $198,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Wash., for the work, plus some additional historical projects. It is working to raise a partial match of about $100,000.

The grant also is planned to cover a Ranger in Your Pocket interpretive program on the techniques developed to monitor radioactivity and to control exposure and the environment and health consequences of plutonium production operations at Hanford.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews