At the height of WWII between 1942 and 1945, the US government’s top-secret program to build an atomic bomb, named the Manhattan Project, cumulatively employed 600,000 people, including scientists, technicians, janitors, engineers. , chemists, chambermaids. and day laborers. Though seldom recognized, African American men and women were among them – their ranks bolstered by greater wartime employment opportunities and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in the United States. defense industries.
At the project’s rural production sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Wash., Black workers were relegated to predominantly menial jobs such as janitors, cooks, and laborers, regardless of education or experience. But in the project’s urban research centers – the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and Columbia University in New York – several black scientists may have played a key role in the development of the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, thus 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 lab staff tasked with devising a method of producing plutonium that could fuel a nuclear reaction.
Chemist Benjamin Scott, who worked at the Chicago Met Lab, described the atomic bomb project at Chicago Daily Tribune as a “successful experiment in the physical sciences, but also in sociology”, and that “the white people employed on the project insisted on maintaining the spirit of fair play”.
Arthur Compton, director of the Manhattan Project in Chicago and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, said the project was unique in bringing together “color and white, Christian and Jew” for a common cause. Yet beyond the Compton lab and the Columbia University site, opportunities for black scientists on the project were often limited by racism.
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Decent salary, separate facilities
Located in the Deep South, where Jim Crow segregation was in effect during the war, the rural community of Oak Ridge exploded as the Manhattan Project’s production facility grew. Black workers, attracted by the high wages and free housing advertised on the site, filled menial roles in the Tennessee site, to be housed in groups of five or six in huts, 16×16 plywood structures. feet that had shuttered windows, a stove and no plumbing. Women were separated from men, even though they were married. “There are few other parts of the South where the plight of the Negros, compared to that of their white neighbors, is as miserable as it is here,” reported Enoc Waters, columnist for the Chicago Defender.
At the Hanford, Washington site where plutonium was produced to make the first atomic bomb, black workers faced similar discrimination. They lived in inferior living conditions and were refused service in many stores and restaurants. Lula Mae Little, who had migrated from the Midwest and South to the Eastern Washington Desert along with thousands of other African Americans in search of better wages, called Hanford the “Mississippi of the North.”
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J. Ernest Wilkins and other black scientists
In 1944, a 21-year-old African-American mathematician, Ernest Wilkins, joined the metallurgical lab team. A child prodigy who entered the University of Chicago at the age of 13, Wilkins received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. degrees in six years – becoming, at the time, one of the half percent of black men in America with a doctorate. Yet after graduation he received no job offers from major research institutes and had taught at several historically black colleges before being recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.
At the Metallurgical Laboratory, Wilkins studied neutron energy, reactor physics and engineering with two eminent European scientists, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. Together, they have achieved groundbreaking work on the movement of subatomic particles. But when his team moved in 1944 to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a Manhattan Project site where the X-10 graphite reactor was being built, Wilkins was left behind because he was black. Edward Teller, a scientist at the Columbia University complex, wrote to the War Research Department in an attempt to recruit him to work in New York City. “He’s a man of color and since Wigner’s band moved to (Oak Ridge) it’s not possible for him to continue working with that band. I think it might be a good idea to guarantee his services for our work, ”Teller said. . He didn’t go to New York.
Black scientists at the Metallurgical Lab and Columbia University included, among others: Edwin R. Russell, a research chemist focused on the isolation and extraction of plutonium-239 from uranium; Moddie Taylor, a chemist who analyzed the chemical properties of rare earth metals; Ralph Gardner-Chavis, a chemist who, along with Wilkins, worked closely with Enrico Fermi; George Warren Reed, who studied uranium and thorium fission yields; Lloyd Quarterman, a chemist who worked on the division of atoms; the brothers Lawrence and William Knox, educated at Harvard, chemists who respectively studied the effects of the bomb and the separation of the isotope of uranium; chemists Harold Delaney and Benjamin Scott; and physicist Jasper Jeffries.
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Advocate for the peaceful use of the atomic bomb
Wilkins and Jeffries were two of 70 Manhattan Project scientists who signed a petition urging President Harry S. Truman not to use the atomic bomb on Japan without first demonstrating its power and giving it the opportunity to surrender. But Truman never saw the petition, which was not widely known until it was declassified in 1961.
At the Met Lab, Wilkins and Jeffries had joined the Chicago Atomic Scientists, which were founded in 1945 to meet the moral and social responsibilities of scientists regarding the use of the atomic bomb. In 1947, Jeffries delivered a speech to the American Veterans Committee, urging the peaceful use of the atomic bomb. “The best way to ensure peaceful uses of atomic energy is to ban war,” he said. Jeffries argued that the presence of the atomic bomb necessitated the need for a strong world government and a United Nations that would help moderate the development of atomic weapons in many countries.
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A commitment to science education
After World War II, Wilkins worked for a decade as a mathematician at the United Nuclear Corporation. He later served as a distinguished professor at two historically black colleges, Howard University and Clark Atlanta University, where he retired in 2003. He was president of the American Nuclear Society from 1974 to 1975. Many of his black colleagues , including Jeffries, also spent years after WWII in black colleges, where they nurtured generations of black scientists. In 1958, when the National Defense Education Act was passed, which funded science education for all Americans, Wilkins worked with the National Urban League to establish a program for African scientists. Americans.
When he died in 2011 at the age of 87, Wilkins was the author of over 100 scientific papers. According to Shane Landrum, a historian of black atomic scientists, the work of Wilkins and other scientists of the Black Manhattan Project, as well as their white and immigrant colleagues, changed the “course of war and the role of science in it. American policy ”.
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