African-American Involvement in the Manhattan Project

3 African American men in suits on the right stand next to a group of white men in suits
African-American Leaders in Oak Ridge

Ed Westcott, 1940s

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 stated: “I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries of government because of race, creed, color or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination...” Even though the president had written this executive order, things did not always go as planned.
3 women stand next to a clothes line
3 African American women hang laundry outside of housing in Oak Riddge.

Ed Westcott, 1945

African-American workers within Oak Ridge lived in a community located near today’s Illinois Avenue. Residents within that community lived in small wooden shacks called hutments, unlike housing in other communities. At 14 feet by 14 feet, hutments were roughly the size of a storage shed and were shared by 5-6 people.

Amenities were sparse, with a coal-burning stove, dirt floor, one door and no bathroom.Married couples were not allowed to live together. Instead, women lived in their own guarded, and fenced-off community called the “pen,” enclosed by a 5-foot fence with barbed wire lining the top. Their children were not permitted to live in Oak Ridge until 1946. Original plans for a “Negro Village” on the east end of town, with housing and a shopping center, were abandoned as Oak Ridge grew.
african american workers in overalls inside building
Workers pouring a floor slab at K-25

Ed Westcott, 1945

For many people the wages and living conditions were better than back home, and transportation was provided; nevertheless, discriminatory practices and Jim Crow laws were an ever-present barrier to prosperity in day-to-day life.

Despite the many challenges that African-Americans faced during this point in time in American history, many went on to become prominent citizens; doctors, teachers, principals, city counsel members, leaders within their communities, and some became scientists within the Manhattan Project.

African-Americans also faced much of the same discrimination at the Hanford, Washington site. There are no records of African-American workers in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the Manhattan Project.

Last updated: October 15, 2018