This Black History Month, we recognize the important, though often overlooked, role of African Americans on the Manhattan Project. Black workers, many striving to escape the racial terror of Jim Crow and the drought that devastated rural farming communities following the Great Depression, joined the project in the thousands. While some worked as scientists and technicians in Chicago and New York, most African Americans on the project were employed as construction workers, laborers, janitors, and domestic workers at Oak Ridge and Hanford.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, issued in 1941 after lobbying by A. Philip Randolph and other black leaders, created greater employment opportunities for African Americans. It stated, “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries of Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” To reinforce this executive order, a prohibition of discrimination clause was written in all defense contracts.
The prospect of higher-paying jobs and a better future drew many African Americans to the Manhattan Project. The project conformed to the segregation practices of the time and was not immune from racism, but also offered many blacks an opportunity for advancement. The different Manhattan Project sites often reflected the beliefs of the communities in which they were located, and the experience of African Americans on the project varied by individual and by site.
Despite the hardships and discrimination they faced, black workers, technicians, and scientists were integral to the project. Their contributions, from the plants of Hanford and Oak Ridge to the laboratories of Chicago and Columbia, helped bring World War II to an end. Their experiences are an essential part of the Manhattan Project story.
To learn more about the contributions of black Americans to the Manhattan Project, read our History page on African Americans and the Manhattan Project.