The Manhattan Project

Valeria Steele Roberson's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Valeria Steele Roberson's Interview

Valeria Steele Roberson is the granddaughter of Kattie Strickland, an African American who moved to Oak Ridge from Alabama with her husband to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Roberson discusses her family's experience at Oak Ridge. Roberson comments on how Oak Ridge presented African Americans with higher-paying jobs and an opportunity for a better future with the prospect of social and economic advancement, despite pervasive segregation, discrimination, and continued inequality. She tells of how the African American community viewed themselves as equal citizens and wanted to contribute to the war effort. Roberson situates this discussion within the broader context of ongoing wartime politics in the United States. Roberson also discusses housing accommodations for African Americans, recreational activities, and the day-to-day life of residents at Oak Ridge.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: Tell us about your work and what you’ve learned about the African Americans who worked here in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project.

Valeria Steele Roberson: I became interested in this project when I was a little girl. My grandmother used to tell us stories about the ‘40s, how they came here and left their children back in Alabama with their grandmother. She would always talk about giving one day to the bomb, and about the rats, and the plank sidewalks, and all those kinds of things.

In about 1981, when I was at Berea College, we have a month, the month of January, where we can choose what we want to do. I decided to come home and interview people here about their experiences during the ‘40s. I did a paper called “Blacks in the Ridge.” Later on, I did another article called “New Hope,” which is in the book, These are Our Voices, which was presented by the Children’s Museum here in Oak Ridge.

Kelly: Tell us about your grandmother’s experience.

Roberson: My grandmother is a wonderful woman who came here very poor. They came from Auburn, Alabama.  First my grandfather came, Willie Strickland. That’s how it is, one person comes, and then more family people come. They had to leave Alabama because they were very poor, as I said before, and also they weren’t making much money. So this was an opportunity for them to come and to better themselves, make a better life for their whole family.

When she arrived in Oak Ridge, she lived in the hutments, which was a section that was set aside for black women. There were usually four women in the room. There was like a potbelly stove in the middle. My grandmother said she didn’t like to eat the food of the cafeteria, so she would cook in that room. She would make biscuits. She cooked chicken. She would do everything, because she said that that other kind of food made her sick. She was just a person that would clean up. She took much pride in doing her job.

It was just a good opportunity for them to make some money. Grandmother tells a story about getting paid and having all that money spread out on the bed. They were sending lots of money back home to take care of their children.

Kelly: What was her job?

Roberson: She was basically a janitor. She didn’t have much education. My grandfather didn’t have much education, either. The story goes that most of the blacks that were brought here were brought here because they were uneducated, and they could not read or learn anything about the project that could be passed on.

Kelly: Do you think that is true?

Roberson: To some degree I believe it is, because most of them didn’t have the jobs that were scientific or anything like that. They were mostly laborers. They helped build the buildings, K-25 and what have you.

Kelly: How many blacks were there in Oak Ridge?

Roberson: I’m not certain about how many there were. I would love to be able to find that out and also be able to have a reunion someday of all of those people that once were involved in that project. A lot of the pictures that my grandmother has now are of people that they either can’t remember, or the names of them are forgotten.

Kelly: So your grandmother is still alive? 

Roberson: Yes, she is! My grandmother turned eighty-nine August 21st, 2005 and she still cooks for us every Sunday.  We all gather together at her house and have dinner. She still has that pan that she used when she was making biscuits there, in that hutment section.

Kelly: And she still has pictures?

Roberson: She still has some pictures, yes.

Kelly: Great. We need to get an interview with her, if she would agree to that.

Roberson: I’m sure she would.

Kelly: Wonderful. Tell us more about your interviews: what you learned, and how this experience changed their lives, how people felt about being here.

Roberson: I interviewed about ten or eleven people. Some of them had good things to say about Oak Ridge, and some had bad things to say about Oak Ridge. They talked about the rats and some of the other things. But their stories are different from a Caucasian’s story, for the mere fact that the women were in the hutment section, which was surrounded by barbed wire. The black men and women, even if they were married, couldn’t stayed together. My grandmother talks about trying to sneak in to see my grandfather, and vice versa. She said that some of the FBI men really liked her biscuits, so they would turn their heads sometimes and allow them a little time together. 

There were some people who talked about some of the racism that they experienced during that time. There’s a man named Paul White—he is still alive—who talks about going to the bus station and ordering a sandwich. You pay for it and then you go around to the back and they would stick it out of a pigeonhole, as he called it, to him. They were happy to have more money, more opportunities, but racism was still prevalent here in Oak Ridge.

Now, there was a discussion at one point about creating a community that would be filled with nice homes for blacks. But the influx of people into Oak Ridge was so fast and so tremendous that the blacks got put aside and had the worst housing. There were some whites, white males, that lived in hutments for a number of years as well. So I’m not saying that some whites didn’t have some of the bad as well, but all the blacks were treated like second-class citizens.

We are people that endure. And they endured whatever in hopes of a better future for them and their families.

Kelly: Do you think that this experience led to a better future for some of these families?

Roberson: I think it did, definitely. My grandmother, she said that when she first got here she didn’t like it, but she stayed, and they have been here ever since. They have come to love Oak Ridge dearly. And those jobs lead to other jobs. More family came to Oak Ridge and what have you. So, yes it was a good thing for them.

Kelly: It’s my impression that they provided some recreational facilities for the black community. Can you describe the community and what kind of resources there were? What kind of good points and bad points there were about that area?

Roberson: In the beginning, when they were still in the hutments, they had a recreation hall.  Grandmother talked about that. You could go there and play games and have fun. They always managed to have fun, to have good times.

I don’t know how late you want me to talk about because later on in the years, when they established a black community, they had a recreation hall as well. That was about in the ‘50s or so. Do you want me to talk about the ‘50s, or do you just want to stay with the ‘40s?

Kelly: You can bring it to today, that’s fine.

Roberson: Okay. There was a center there, and you could play games. Of course, they would have parties and their good times as well. One of the good things about them is that they had churches, and church has always been a source of strength for blacks. I believe in the beginning there were a couple of churches that started. I think now we have four in the Scarboro community now.

Kelly: Tell me the history of the Scarboro community.

Roberson: Scarborough is over here, near Y-12, behind the Kmart now. In the beginning, when they were trying to decide where to place the black community, they were given two options. One was over in East Village, which would have been far out for many of them. So they chose Scarboro, which would be close to downtown. A lot of discussion goes on about that, because that community was called Gamble Valley, after a man named Gamble, and some of that stuck with the community. Many people didn’t want it to be called Gamble Valley. Sounds negative, has a very negative connotation, of course. And they named it Scarboro.

The housing there was nice. They got nice new houses. Most of them were duplexes. They also had some single-family dwellings as well. First, my grandmother lived on Fisk with her daughters. The daughters were able to come to Oak Ridge finally in about 1949 or so. They were able to go to school, but there wasn’t a school, per se, for black students. They would have volunteers, like Caucasians would come over and volunteer and teach them. It wasn’t the best school, but it did provide some education for them.

My mother was in the last graduating class of Scarboro, the black school. She was the valedictorian of that class and she still has her speech. It’s a very good speech.  I’m very proud of her. She envisioned a better world for everybody in that speech.

But before they had the Scarboro High School here in Oak Ridge, the blacks that were of high school age had to be bussed to Knoxville. The schools didn’t integrate here in Oak Ridge until 1954, just for the high school only. The junior highs integrated later and the elementary schools integrated in about 1967 or so. 

Kelly: I think I heard about your grandmother’s biscuits. That’s a great story.

Roberson: She said that she would tilt the pan up, like she would have something underneath it, and they would brown on one side. Then she would change it around and they let them brown on the other side. She just made a way. Always determined, and such a good person. Always sharing, as well. 

Kelly: I guess your grandfather came first. How did they hear about the project?

Roberson: I believe that there were some people roaming through the South, asking for people to come and go to Oak Ridge to work. My uncle Harvey, who was married to my aunt, heard about it first. Uncle Harvey convinced Granddaddy to come up and check it out, and so they did. Like I said, they never made so much money in their lives. They were so poor in Alabama. They had gardens, and they were making it okay, but barely. So they decided to come to Oak Ridge. Then more and more of our people came to Oak Ridge as well.

Kelly: Could you go back a couple of generations in your family? Were they once slaves on big plantations and then became sharecroppers? What’s the history?

Roberson: I’m not sure about the slavery part, because I haven’t done any research on that. But they were sharecroppers for a while. They were able to get their own land and work that. They talk about the abundance of food that they were able to produce. It was just that they didn’t have any money at all, barely making anything down there in Alabama.

Kelly: When they got here, where were the rest of the Afro-Americans from?

Roberson: A lot of them came from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. Of course, there were some people here in Tennessee that worked on the project as well.

Kelly: Why were they not part of the Army? Were they too old? 

Roberson: My grandfather would have been too old for the Army at that point. But since you brought up the Army, there were lots of blacks that were participating in the Army. I think that their participation in the Army, and the other pressures that were put on the government, provided this opportunity for them to become a part of that particular program here in Oak Ridge. Because most of the times when African Americans got anything here in this country, pressure had to be put on the government. There was an Executive Order that the President put forth that allowed blacks to work here in Oak Ridge. There was a threat of a march on Washington and other things that helped bring that about.

So it was a wonderful opportunity for them. But the timing was right, because of all the things that were going on in the world, it helped to bring about that opportunity. They were coming out of the Great Depression, right before the war and everything. The good thing about them was they were always able to produce enough food for their families.

During the Great Depression down in Alabama, they were really poor. The good thing about my family is that they were always able to produce enough food for everybody to eat. They essentially sort of lived together—my great-grandmother, my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. They would take everybody in, and work the farm, and try to get jobs outside of the home to make ends meet.

Right before the ‘40s, when all that was going on, they were longing for an opportunity to make some money, to better themselves here in life. With the war starting and blacks going off to fight for the country—because they have always been patriotic, always wanted to be a part of it, to do their part—there was a lot of pressure put on the government to allow blacks to work on the Manhattan Project so that they wouldn’t have to march on Washington, which was being threatened.

Because a lot of people were starting to realize that, if we are giving our lives for this country, we should be treated as American citizens should be. Everybody should be treated equally. We want a bigger piece of this pie, so that our families can become better and prosper as well. We want to be treated as equal citizens.

So with the Great Depression happening and then the war occurring, all that helped to bring about this opportunity for blacks to be here in Oak Ridge. 

Kelly: Your grandfather and your great-uncle must have been entrepreneurial and spirited guys to take that chance and go hundreds of miles away. What were they told? They were probably just told that there was a project, but they did not know what they were working on. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Roberson: Exactly. They were told, “Please come and work. If you will, there was a job, and you will be paid a certain amount of money.” That sounded good to them, because they always say that they weren’t making anything at home. They got on the trucks and trains and they came to better themselves, to provide opportunities for better lives for their families.

Kelly: Other members of the Scarboro community, did they have similar stories, in that it was not just one family member that came, but other family members joined? You would have sort of large groups of related people who came from the same town or even the same family. Was that a pattern?

Roberson: For some. There were some single people that came, too. Ms. Ariel Ayers came as a single lady, and later on she found a husband here. There are various stories. My family started with two, and then my grandmother came, and later on, others came as well.

Kelly: In your research, looking at this community, did you find that there were some who after the war who said, “Oh I’m going home now?” 

Roberson: Oh yes, a lot of people left. After the war was over, and the project was questionable as to what’s going to happen, a lot of people did return home. There’s no place like home. But by then my grandparents had their girls up here. They were in school and doing well. Oak Ridge became home to them. This was still a good place, where they had jobs and opportunities.

My grandmother at one time worked at one of the hotels, and she said that she was the dessert girl. She said that people really enjoyed her cooking. So one thing always leads to another. She really loves Oak Ridge. In fact, my mother says to this day, she wouldn’t live anywhere else in the whole world. 

Kelly: That’s great. She didn’t work in the Alexander Inn, did she?

Roberson: Yes, it was the Alexander Inn.

Kelly: Tell us about that.

Roberson: She told me that she would fix the desserts. My grandmother worked at the Alexander Inn as the dessert girl. She would fix up all the desserts. She talked about putting them in their dishes, and she talked about how much people enjoyed her cooking. She’s still a great cook, too. She said that many people would always ask for more of her dessert. So she really enjoyed that experience. 

Kelly: Can you describe some of the deserts?

Roberson: She hasn’t ever really gone into detail with me about anything specifically. But, my grandmother makes this butter roll, in which you take the biscuits, and the sugar, and the butter, and milk. It’s her own concoction. It’s one of my favorite desserts. It’s just so good. And people still ask, “Where’s the butter rolls? Where can I get that?” She makes all kinds of stuff that people come around asking for more of.

Kelly: You’ve got to get a recipe. It’s probably in her head, right? 

Roberson: Everything is in her head, everything. 

Kelly: Well, they are trying desperately to buy the Alexander Inn.

Roberson: Oh, yes. 

Kelly: That’s why it’s nice to have that story, and hopefully we can find some pictures of her. I don’t know if she has any.

Roberson: I don’t think so. 

Kelly: Do you know anything more about the Alexander Inn? Did she have friends who worked there with her? People who stayed there?

Roberson: No, I can’t recall anything else that she has mentioned about that.

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see, what other stories—they talk about the mud, everybody talks about the mud.

Roberson: My grandmother talks about giving a day toward the bomb. I know that there was a day called the Sunday Punch Day, where everybody decided that they would work, but the money would go toward the project. I think that’s what she meant by that. She takes a lot of pride in saying that “I gave a couple days to the bomb.” Because like I said, they wanted to feel a part of everything. They were American citizens, and they were very patriotic.

Someone asked me about their experience as far as when the war ended, and how they expressed themselves, because you see all the pictures of the whites that were coming out of the movie theater and they were very joyful. But of course, the blacks couldn’t go to the movie theater. I’m sure that they had a private celebration of their own, maybe in their recreation center, where they talked about how glad they were that it was over with. But there’s always a difference when you don’t feel like you are really a part of everything, or you can’t take part in certain things. You feel left out. She’s never really talked that much about that. But I’m sure that they were just totally elated that the war was over, just like everybody else.

I think that generally, even to this day, sometimes you feel like you probably don’t have the support or the police protection that you would desire. There’s always going to be some people who are going to try to do some things they shouldn’t do, illegal or what have you. But growing up in the Scarboro community, I just remember it being a safe, wonderful place to be. It was a wonderful environment. I always felt safe, secure, and it was a wonderful community to grow up in. Everybody took pride in their homes and keeping everything up and all those kinds of things. On every street, you would see flowers and trees. Everybody was just doing a good job of keeping up their property when I was going up.

Kelly: Right after the war, though? 

Roberson: Now going back to the ‘40s when the ladies were separated in “The Pen,” surrounded by barbed wire, they were told it was for their protection that they were enclosed in that area like that. They called that area “The Pen.” The men lived in another section, not too far away from them.

Kelly: How many women versus men were there? Do you have any sense? 

Roberson: No, I don’t.

Kelly: From the stories of the white folks we have interviewed, it seems that the average age was very young, early twenties, and supervisors were thirty at the most. So it was a very youthful environment. Can you talk about the black community? Was it the same thing, or where there a mix of ages?

Roberson: I think that you’re right. They were pretty young when they came to Oak Ridge. When most of the blacks came to Oak Ridge, they were still quite young, twenties, thirties at the most, I would think. Some of the older folks probably thought, “I am not leaving my home!” But the ones that were more adventuresome, the ones that wanted that opportunity, that didn’t mind a little change, came to Oak Ridge.

Kelly: What haven’t I asked that I should ask you about? Any little anecdotes, ironies, humor, or specific experiences? What they wore, how hard it was to get provisions or not, any little stories you can think of?

Roberson: My grandmother says that you had to walk the line in Oak Ridge and do what you were supposed to do, or else they would put you out at the gates. She says that some people were sent home, because they wouldn’t do whatever it was they were supposed to do. I think that she felt pretty safe and secure here in Oak Ridge. 

She talks about going to Knoxville and shopping for foods, even going as far as Chattanooga, and going back home every now and then, as soon as they could. She took the greatest pride in being able to send money home to take care of her girls. She had four girls that she left with her grandmother. I know that had to be very hard on her, to be separated from her daughters. 

Finally, my mother wrote her a letter and said, “You have got to come and get us!” So they went down and got them and they were all reunited again. I’m sure that they were glad, when they could bring their girls up here. They talked about living in the flat-tops, which were over there where the Wal-Mart is today, and just making it work.

Kelly: Can you describe what a flat-top is?

Roberson: A flat-top has basically 2 bedrooms, one living area—you could use that for the living room—a bathroom, and a kitchen. It’s very small but it was theirs, and they could be there all together.

Kelly: How many people from your family lived in a single flat-top?

Roberson: There were six of them at the time. They were in one flat-top. They talk about sleeping two people at one end and the other two at the other end. A lot of togetherness but, you know, close quarters.

Kelly: That would have been during the war, or right after the war?

Roberson: This would be after the war.

Kelly: Did your grandparents who were taking care of your mother, the girls, come here? Or did they stay home?

Roberson: They eventually came. So, like I said, eventually the whole family came. And then some of them eventually went further on up into Alexandria, Virginia and the Washington, DC area. I was going to say, on my father’s side—but I guess I should focus on Mom’s side, since Grandmother is the one that came.

Kelly: Can you think of any of the pictures that your grandmother has that we might get?

Roberson: They have them on file here, because Christy did scan all of them.

Kelly: Can you think of any that you could describe to me now?

Roberson: They have a lot of them that were taken in the recreation hall, just showing people enjoying themselves, just living life, having a good time together. I think they made the best out of Oak Ridge. If things were hard, as far as living conditions or whatever they experienced, they managed to be able to have some recreation time, to enjoy themselves, to be a community together. Because they really were not a part of the major community.

Kelly: Tell me what they did in the recreation hall? You have pictures showing them doing what?

Roberson: They played pool and cards, and they ate a lot. Those kinds of things.

Kelly: Dances?

Roberson: Yes, they did have dances, and they have pictures of that. Grandmother has pictures of that.

Kelly: What kind of music did they listen to?

Roberson: I’m not sure. I guess that’s would be the swing era? I can’t remember what they listened to in the ‘40s. 

Kelly: Did they sing or have concerts?

Roberson: Not in the ‘40s, I don’t believe. They would have been singing at church.

Kelly: Did they use the Chapel on the Hill? Or did they have their own church?

Roberson: They talk about the church on the side of the road. One church service would take place and then the next group would come in. Then finally, they were able to one day to get their own building later on. But that was a very important part of their lives, was church. Reverend Sims was the one that was their leader at the time. That became the Oak Valley Baptist Church, which is still here today, later on.

Kelly: When you say the church on the side of the road, was that the name of it?

Roberson: Yeah, it was like a building, and a lot of different groups would use it. 

Kelly: Were people free to travel to all parts, like Jackson Square? Were they free to move throughout Oak Ridge? They weren’t restricted?

Roberson: As far as I know, they weren’t restricted to any one area. It’s just that when it came to seeing movies or eating, those kinds of things, they couldn’t do it with other Caucasians. They pretty much kept to themselves, sort of like their own community, where they felt a part of things. 

Kelly: Did your grandmother talk about the security, the badging, and how that worked? 

Roberson: Oh yes, you had to have a badge at all times. She talked about when she picked up her girls for the first time when they came to visit, that they had to go to the gate and sign them in, and when they got ready to leave they had to sign them out. My grandmother still has some copies of some of her paycheck stubs from those particular days. 

Kelly: Which looked enormous then.

Roberson: Oh yeah. She said, “Oh, we were so happy to be making some money.”