The Little-Known Story of Black Workers in a Secret City

Reactor Construction (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Collection)

Could it be possible for a community to advance diversity, equity and inclusion through tourism attractions and the sharing of cultural history? Is it conceivable that visitors to these attractions would take their experiences back to their communities and foster greater acceptance for all people? I believe the answer to be a resounding, “yes.”

I call the Tri-Cities, Washington home. We are a Secret City, as in, we are home to one of the sites of the Manhattan Project and a part of the three-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park. My community has a rich scientific history. We have many science tourism-related assets; STEM Tourism is very much a thing here. In fact, Battelle, operator of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory here in the Tri-Cities, is the Official Champion of STEM Tourism. I encourage you to come for a visit and “Get Your Geek On!

While our community’s involvement in the Manhattan Project helped usher in the Atomic Age and development of numerous technological advances, we also have a culturally rich and a very relevant story to share aside from the science.

Segregation did not have much of a foothold in the Pacific Northwest back in the early 1940s. That changed when the U.S. Army selected the small farming community of Hanford, Washington as the site for the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor to support our country’s endeavors in World War II. DuPont, the primary contractor hired by the government to develop plutonium for the Fat Man nuclear bomb, hired 45,000+ workers for the project. Many of them were recruited from the south and brought with them southern sensibilities of the time…as in, racism. Roughly 10% of the recruited workforce was black.

Many of the black workers were excited to move to the north, where they felt they would receive greater acceptance and leave behind racial prejudice and the barriers racism created.  Unfortunately for these workers, DuPont upheld their predominantly white southern laborers’ ideals and embraced the segregation of their workforce. Crews were segregated, as were dining halls and barracks. In fact, black workers were designated temporary workers, which didn’t allow for any employment mobility. Relatedly, due to their temporary status, they were not allowed government provided housing in the town of Richland.

The Mid-Columbia region during this time was almost exclusively white. Unfortunately for these workers seeking social mobility, their migration and presence was unwelcomed by many in the region. Enter Jim Crow… The City of Kennewick had covenants in place that did not allow these workers to take up residence there. In fact, their mere presence was unwelcomed and often met with poor treatment. Blacks were allowed to live in Pasco, but only of the eastside of town on the other side of the railroad tracks where there were no services. In spite of all this, these black workers built homes and churches. They launched businesses and started families. They persevered. They built community.

So, how does this relate to tourism and the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion? There is currently a historical building preservation endeavor underway in the City of Pasco and these buildings, on the east side of the tracks, have stories. The Hanford History Project located at Washington State University, Tri-Cities has captured the oral histories of some of these early Hanford workers and their family members. The National Park Service is very close to launching an app that will take visitors on a tour through our community, highlighting these buildings and associated history.

Not that long ago the Visitor Center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford had a curated display of photos that showcased the black men and women that were integral to the success of the Manhattan Project. This is where I met Tanya Bowers, a diversity, equity, inclusion and historic preservation consultant. In talking with Tanya recently, she expressed how important it is to, “have them tell their stories.” She went on to say that nuances are best conveyed by the people who walked through these experiences. We are fortunate many of these stories have been captured for all to enjoy through cultural tourism.

By telling these stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, we can learn from our past and avoid repeating their shortcomings and instead foster a culture of acceptance of all. When we gain an understanding of others, we will often discover commonalities that unite us. And if we are willing to embrace our differences and practice empathy, we have the opportunity to grow, to widen our circle of friends and maybe connect with future collaborators or business partners. Seeking out and embracing cultural experiences through tourism, even as tourist in your own community, greatly enriches our lives. If we take deliberate action to bring about change or simply share these stories, we will enrich the lives of others.

As for me, now that I have shared this story, I am off to embrace a cultural experience though food tourism.  You’re welcome to join me. In fact, please do – come “Get Your Geek On!”

Michael Novakavich, CDME<br><em>President and CEO</em><br><em>Visit Tri-Cities</em><br>
Michael Novakavich, CDME
President and CEO
Visit Tri-Cities

Michael holds an MBA from Washington State University, where he also graduated summa cum laude with a degree in business administration. He has over 25 years of professional leadership experience with a focus on strategy and marketing, continually leading teams to international, national and regional award recognition for marketing initiatives and strategic endeavors. He has taught leadership development and marketing for Heritage University.

Michael and his wife Shannon own a business consultancy called NovaWerx, which focuses on leadership development​, human resources and strategy. He and Shannon have called the Tri-Cities, WA home for many years and are the proud parents of two boxers named Marciano and Primo, who they affectionately refer to as, “The Boys.”

2 Replies to “The Little-Known Story of Black Workers in a Secret City”

  1. This story would have been better, if you had included a synopsis of the standing of black people in the community today. E.g., no longer confined to east Pasco, and name some prominent black people such as Bill Wiley, former director of PNNL and namesake of EMSL.

    1. Beth, Thank you for your note. This is a forward-looking piece – as in, how tourism can advance diversity, equity and inclusion. The story itself is certainly larger than this blog and its narrow focus. I agree with you, there is a need to expand the narrative and it will continue to evolve as many organizations, including Visit Tri-Cities, and community members come together to share our community’s history. We are just beginning to tell this story. The hope of this blog is to encourage other destinations that have yet to highlight their cultural heritage to begin to provide opportunities for visitors to enjoy, embrace and take the lessons learned back to their own communities.

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