African-Americans on the A-Bomb Project

by Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Professor, Sociology & Africana Studies, Virginia Tech

Previously I wrote about the mathematics and physics genius, J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr., who worked on the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project, one of the most important scientific projects of the 20th century, led to the development of the atomic bomb, which ended World War II.

There were several other African Americans involved in this project. African American scientists known to have worked at the laboratories included Ralph Gardner-Chavis, Jasper Brown Jeffries, Lloyd Albert Quarterman, George W. Reed, Edwin R Russell, Benjamin F. Scott, and Moddie Daniel Taylor. A second group who participated in various phases of the project were George Sherman Carter, William Jacob Knox, Lawrence Howland Knox, Robert Johnson Omohundro, Sydney Oliver Thompson, George Dewitt Turner, and Cecil Goldsburg White.

I knew two of these men, Benjamin F. Scott and Ralph Gardner-Chavis. After obtaining bachelor’s degrees in chemistry–Scott at Morehouse and Gardner-Chavis at the University of Illinois–they went to work as scientists at the central facility of the Manhattan project, The Metallurgical Laboratory, which later became the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory.

I met and worked with Benjamin Scott during the Black Power Movement. At the time he was a retired chemist doing consulting work. After the war, he had worked as a radio-chemist and later chief chemist for the Nuclear Instrument Company and then Technical Director for the New England Nuclear Assay Corporation.

The work at the Manhattan Project was monumental, and it was dangerous. I remember Ben telling me about the time a fellow scientist was exposed to plutonium. When I asked what happened to him, Scott replied, “He just went home to die,” as such exposure was usually fatal.

Ben was one of the leaders of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) when I joined in 1969. BUUC was heavily involved in the Black Power Movement but is not widely known. It was an effort by Unitarians to push black empowerment, especially in African American communities. Among its activities, BUUC was a co-organizer with Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People to hold the historic Pan-African Conference in Atlanta in 1970. Virtually every black organization—from the Urban League to the Black Muslims—participated.

As a participant in the Manhattan Project, Ralph Gardner-Chavis engaged in highly classified plutonium research which was crucial in the development of the atomic bomb. Even after holding such a prestigious research position in World War II, Ralph was unable to find academic or professional work after the conflict ended. Consequently, from 1947 to 1949 he worked as a waiter before finding work as a chemist for Standard Oil Company in Cleveland. This difficulty in finding employment was undoubtedly one of the reasons not many African American students pursued scientific fields.

In 1949, Ralph became a research chemist and project leader at the Standard Oil Company in Ohio, where he designed chemical processes to refine gasoline for nearly 20 years. During this time he earned a Master’s and Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University, and later led the Department of Chemistry at Cleveland State University (CSU) from 1968 to 1985.

At CSU Ralph pushed for the integration of multi-racial courses in the University’s curriculum. Undoubtedly, this is why every student who completes a bachelors degree at CSU must take two courses on the African American experience.

When I joined Cleveland State University in the 1990’s Ralph was retired but still conducting research in his lab. His passion at that time was pushing the practice of parents reading to their children, even before they are old enough to understand any of the words. He was relentless in his objective of having African Americans practice and/or advocate this activity.

A footnote: An African American physicist, Walter E. Massey, became director of Argonne National Laboratory, the place where the atom bomb was developed. Massey later became president of Morehouse College and director of the National Science Foundation.