What the Data Say: African Americans on the Manhattan Project

I saw the movie Oppenheimer recently, and it reminded me that African American scientists worked on that project to build the atomic bomb, and I knew two of them.

This project, called the Manhattan Project, operated at several locations across the country, working on different parts of the project. Most African Americans worked in the MET Lab in Chicago, which developed plutonium. Los Alamos, featured in the Oppenheimer film, coordinated the work and brought the pieces into a bomb.

There were 15 or more African Americans involved in this project. African American scientists known to have worked at the laboratories included William Jacob Knox and his brother Lawrence Howland Knox, Lloyd A. Quarterman, Moddie Daniel Taylor, and J. Ernest Wilkins. A second group was classified as technicians as they still needed to complete their doctorates. They included Sherman Carter, Harold Delaney, Ralph Gardner-Chavis, Jasper Brown Jeffries, Robert Johnson Omohundro, George W. Reed, Edwin R Russell, and Benjamin F. Scott.

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 junior chemists 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 in the Black Power Movement. At the time, he was a retired chemist doing consulting work. After the war, he worked as a radio chemist and was 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 colleague 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 Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) leaders 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 major national 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 could not 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 only a few 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 integrating multi-racial courses into the University’s curriculum. Undoubtedly, this is why every student who completes a bachelor’s degree at CSU must take two courses on the African American experience.

When I joined Cleveland State University in 1991, 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 were old enough to understand any of the words. He relentlessly aimed to have African Americans practice and advocate this reading activity.

A footnote: In 1979, an African American physicist, Walter E. Massey, became director of Argonne National Laboratory, formerly The Metallurgical Laboratory, where scientists did vital work in developing the atom bomb. Massey later became president of Morehouse College and director of the National Science Foundation.