The war ended three months before my first birthday. Though everyone was being told that Oak Ridge had helped to accomplish perhaps the most important scientific missions in the history of the world, I was too young to be influenced by such propaganda. Besides, the ‘Monkey’ was busy exploring the world from a new perspective and pace – no longer crawling I was running everywhere.
Swollen with pride, adults too were standing more erect. They had saved a million lives, they were told, and helped launch the Atomic Age that would one day provide an unlimited supply of energy. Within two decades homes, factories and automobiles would be powered by nuclear energy. Ships would sail the seven seas fueled by a nuclear capsule no larger than a chunk of coal. Even cancer would be cured.
They could not know what we know now: that hardly any of those claims would be realized. Instead, hundreds of billions of dollars would be spent for a nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the world, the safe disposal of nuclear waste would remain unsolved, and the majority of us would believe nuclear power to be an unsafe alternative to our energy needs.
The jubilation did not last long. Once the horrific details of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were exposed in newspapers and Fox Movietone newsreels, the celebration and pride plummeted. With the nuclear genie out of the bottle the future looked ominous.
In 1942 the city plan, designed by the architectural and engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, provided for a population of only 13,000 residents. Within a year, estimates for residential housing had increased to 45,000, escalating to 65,000 by the spring of 1945. Later that fall, the population would peaked at 75,000.
In September 1945 single- and multiple-family units, including apartments, housed nearly 29,000 residents. Dormitories held another 14,000 single men and women. The remaining population of over 32,000 lived in barracks, trailers, hutments and old farmhouses. Tens of thousands commuted from surrounding communities.
Beside housing units, drug and grocery stores, barbershops, schools, theaters and a hospital had to be designed and built, including water plants, a water distribution system, sanitary plants, sewer lines and an electrical scheme. Though the normal working schedule consisted of two 10-hour shifts per day, road grading and other construction projects took place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The scope and speed at which the construction was done challenges the imagination.
When John Merrill took charge of designing Oak Ridge, he wanted to make it easy for the city's new residents to find each other. The plan called for the city to be built on the south-facing slop of Black Oak Ridge, between Tennessee Avenue running east to west along the valley and Outer Drive along the ridge top. Beginning at the eastern end of the reservation, running from the valley to the ridge, avenues were given names of states, progressing alphabetically to the west, e.g., Arkansas, California, Delaware, etc.
The roads, circles and lanes extending off these avenues were given names starting with the first letter of the avenue. Roads and circles were usually through streets, while lanes were dead ends. All were constructed to follow the natural contours of the land, preserving the ecological beauty of the area.
The city was divided into three distinct neighborhoods: Elm Grove, Cedar Hill and Pine Valley. Each area had a shopping center and an elementary school within walking distance. There were five single-family home designs, ranked according to size from ‘A’ to ‘F’. Most of them were two- and three-bedroom cemesto homes made of fiberboard coated with a mixture of cement and asbestos. The majority were built on spacious wooded lots. They all had hardwood floors, fireplaces and porches, furnished with coal-fired furnaces and new electrical appliances. They were assigned according to family size and a person's importance to the project’s mission – primarily for VIPs (scientists, engineers, Army officers, doctors and those in executive/management positions).
As the population grew, small prefabricated flattop houses began to arrive on trucks from outside the gates. They had new electrical appliances, beds, coal-burning stoves, built-in bookcases and cabinets.
Electricity, water, trash pickup and coal delivery were free, as well as bus transportation throughout the reservation. During the war most streets remained dirt (mud) and gravel. There were over 150 miles of wooden boardwalks.
Though living conditions were confined, overcrowded and uncomfortable, for ‘Negro’ residents they were worst. Consistent with discriminatory practices and customs, schools and housing for Blacks were rudimentary and segregated. Blacks were assigned the worst jobs and had to ride in the back of buses. The Army’s mission was to complete the project as soon as possible, not to encourage or advance social change.
Even after President Truman order the desegregation of the Armed Forces on July 26, 1946, the federal reservation remained segregated. Blacks could only live south of what is now Tuskegee Drive, known as Gamble Valley. Housing remained inadequate. Black workers and their families predominately lived in un-insulated, one-room ‘hutments’.
Black elementary school children could only attend the all-Black Scarboro Elementary School. Black high school students were bussed 50 miles round-trip to the segregated Austin High School in Knoxville.
When the war was over and the Army had left, there were attempts by the Oak Ridge city council in the early 1950s to desegregate the public schools. However, it was not until the fall of 1955 (a year after the 1954 landmark decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, declaring “separate but unequal” public schools unconstitutional) that Oak Ridge High School was finally integrated. To its credit, the city was the first in the South to integrate its public school system and did so with little resistance.
The war’s end led to a mass exodus. In three months the population of Oak Ridge dropped from 75,000 to less than 60,000. By June 1946 the population had plunged to 34,000, turning the once over crowded city into a more relaxed and settled community.
As Oak Ridge began to transition from a temporary military town to a permanent municipality, residents began to demand more authority over their lives. They wanted to be treated as citizens rather than subservient government employees. After years of working six, even seven days a week, living in cramped uncomfortable accommodations, they felt they deserved better working and living conditions.
Workers immediately began to petition for union representation. Though the military was far from enthusiastic about the postwar unionization of the Clinton Engineering Works (CEW), by the spring of 1946 it was resigned to the inevitability.
Once the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was officially notified by the War Department that the CEW complex could be unionized, six national unions – one independent, two affiliated with the CIO and three with the AFL – sought recognition from the NLRB. The union my father belonged to, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Works (IBEW), was under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Though workers had a long list of grievances and demands, ranging from raises to compensate for wartime inflation to health and safety issues, the real struggle that summer was over which labor federation would ultimately represent them.
In the end, the 1946 NLRB elections in Oak Ridge did not lead to the promised sweeping changes at the CEW plants that workers desired. Instead, the AFL and CIO victories were merely the beginning of a long, often frustrating process of bargaining between the unions and contractors over workers compensation, seniority and working conditions.
In January 1946, while waiting for a house to become available, we moved from Happy Valley to a trailer camp within the city limits of Oak Ridge. It was located on Alpaca Way, south of the Oak Ridge Turnpike and east of Gamble Valley Road.
Directly behind our trailer was a small recreational area. There were metal swings, monkey bars, seesaws, and a huge slid. Even now, after all these years, the memories of that playground for my sister who was eight at the time remain vividly nostalgic. There, in eyesight of our trailer, she was able to exercise her independent spirit and innate athleticism.
Just north of the trailer camp and the Oak Ridge Turnpike was the Oak Ridge municipal swimming pool. A year earlier the Army Corp of Engineers had lined the old Robertsville Cross Springs Lake with concrete, converting it into one of the largest spring-fed swimming pools in the nation. Inspired by the large outdoor pool, my sister over a period of days painstaking excavated near our trailer her own ‘swimming pool’. To this day she has fawn memories of playing with me in that rather large self-made mud puddle.
The grammar school my sister attended was in walking distance. Regrettably, her only recollection of the school is somewhat traumatic. One day, her second grade teacher asked to talk with her after school. Leading my sister to the girl’s restroom, the teacher asked if she knew who had written “Alice” on the wall? My sister vehemently denied knowing anything about it. Despite her protests, her teacher told her that she would need to return the next day with something to scrub-off her name.
When my sister got back to our trailer that afternoon, she told our mother, indignantly, that her teacher had unfairly accused her of writing her name on the restroom wall. Mom listened carefully, observing Alice’s demeanor, and then told her that she would return to school with her the next day and talk with her teacher. She assured Alice that she would not have to make amends for something she had not done.
Immediately, my sister broke down and began to cry, admitting that she had indeed written her name on the wall. Mom’s ploy had worked and a lesson had been learned without a confrontation – a successful strategy that both our parents would use throughout our childhood.