project-2013

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The Secret Town

Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Just your average American rural town – except for the fact that everyone entering had to pass through a security checkpoint, undergo a full search, and speak of nothing they saw or did in Oak Ridge. It was established in 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project. But the only people who knew that were the scientists. None of the eventually 75,000 workers had any idea what their jobs were, and if they started asking too many questions beyond the specific tasks assigned to them, government agents would pay them a visit within hours and escort them out of town.

“If somebody was to ask you, ‘What are you making out there in Oak Ridge,’ you’d say, ’79 cents an hour,’” recalled one resident. Workers weren’t allowed to say certain words, such as helium or dial. Naturally the secrecy and odd tasks led to a number of wild rumors in Oak Ridge. A popular one was that the town was a prototype socialist community masterminded by Eleanor Roosevelt as part of her plan to turn America communist.

Morale was low. So the American government carefully created the utopian suburban town to amuse and distract the workers. There were roller-skating rinks, bowling alleys, theaters, club sports, sponsored dances, and more. Everyone was very young – Oak Ridge did not even need a funeral parlor. Former worker Colleen Black recalls “And so you got acquainted and you went to the dances on the tennis courts and the bowling alleys.”

Set up by the US Government, the town was also segregated. African Americans lived in one-room shacks in a separate part of town. Their children went to an all-African American school, and Oak Ridge High School did not accept African American students so they had to take a bus out of town every day to go to school. (The picture below shows African American town leaders.) Oak Ridge was also built on legally dubious land. Residents had been given two weeks’ notice to leave their homes before the government seized them.

 In the end, the project was completely successful. When the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was published in American newspapers, Oak Ridge residents along with the rest of the country learned the US had a superbomb. On V-J Day, there was dancing in the streets.

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