Interview with Marion Keith Barton
Civil rights movements
A National Park Service funded project to document the history of African American contributions to Hanford and the surrounding communities. This project was conducted through the Pacific Northwest Cooperative Ecosystems Unit, Task Agreement P17AC01288
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: Hi, my name is Robert Franklin. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Marion Keith Barton on May 1st 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. We’ll be talking with Keith about his experiences living in the Tri-Cities and working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full legal name for us?
Marion Keith Barton: Marion Keith Barton. M-A-R-I-O-N, K-E-I-T-H, B-A-R-T-O-N
Franklin: Great, thanks, Keith. Let’s start by talking about your life before Hanford. Where and when were you born?
Barton: I was born in Pasco. August 21st, 1951, at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco.
Franklin: Okay, so you’re local from the area.
Franklin: Okay. So I guess let’s back up a little further and talk about your parents. When did they come here and why?
Barton: The Hanford Area—the Project here brought my dad and mom out this way in 1948. They were seeking work. They both are from Texas. I think my dad may have come out first and then my mom followed along and that’s how they got started.
Franklin: Where in Texas were your parents from?
Barton: My dad was, I think, born in Kildare, and my mom was born in Gonzales. My dad worked at a refinery but I don’t think it was in Kildare; it was in another part of Texas. So he had to go there for work, when he got older. My mom, I think, grew up in Gonzales.
Franklin: How did your parents hear about Hanford?
Barton: Through other relatives that had taken a—someone had come out here and started to work. A relative, I’m sure, because we’re related to a lot of people that were here at that time. They would phone back, or call back, whatever, and tell them, hey, there’s work out here at Hanford and you should come out. We’re making two dollars an hour or something, but it was a lot more than what they were making back in Texas, and so a lot of people just—another, another, another would come out and go to work.
Franklin: What were the names of the folks that your parents were related to? Anybody stand out?
Barton: The Daniels family, the Mitchells and the Miles. My dad was married to the Miles family that was out here. He was married to Gladys Miles at the time, I think in Texas. And then they divorced and he married my mom. Some of the relatives of Miles, they would never tell me anything. And they would call my dad, hello. Uncle Cracker. Because his name was Crack and they would him Cracker and all that stuff, but that’s what they would call him. They would him Uncle Cracker and I’d go—what? I never knew why they would call him that. But then I found out later he was married to their aunt and stuff. [LAUGHTER] Okay, now I put two and two together. But there was a lot of stuff that they wouldn’t share with you about the family history, and we didn’t have that way of tracking it back then like we do know.
Franklin: Yeah. You said your dad’s name was--?
Franklin: Your dad’s name was Marion?
Barton: Yeah. But he had—I don’t know. I think he played baseball. A lot of people that—sometimes, like when they passed away, no one would know if they put “Marion” in the paper who was because they all went by their nickname. You wouldn’t know some of the people that even I grew up with. The only way thing you knew them was by their nickname.
Franklin: So your dad’s nickname was Cracker?
Barton: Yeah, and they called him Crack. But my mom and dad were Mr. and Mrs. Barton to each other. That was pretty easy. [LAUGHTER] You would know it when they said it. But that was the way that it was, and they all had nicknames.
Franklin: Yeah, it seems like a lot of people came out of Kildare. That town, specifically—
Barton: Oh, yeah.
Franklin: --to come to work at Hanford. Was it just your dad that worked out there, or did your mom work out there as well?
Barton: It seemed like my mom worked out there briefly but I mostly know that my dad worked out there more.
Franklin: What else do you know about their lives before they came to work at Hanford?
Barton: Well, my mom, when she was in Texas as a young girl, I think, she would just work for other families in the Texas area. She did like cooking and cleaning houses, and stuff like that, when she was in Texas. My dad, he was at the refinery and so somehow they met up.
Franklin: What do you know about their education? How far in school did they get?
Barton: My mom had maybe a year or so of college and my dad only had sixth grade education.
Franklin: Oh, wow. What do you know about their initial experiences coming to work at Hanford and finding a place to live?
Barton: Well, when they came to the Tri-Cities and to Pasco area—I think Kennewick was pretty much off-limits—and all the family wanted to stick close to each other and be around each other. I don’t think you could live from where the tracks were in Pasco, like past 1st Street and the underpass. You had to live in the east Side of Pasco at the time; you couldn’t live on the other side. Once you got past 1st Street you could live there for a long time. I think Richland was pretty much off-limits, too, to the black folks who came out here.
I know my mom would ramble on sometimes, but my mom would say you couldn’t even get arrested in Kennewick; like, they wouldn’t even put you in jail if you were black. It was like 1st and Washington, I believe, a black guy, he was arrested. And she would tell me the story that they handcuffed him or tied him to a post and called Pasco and said, come get him. Come get your N-word. Yeah. That was pretty much the way it was.
A few things that I would hear them say, just sitting around as a kid. Because as a kid, when they would talk, back then, you couldn’t say anything as a kid, you would just listen. If they said something that they didn’t want you to hear about their life, you had to go outside and play. So you couldn’t hear—well, just bits and pieces of what was going on.
Franklin: Yeah. Where did your parents first move when they came to the Tri-Cities? Do you remember the first house they lived in?
Barton: Oh, yeah, I mean, they were on 610 South Owen Street in Pasco. That’s where I grew up.
Franklin: South what?
Barton: South Owen.
Barton: Owen, O-W-E-N.
Barton: Yeah, and I think the house was condemned. When I was in high school, it was condemned. It had to be torn down, because it had no foundation. He had—basically, had a trailer that was sitting on that property and he built the house and he knocked out a wall of the trailer and built the house. The kitchen, a bedroom and a living room on to the trailer at the house, with no foundation and with part of the trailer still being there. They had to move, and so then we moved about two blocks up to Elm Street in the early ‘60s, around maybe ‘65, ’66—maybe somewhere in there, we moved to Elm Street—525 South Elm. And that was only two places up that we lived.
Franklin: Great. Growing up, how would you describe life in the community?
Barton: It was fun. Just growing up as kids, you just go and have fun and a lot of people around just playing and having fun. It was pretty nice.
Franklin: Did you stay mostly in east Pasco?
Barton: Yeah, pretty much, most of the time. We would go across, like when I got older and played Little League and baseball, we would go to Memorial Park and have games there. And then just kind of—we’d just walk back from there.
Franklin: What did you do in your spare time?
Barton: Well, in the summer time, as was a young kid, we didn’t have jobs or anything, so I would just play and stuff like that. I had strict rules not to get in trouble. [LAUGHTER] So those rules were pretty tight at the Barton household.
Franklin: Do you remember any particular community events?
Barton: As a youngster, my dad would always have white parties at the Fourth of July. But other community events when I was really young, I don’t remember. Then they would have, sometimes—my mom was a democrat, so they would have different deals like a dinner or something. My dad would never go, but my mom would take me along and we would go to certain events like that.
Franklin: You already talked about the house that you grew up in. Did you live by yourself or did you live with any other families? Was it a single family house or a multifamily situation?
Barton: No, just our family. I had a sister there but she was like ten years older than I was. So by the time I got eight, I think, she was gone and had moved out.
Franklin: Did you attend church?
Barton: All the time I had to attend church. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Church was big. You had to go to church. I don’t go much now, but--
Franklin: What church did you attend?
Barton: We attended New Hope Baptist Church.
Franklin: New Hope Baptist. And what role did church play in the community?
Barton: A big role. That’s where a lot of people got together. And I think that’s part of how they dealt with a lot of stuff and stresses: in church and the meeting and seeing other people. But Sunday was always church day. My dad didn’t go. No, he didn’t go. But my mom did.
Franklin: Just your mom and you?
Barton: My mom did, and I had to go.
Franklin: You mentioned an older sister. How many siblings did you have?
Barton: Just my older sister.
Franklin: So your family’s just you and your older sister?
Barton: My sister. Mm-hmm.
Franklin: Okay. Do you recall any family or community activities, events or traditions that people brought from the places they came from?
Barton: Well, the Fourth of July was a big one. And baseball, I think was big. Before I got old enough, my dad was—how much older was he than I was? He was getting up in age when I started—I think he pretty much retired when I was in high school, so he wasn’t real active. But when they first moved here and were younger, they all played baseball. The Daniels, my dad, and several other guys in the community had a league that they played in. But I only know bits and pieces, because I was so young and I probably didn’t understand. But I know that they would always talk about playing baseball. That’s what they did for recreation and fun.
Franklin: What about food? Did your parents—did people bring food traditions with them from the South?
Barton: Oh, yeah, yeah. They would like—Fourth of July, like fish fry. There was a big fish fry on the Fourth of July. But they didn’t have—my mom and dad were pretty nice to a lot of people. People would come up and didn’t have much. Sometimes they would stay with us until they got on their feet and found a job and then they would move out. For the church, for fundraisers they would have on different Saturdays, they would sell fried chicken dinners and like that. They wouldn’t like—I think you could get a dinner for like—I don’t remember, something like three dollars, and you’d get fried chicken and a piece of pound cake and some other stuff like that. That’s how they would raise money for the church, the building fund, I guess it was—they were trying to help with.
Franklin: Oh. Were there opportunities available here that were not available where your parents came from?
Barton: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Franklin: What kind of opportunities?
Barton: Work, just general, just work. They could work, but the amount of money they made back in Texas was minimal. And I don’t think they had the opportunity—with my dad’s education, I don’t think he had an opportunity to move up the ladder very much as far as getting a real high-paying job. My mom, she had more education, so she came out, and later on she got a job at Ice Harbor Dam as a biological aide, which was a fish counter. And so we did pretty good when she started working.
Franklin: Oh, wow. In what ways were opportunities limited because of segregation or racism?
Barton: My mom, she was pretty active as far as for the community. She was on a lot of committees and stuff. We didn’t have sidewalks, so she tried to push to get sidewalks and stuff like that for the community. And I know she would work real hard for CAC, the Community Action Committee, I believe it was called. She was big on trying to get city hall to get provisions. Because on east side they wouldn’t do hardly anything with the roads, and I don’t think we ever did get to see sidewalks all around, but a few here and there. It was difficult. So it was a fight all the time to try and get improvements for the community.
Franklin: Could you describe any interactions that you or parents had with people from other parts of the Tri-Cities?
Barton: Mostly just church folks and stuff like that, that I would see. Just relatives and stuff, mostly. And my dad, he had a few friends come by that—he liked to drink, and so he would have his drinking buddies come by. He had a pretty good relationship, I think, sometimes with the people that he worked with, and they would come by and see how he was doing, and bring him stuff like that. It was mostly just—they would work hard during the week, and the weekend they would go down to, I think, Jackson’s Tavern. He wasn’t a gambler or anything; he just liked to drink. But church was the big thing, how you had most of your interactions, it was just mostly with the church. That’s what they did. That was the big part of everything, was the church.
Franklin: Yeah. Where did you go to school?
Barton: Well, grade school I went to Whittier, which was on the east side. After Whittier, I did sixth grade at Whittier. And then I went to Isaac Stevens Junior High School. From there to Pasco High School. From there to CBC. And from CBC to Eastern Washington University.
Franklin: How did segregation or racism affect your education?
Barton: My mom always pushed for me to stay in school. Because I know one time she came home, she said—I think I was in the seventh grade, and my grades were not good. But the teacher—she would go to the meetings to see how I was doing. She came back and said that one of the teachers had told her, Mrs. Barton, we wouldn’t worry about your son, she says, because most of the black kids drop out of school in the seventh grade anyway.
And my mom was pretty feisty. She said—I think she had a few choice curse words for him. She told him, I don’t know how many other kids drop out of school, but this one is not dropping out of school. She made a point to them that I wasn’t going to drop out of school. That kind of upset her real bad and I would hear that a lot. She would tell that story at different times to a lot of different people. Yes, yes.
She was, like I say, pretty active as far as making sure that I stayed out of trouble. I had to stay out of trouble for one, and trying to make sure that she was up on what I was doing as far as education and stuff like that. But I had just kind of slacked off and I didn’t really try real hard. But I had to go to school and do something.
Franklin: Yeah, thanks, that’s a great story. Who were some of the people that influenced you as a child?
Barton: My mom. My dad, he didn’t say a lot to me. I don’t think he ever—well, he couldn’t really tell me about my grades, because he didn’t know. But my mom, she would—like, they would sell encyclopedias, she made sure that she bought a set. And different things for me to learn and to do things. Then the Mitchells—WS Mitchell, he was Vanessa’s uncle, I believe, but he went to Whitman and he would come by and he would talk to me a lot, too, and encourage me to stay in school and to do good and stuff like that. She was big on getting an education. She tried hard and she wanted me to do something. She didn’t want me to—like I said, I couldn’t get in trouble. Bad deal.
Franklin: Yeah. Seems like that’s been really—that was drilled into you.
Barton: Yes, it was drilled into me a lot. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: What did your father do at Hanford?
Barton: He was a laborer most of the time. I think he worked with the concrete a little bit, but I think he was just—he worked out of Local 348 in Pasco.
Franklin: Which one’s that? Is that just the laborers’ union?
Barton: Laborers’ Local, laborers’ Union. As I got older, I think he had a tough time at one while, because they had an election and my dad was behind this one guy that didn’t win. And the guy that won knew that, and so my dad was real limited on getting a good job after that.
He quit later on, and he went—this guy that used to be in the orchard business, Bob Guier, I think he had a lot to do in the laborers at one time, I think he was a supervisor. My dad worked a lot of the dams like Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, and a couple others that I remember, and so he just—the guy wouldn’t give him a lot of work and so it was kind of hard on him. So he went out to work in Finley for Bob Guier, he was like a supervisor or something. Well, he was like—people would come in to pick grapes, and my dad would be, okay, you’re in charge of making sure of getting all of these done. But my mom was really upset with that because he didn’t make—Bob didn’t pay him a lot of money.
And my dad wouldn’t go back and work out of the Hall anymore for some reason, whatever happened to him, it just set him back. It was kind of sad in a way, because he just wouldn’t go back and get his—and one guy tried to get him to come back so he would get his pension set, and he wouldn’t go back. It was a little bit difficult and whatever happened he wouldn’t talk about it, he would never sit down and tell me, hey, Son, this is what happened to me. So I didn’t know. But I know they tried to get him to go back; my mom said, you need to go back. There was one guy from the Hall, I think it was Paul Milsap. He got in later on, and he came to my dad and said, Mr. Barton—he called him Cracker—he said, you need to come back and go back out and get your pension set. And my dad just said, no. Because Bob had been nice to him and so he was kind of loyal to Bob. Bob needed his help, so he wouldn’t go back; he helped Bob. He just worked with him for—until he got to where he couldn’t get around so good.
Franklin: Let me see my sheet here. So the next set of questions, they’re about your work history and experiences at the Hanford site. What sort of work did you do out at Hanford?
Barton: Do you want to go to start or later on?
Franklin: Yeah, let’s go through the whole thing.
Barton: I’ll do the best on my memory then to tell you. Back in high school, I think once I had gotten 18, I think, you could work out at the Area. So I got a job on the 300 Area, just a summer job. I would go out and wash windows and they would put me with someone and do—pick up trash. It was okay for a few years. I worked there for about two summers. Then they liked me out there, and I went to CBC and they said, well, you can work nice—they gave me an opportunity and said, if you’re going to the school in the day, you can come out and work at the 300 Area at night, because the summer job was ending. I said, oh, I think I better try to do some homework and stuff, because—[LAUGHTER] I don’t want to get in trouble. I told them I could not. That was a good opportunity, because they liked what I did and I got along okay. But I didn’t do that.
Then, let’s see. I went up to Eastern, then I came back and worked in the Area with Genie Carpet Cleaning. Then Carter ran that. I’d come home and work on the weekends sometimes, doing floors and cleaning the buildings and waxing floors and stuff like that. Then in ’73, I graduated Eastern and I worked at FFTF. And I got into a Laborers’ there and I worked about a couple years as a laborer out of Local 348.
Franklin: That’s the same one your dad had been in.
Barton: Mm-hmm. And I worked at FFTF for—‘til ’75. Then my girlfriend sitting over there, she decided to leave and go to Australia [LAUGHTER] because I wasn’t trying to cut the cake soon enough. She says, well, I’m going to take off and go to Australia. I said, okay. So I said, well, this is kind of boring. I need to go do something different. So ‘75 I joined the military. I went to the military for three years in the Army. And I think Kathleen got back in ‘76 or so?
Kathleen Barton: ’77.
Barton: ’77. And I was in the military ‘til ’78. Then I came back and I think I started working construction just for a little bit. I started working in construction, just for a little bit. But then in ’78, I got into the Apprenticeship Local 112. Because when I got back, they were looking for people for—Affirmative Action was helping some of the minorities get into the apprenticeships. At that time, they wanted blacks to get in, because it was pretty much you couldn’t just go down and get in just by applying. So there was pressure with—I think it was probably the CAC, or one of them—Affirmative Action Committee.
I think it was Perry Blackwell, whatever organization he was running at the time. He said, okay, we’re putting some kids into these programs. And, he said, since you don’t have a job and just got out of the military, let me see your DD214, honorable discharge. Okay, looks like you can probably get in. Then I got into the apprenticeship in ’78. And then I did four years, I got out in ‘82.
Then I worked a few jobs in the construction and then they were going to lay me off. I was—hard time finding a job and I said, I got to get something that’s more permanent, because she didn’t want me to travel. I got married in 1980. She didn’t want me to travel. She said, okay, if you’re traveling, I’m going, too. I said no, because she was teaching school. I said, no, you can’t go. I have to go. She said no, I’m not sitting here with these kids when you’re running all over the country. I said, I got to find a job locally, then. So I knew people. From growing up in the area, I knew people. C.W. Brown, he worked at Energy Northwest and our family knew their family—well, we knew pretty much all the black families that were here over time. But he worked at Energy Northwest, so he said, I’ll try put in a word for you. He said, well, they don’t have a lot; you can come out here as a laborer. I had already had my electrical apprenticeship. So I said, yeah, just when do I start? I need the work. I started as a laborer at Energy Northwest in ’84. I worked there until June 30th of 2015.
Franklin: Wow. What did you do the whole time that you were at Energy Northwest?
Barton: Electrical maintenance. First when I went in—I went into Energy Northwest as a laborer, just to get in. It took me about eight months and then an opening came in and they said, okay. I got into the electrical and they said, we are going to make you an apprentice again. I go, why? I said, why? Well, you don’t know this system. And I go, okay. So I had to do that for about, I think about eight months or so, after I got in. I got hired June 6th of ‘84 and I think I got into electrical until February of ’85. I had to do apprenticeship for a while. Then I got that and everything started to work out okay. I didn’t have to travel and look for work and just worked out there.
Franklin: That’s great. Could you describe a typical work day?
Barton: Hmm. In the beginning, it was pretty easy, pretty laid back. I had to do a lot of—at one time, I think, it was one of the hottest plants, as far as radiation, in the country, as far as them controlling it the and places and things that you had to do at work. So typical work day, laid back day, they’d just come in and give you and assignment and you go out and just start checking batteries, changing lights and doing like that. When I started you could pretty much—you could work 16 hour days pretty much, if you wanted to. It was like that, because they were just starting up pretty much. You could just work pretty much all you wanted to work. They didn’t have any—like at the end when I left they had hours where—the fatigue rule—they passed some other stuff later, where people were making many mistakes at nuclear plants that they had to—only could work so many hours for a certain period. They had that in effect. But when I started they didn’t have that in effect; you could just work and do pretty much what you wanted.
Franklin: How would you describe your relationships with your coworkers and supervisors?
Barton: [LAUGHTER] It was difficult at times. Yeah, a little bit difficult.
Franklin: How so?
Barton: Well. You have to try to figure out what was going on at the time. And you knew that when I got into the electrical shop, I was the only black guy in there. So you weren’t told a lot of things. Some of the guys when I first got in the shop, they were letting them work all these hours, but they didn’t tell me I could work. So, I’d say, oh, okay. I think some of the guys would ask, why can’t he work, or something. And then they started letting me work a few other shifts.
But it seemed like I had to do a lot of rad work, more so than—they had somewhere to go that I couldn’t figure out, I had to go in and do it, I’d go, wow, my dose limit is way up there. At times, I would be exceeding mostly everybody on the crew, as far as my dose. It was crazy. But what could you do? I couldn’t really say anything, because it was what you had to do, I guess.
Some of the supervisors, they weren’t as nice. They just—but I knew that when you got out there and you started figuring it out, you didn’t have anybody really you knew to turn to for help, really. I knew I needed to work, so you just put up with a lot of stuff that—just to keep your job. The way I look at it is like this, if I go to another job, how do I know it’s going to be any different? So I just would put up with a lot of stuff sometimes.
Franklin: Yeah. What kinds of interactions did you have with coworkers and supervisors outside of work?
Barton: Outside of work? Sometimes we’d get in the electric shop, at times I would help coordinate a lot of stuff, so we would go and play softball and basketball after work and it was okay like that. You always knew who was who, and some of the guys that are around there that didn’t want to play or be doing that type-thing, they didn’t go. But we had interaction. It was okay. And we’d go down and have a beer or something and I made sure that I was there and to go and do it.
Franklin: What were the most difficult aspects of the job?
Barton: As far as?
Franklin: Working conditions, but also, kind of like the work environment.
Barton: I think once—it seemed like, after I first got in, and later on when some of the old-timers left and then the new people came in and some of the things changed, it got a little bit more difficult, as far as the work environment.
Franklin: How so?
Barton: We had this—I don’t know if I should mention names—but we had a few supervisors that didn’t want to see me in the shop, I’m sure. And then he would push other—say, for one instance, this one supervisor I had for a long time, they wanted to get rid of one of the workers and he was a white guy. The guy used the N-word. They came to me and said, this—they told me—we can’t have this, this guy is here using the N-word. And they said, this can’t happen and we need you to help us and we’re going to straighten this out. I said, why would I go after him? I’d have to go after half the shop. [LAUGHTER] I said, I’m not going to do that. I think I upset him. So it was a bad deal for me with him after that.
You know, they would come up with little nitpicking stuff, like, one day I would get a work assignment and we go and get the job done. I was working with this other guy, Tony Galovese, and we fixed a gate for security. The security said, man, you guys did a great job. He said, we got some treats over in our shop. He said, you guys go have some. I told Tony, I said, Tony, I can’t go over there. I said, these guys are going to get me if I go. He said, so? I’m going. I said, okay. He went over and came back. The supervisor came and we walked into the shop and he said, where have you guys been? I said, well, we were on the gate. He said, I was out at the gate and you guys weren’t there. Tony said, well, I went over and had a piece of cake. The supervisor said, I need you both to go home. He said, you guys are out of your work area, and you should be reporting back to the shop. Just go home. I said, wow. With pay. So we got paid to go home. Okay.
So, we came back and we had this big meeting and they said, well—and our steward, Tom McMahon, he came in and we talked to him, and he talked to the supervisor. Before I went home, I had to go talk to Bob Morris, who was our supervisor at the time, and he had the other guy, Bill Laternal(?) send me home. I talked to Bob, and he said, your situation is just like this. He said, you’re riding in a car with a guy and he stops and he’s going to rob the bank. And you’re in the car and you leave, you’re just as guilty as the other person. And I said, wow, okay. He said, so that’s the situation we have here.
So I went home and then we went to a higher meeting, we had several other meetings and they said, we don’t see that they really did anything wrong--[LAUGHTER]—by going, you know, and reporting back to the shop to warrant sending then home for something like that. We don’t see that that should’ve happened. They said, Mr. Barton, what would you like to do with these—right now since this has happened? We don’t see that you’re at fault; what would you like to do? I said, nothing. I said, I would just like to do my job and be left alone. I don’t want to go after them, I said. I’m not after them; they’re after me.
They put me in a different crew and it was a little bit different, but not a lot different, because you knew you couldn’t do anything. It’s like, you would be working, so what they would do is, okay, we’re giving out awards, people who are doing a great job around here, we are going to give out awards. So all of the people who got awards were his friends, the people that he liked. I’m still the only black guy in the shop, so I’m not going to get the award. I’m not going to base it on that, but the fact that he didn’t like me and that I didn’t follow suit and get rid of a guy that he wanted to get rid of and used me to do it was like, okay. We are going to punish you as long as we can.
It was crazy at times. And then one time, I was working with this guy named Johnny Lane. Kathleen may remember this story. They were trying to put the blame on me, I think for this—I think it was about in ’93, somewhere in there, that was—we had a shutdown. And during the shutdown we had all these electrical enclosures, these cabinets that supplied power to different equipment, I’ll try to shorten the story because I do kind of carry on, I know. But when they shut the power down, sometimes they shut the feeder breaker off that’s feeding the whole cabinet. And some of them were like that, but this particular one wasn’t.
We had Johnny Lane, he was working with me and we had to go clean this cabinet. I assumed Johnny knew that the cabinet was hot—or we always had to test before we touch and all that stuff. So we were cleaning down below and this cabinet blew up and Johnny got hurt. It was like, it was all my fault. How come you weren’t protecting Johnny? I go, well, I had been called away to answer a question to a guy, and I didn’t know Johnny was going to go into the top of the cabinet to clean. And then soon as I walked away, that’s when the explosion happened and Johnny got severely injured. He didn’t die, but he was injured.
When it blew up, Johnny was on the ground and he was yelling and screaming and he said, Keith! Keith! And I ran back and Johnny was on fire, his clothes were on fire. I had a jacket on—it was kind of cool that day, and we were in the turbine building. So I took my jacket off and put the flames out and I grabbed Johnny because the thing was still exploding and I pulled him to the side. And then he never hardly said anything about it, there.
But there was one guy in the mechanics shop, Jeff Rau. He said, Keith—and he was a steward—not our steward, but over in the mechanics. And he said, tell me about what happened. And I told him, and I didn’t know what he was doing. He said, tell me what happened up there with you and Johnny. I told him the story that I just told you.
I said, well, Johnny and I were working and the cabinet blew up and Johnny was on fire, and when I grabbed him, I grabbed him by his heels, because he was just on the ground screaming. And I pulled him out of the line, because that thing was all blowing up, and got him safe. They were doing a drill that day so everybody was suited up to respond to the drill. So they reported and they came over and grabbed Johnny and flew him over to Harbor View.
But Jeff said, well, Keith, I’m going to put you in for something here, because I think what you did was a heroic act, because you shouldn’t—the guy that I went to answer the question with, he was yelling at me, Keith, don’t go over there! Don’t go over there! Stay away from there! I said, I can’t, man. I don’t even think I said I can’t, I just turned and looked at him and I just ran and grabbed Johnny and pulled him out.
When Johnny got out of the hospital, they had this big deal and my wife and I went up to Spokane. It was like a lifesaving award they gave me for going back and getting Johnny out of the fire.
Kathleen Barton: But it was the union, not the company.
Barton: Yeah, it was the union, but the company never said anything. Yeah, they didn’t even acknowledge anything. They were just like, why did you—
And then I would go to class, and we were in the classroom, and someone posted all these pictures on the wall of where the fire and all that stuff was, right? You’re sitting there trying to study in this room and you have to look at that while you’re trying. I know what I went through and I wouldn’t talk about it with them. I just would look at it and say, why would they do that?
Then what they did—Johnny’s daughter worked out there as a laborer. They sent her up there to clean up the stuff where her dad had gotten hurt. She had to go up there and clean up all of the debris and stuff that was on the floor and her dad almost died. I said, what kind of company is this? It was really sad.
Barton: Yeah. It was like, wow. We have a picture of Johnny and my wife and I back then that they took up there at the award thing. And guys are saying, you need to bring that award out and put it at work. I said no, it’s not something that I’m proud of. It was something that happened, but Johnny got hurt. I’m not going to say, hey, look what I got! Because it wasn’t about me it was about—it was a sad deal. They just viewed it different. It’s like, man, why weren’t you over there? I just don’t know how to answer those questions. Because Johnny had been an electrician longer than I had. We would ride to work together sometimes. He was one of the nice guys.
And Johnny had been a steward in the Local 77 at one time also. And we got along great, didn’t we, babe? Johnny and I. People probably—and Johnny didn’t pay attention—Johnny probably should have retired. I think he was about ‘67 when the accident happened. And he was still working. He probably should’ve retired. Back then, I don’t know if he had a drink that day or not that morning, when I picked him up for work. A lot of times—you know, before we had drug testing and all that stuff and breathalyzer that they got later on, some of the guys would have a sip or even smoke a joint or something before they went to work. And then Johnny—I don’t know if he had, but I don’t think they even tested him for that. I don’t think he had, anyway; it was just a mistake. So they had some changes after that. But the guys were telling me, oh, I would quit if I was you. I don’t know. I said, well, why? I mean, I don’t think I did anything wrong. It was kind of sad like that.
Then a lot of stuff would happen that—you know, we would have to go into these real—we had to go into the reactor one time and it was really hot, and they didn’t know who to send in. Oh, hey, we’re going to send these guys in. And they’d prep them all and stuff and they would cancel it. This went on for about three days. I said, well, who’s going to go in? We don’t know. Then I came back to work—I was off, and I came back to work—and they said, oh, this is the night we’re going to do it. Oh, really? So I had to get a neutron and all this other gamma exposure to go do this job. And then you had to go do a body scan to see what you picked up. Probably a reason for my cancer that I had later on. But it was out there; they don’t do anything.
It was difficult at times later on. The first part of it we used to play and everybody would have fun. I would, out in the shop, Frank Buono and I, we would organize a lot of feeds and stuff. Like, hey, we’re going to have this electric shop deal; we want to have everybody participate. And why not have fun like that? Later on we didn’t do that, because the rules changed and it got more serious. You couldn’t have—you had to be out on the job doing stuff.
You couldn’t make—if you made a couple of mistakes you probably would not be doing the job, because they would say, okay, we’re going to pull your qual. You’re not qualified if you messed up something that—It was kind of—it was difficult. You could get blamed for stuff you didn’t do sometimes. It’s almost like, it’s like that.
Franklin: in what ways did the security and/or secrecy at Hanford impact your work or daily life?
Franklin: Yeah, or secrecy.
Barton: Well, I think I was in pretty good with some of them, because sometimes you’d catch a security guard asleep. I’d say, hey, wake up, man. You got to wake up, because you don’t want to get caught asleep. So I think I was in pretty good with a lot of them. Because I wasn’t one to go and turn someone in. Even the guys—some of the guys that I worked with, if they made a mistake, or if I saw something, like if you leave something in the cabinet, I would let them know. I wouldn’t turn them in.
I found a badge one time. It was in the men’s room. I said, who is this person? We need to get the badge back to them. If you went and turned—because he was a temporary guy, if I had gone to the security and turned the badge in, that guy would’ve been fired, because he was a temporary employee. A regular employee probably would’ve gotten a couple days off. Temporary? You’re gone. You left your badge. So I was the type of person to say, hey, find this guy and tell him his badge is here. So they’d get on the page and say, report to here. And he’d go over there and they’d say, here’s your badge and stuff like that. I would do stuff like that.
But NRC, you really had to be careful, because I think they kind of felt that they weren’t doing their job if they didn’t find something. So they were looking all the time. They were looking for something—they were looking for something wrong—something you do wrong. We had these guys, observers who would come out and watch you work. Okay, are you—we got some service here. We want to check you out. They’d say, okay, we’re going to break; we’ll be back in 15 minutes, and so would try to go to break. But then they’d come back and watch and then see what you did.
And then they would critique you and say, well, you did this well. But the thought was, you could never get 100—just like on an evaluation. You could never get 100%, depending on who you were. Because they always had to find something wrong. The supervisor would tell you, you can’t get a 100%. We will get gagged if we say that you did everything right. So you’d say, okay, well, give me that, and that’s fine. [LAUGHTER] Then if you got them really mad, on certain supervisors, you could go talk to them and tell them—and they’d say, well, you want me to change it? Yeah, you need to change it. Okay, we’ll change it.
But security—NRC—you had to be real careful. If they saw you do—NRC in particular, they would come out at different times at night to check you and just to walk around. And a lot of times they were looking for security, because they’re at 12-hour shifts, and they’re night shift. The guy would come at one or two in the morning. They’d walk up and if they catch you asleep, you’re pretty much toast. And that’s what their job was, to catch you doing stuff.
Everybody kind of hated NRC, and they knew what guy would come out. They would never want to interact—they would never interact with you. And I know there was one black guy that would come out, you would say, hi and he’d just walk, like—He would never have a conversation with you. Because he’s looking and we know that.
Franklin: NRC just has jurisdiction over civilian energy power, right?
Barton: Yeah. Well, they have—that guy would go to control room and look at stuff. If the procedure—see where you’re at in the procedure and see how they’re doing stuff, and watch their—Because you had three-way communication, as they say, and if you didn’t use the phonetic alphabet to discuss what you’re doing, your next move, and if you did something wrong—If you did something wrong in the control room, if you were an operator, you don’t work in the control room anymore. You lose your stipend, you lose your pay pretty much. They just send you out and you just go kick rocks until you can find something else to do. Or either quit. Depending on the severity of what you did, NRC would say, okay, that guy couldn’t come back. But they had to have punishment for wrongdoing because—to show that they corrected it. So it was difficult it was stressful, very, very stressful at times.
Franklin: What was your reaction—or what do you know about your parents’ reaction to learning that the work that your father had done contributed to the development of atomic weapons?
Barton: I don’t know. They didn’t really discuss it too much. They just said he worked out there, they built it, made a pretty good wage and they were pretty much happy, I think. So they don’t know that you did anything. Because everything was so secret. You would be working on something and I don’t think they knew. If they were actually working on something related to a bomb or something, I don’t think they knew it, because they wouldn’t tell you anything. And I knew that, that I would never hear them discuss like, oh yeah, I was in this one cell—they wouldn’t say anything that I ever heard.
Franklin: It sounds like most of your work out there was not related to the plutonium production?
Barton: No, not mine.
Franklin: But I’m wondering, what do you think about that larger enterprise, having worked so close to it?
Barton: I think they were doing stuff to try to get it right and you would see some stuff that happened that went wrong. But I wasn’t a whistle blower, so I don’t say anything, because I wanted to work. Because I knew what the repercussions were going be if you said something. You’re not going to be—[LAUGHTER] You’re not going to be working, probably, for long. And then you just kept your mouth shut about some things. I worked at 100-N and there was a big water spill and the Columbia River is right there. And I said, that’s not good! But I didn’t say anything. [LAUGHTER] That’s bad! Somebody needs to shut the water off. That water’s contaminated and it’s headed for the river! It sure is. You just kept your mouth shut.
Franklin: What do you think is the most important legacy of the Hanford Site?
Barton: The fact that they made the bomb and helped contribute to changing things. And that’s, I think, the big legacy: that they participated in that.
Franklin: Switching away from work, and towards civil rights activities at Hanford and Tri-Cities, what were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities during your time here?
Barton: Well, I know some of the times—like, you know, the money was good. I would hear the talk of—let me know if I’m not saying the right thing, though—but I would hear some of the guys talking like, if they saw that you were living well—if you were working and you were doing pretty good, and if you drove a newer car to work, you probably won’t be working very long. Because people would think that you were doing too good and that you need to have a step back. So you didn’t want to look like you were doing too good by showing that you were living a pretty good lifestyle. You just kind of had to keep it low-key. What I would see as a kid, those guys worked hard, but they drank hard, too, on the weekends. It was like—phew. But I don’t know if I told you that my mom was on the city council at one time. So she was an activist, I think, in trying to make sure that things got done.
Franklin: Yes, you mentioned that she had campaigned for sidewalks.
Barton: Yeah, and at the time that she was on the city council, they were pushing for the Cable Bridge. She was instrumental—or on the committee and the city council at the time that they were voting to get that cable bridge done. Yeah.
And some other things, huh, babe? She was pretty outspoken, wouldn’t you say?
Kathleen Barton: Mm-hmm.
Barton: Yeah, a lot outspoken. So she kind of kept—pretty much ran things around the house. And then she—pretty active in the church. You tried to make sure that people that needed help would get the help that they needed and if it had to come out of her pockets, sometimes she would do that, too.
Franklin: Who were the important leaders of civil rights efforts in the area?
Barton: Back then I think Wally Webster was a big one. I think Art Fletcher came through there one time and I think he was on the city council. He was kind of a big shot. And I think my mom was in there, too, Katie Barton.
Franklin: Katie Barton?
Barton: Yeah. She was in there, because she knew all these people and she would go out and give talks and stuff at different things. Let me think. That’s just a few of the names. I know there’s more names, but that’s just—
Kathleen Barton: Joe Jackson?
Barton: Yeah, Joe Jackson, I think he was on the city council, too. He was more of the quiet type, like, I don’t know what he pushed for. Katherine, who was Katherine? She wanted to run, what was it? Senator or something?
Kathleen Barton: Yes, she was.
Barton: Katherine Smith.
Kathleen Barton: [INAUDIBLE]
Barton: Yeah, she was big in pushing my mom. Mom knew some people from WSU. There was a professor--
Kathleen Barton: Dallas Barnes.
Barton: Dallas Barnes was a big one.
Franklin: We talked to Dallas.
Barton: Yeah. He was big. He probably knew a lot more, because he had a business on the east side of fish market and he was into a lot of things.
Franklin: Yeah, we interviewed Dallas a couple, about a month ago now. We’re hoping to interview Wally. But those are some other good names. Any other names you can think of?
Barton: Wayne Jackson, did you interview him? He knew a lot, because he was my mom’s campaign manager when she was for city council when she had to run at-large. He could tell you a lot about the activity and what my mom did.
Franklin: Do you have contact information for him?
Barton: Oh, yeah.
Franklin: Yeah. Okay. Maybe I can get it from you after the interview.
Barton: Yeah, I can give it to you.
Franklin: Okay, what were some of the noticeable successes of civil rights efforts in the area?
Barton: I think at the time before they did away with the Affirmative Action and stuff, they were instrumental in getting a lot of kids into building tradecrafts and stuff like that. Because otherwise, like now, you can’t get in, because they just—there’s nobody there to push sometimes and it makes it a lot harder. And people get overlooked and stuff like that. At the time when they had to take you in—because I would hear it, too, because I’d go to work back then, and guys would say, you got my job. I’d say, how did I get your job? Why would it just be me? Because he figured I’m the only black there, and he could’ve had that job because all the guys are white. So I took his job. Just like, really? So I would never react or say anything, I’d just usually kind of walk away and say, well, I’m sorry man. You got to be a little early next time. Stuff like that. You couldn’t be pushed to where you’re going to have a confrontation, because it’s probably not going to be good for either one of you. You just got to walk away and just deal with it.
Franklin: What were some of the biggest challenges in the civil rights movement here?
Barton: The biggest challenges, I think, was just the day-to-day grind, trying to get stuff done. Just trying to get people to realize that, hey, we need sidewalks, we need this and we need that. I know—I think my mom—I know Katherine, I think one time they went to a meeting, and they told the people at the meeting, said, if you’re not going to get certain provisions for the east side or do something for east side improvement, we will never pass another school levy. [LAUGHTER] So it was like a threat that we were going to get all the people not to vote for a levy. So count us out if you’re not going to make some improvements or any kind of thing like that for the city.
I think it helped some people get jobs, like I said, that ordinarily wouldn’t have gotten jobs. They fought for people, you know, we have no blacks in certain areas and stuff and so let’s do something. Because it was hard getting hired for certain things.
I was pretty fortunate, I would say. Like in the sixth grade, when I got out, Mr. Luke, he came and said, we need two guys that you would select to work at the Jumbo Restaurant. It was on the Lewis Street on the east side. He picked myself and Bill Skinner.
Bill Skinner was—I don’t know what condition he’s in now, but he ran a few committees on the east side and he was—he would be a good one to talk to. I think his mind is still pretty good. He’s got a lot of physical issues, but he ran a—he could tell you a lot if you could get ahold of him. I don’t have his number.
Franklin: It’s okay, we could try.
Barton: I’m sure I can look it up. But I got your number and I could always call and let you know if I could get it.
Franklin: Great, great. Let’s see here. I just have a couple more questions, actually.
Franklin: Yeah, I think we’re almost done here. Was there anything different about the civil rights efforts here, compared to the larger civil rights—like national civil rights movement?
Barton: I don’t think we had as many people out to—other than just the committees and stuff to go after things, unless—I think the fact that we didn’t have a lot of people pushing for movement or whatever. But in a way, I don’t think we had the same challenges they had in some of the larger places, either. Like I said, for a while, I don’t think I really had it all that bad. I knew that you couldn’t do a lot of stuff. But I don’t think I had it as bad as people in Seattle—maybe Seattle or even down South that they had, because it was—so I don’t know of lynchings here or anything like that. You just didn’t—maybe not get served or treated bad, but you didn’t have--
Franklin: Did that ever happen to you or your family? Did you ever get refused service?
Barton: Do you remember?
Kathleen Barton: I remember you and I got—remember the guy at Denny’s that got mad at us?
Barton: Oh, yeah, yeah. But I don’t remember. Sometimes it’s not that you don’t get served, but it’s almost like you go to a place and we sit down and everybody else is eating, and you’ve been there a lot longer. And you say, this is not too good. So you kind pick up on little things like that. It’s pretty subtle at times, but if you experience some of the things, you can see it right away.
Franklin: Right, you can put two and two together.
Barton: Yeah, you can put two and two together real fast.
Franklin: Were you directly involved in civil rights efforts? I know your mom was, but did you ever get involved in anything in the late ‘60s or ‘70s?
Barton: No, I just watched her. I wouldn’t—I just watched her go to stuff. We might have a dinner or something, or there’d maybe be a pageant or something. But all of the other stuff that she did with her constituents, like Wayne or Katherine Smith and people like that. And you had a lot of blacks that pretty much just weren’t really interested. They had a job. They didn’t even participate to go to that stuff. My mom was busy and she was out there. But I know a lot of the people they didn’t—if it benefited them, okay, they said, oh, yeah, this is great. But they didn’t go and push that. It was only like a handful of people usually doing it.
Franklin: Why do you think there wasn’t a broader involvement?
Barton: I think most of the guys that were doing that, they had a lot of education. And some of the other people I’m talking about, they were just content to have what they had and not to worry about what someone else didn’t have.
My mom, she wanted to see equal rights for the community, not just for herself. And I think that’s why she fought. So it just took that kind of a person to do it. Because a lot of people, they had a job, they didn’t want to rock the boat and be out canvassing for someone else to—hey, sidewalks, oh, I haven’t ever had sidewalks! What am I going to do with sidewalks? I don’t care! My mom thought that was not right, because she saw the world different. And they were just content.
And I think Mom could’ve been content. But she didn’t take a lot of stuff. Didn’t like talking down. She would stand up for my dad, because my dad was like that. He didn’t have a lot of education, but she was with him. I think when he retired he went down social security office and my dad said, well, where do I need to sign? She said, you sign right here, boy. And my mom said, what? And a few curse words came out. She let the person know that my dad was not a boy. She said, I don’t know where you’re from, but we don’t have any boys in our neighborhood that’s 65 years old. So he is no blank-blank boy. We got that straight. Someone else was like, whoa! Okay, wrong person to pick on here. But she stood up for what she felt was right, and then she didn’t want to take anything less.
Franklin: Do you think that—you kind of said earlier that it seemed like those were the most educated were kind of those that were more willing to push. Did you see a correlation between education level and the involvement in civil rights and equal rights?
Barton: Yeah. And equal rights?
Franklin: Yeah, civil rights and equal rights—like pushing for equal rights.
Barton: Oh. I was going to say, no. Education level doesn’t mean that you’re going to be treated any better.
Franklin: Right, right.
Barton: No, that didn’t mean that. But I mean, the more educated they were, the more they were more likely to speak out. Because some of the guys are probably not too good at expressing themselves when they’re limited on—Because I mean, like my dad—I don’t read a lot myself—or hardly any—but I think I’m a little bit in a different level than he was. But not being able to read at all and express himself, he could probably tell you how he felt about things but I never heard him say anything. Other than the fact that he knew he couldn’t get a job because he voted for the wrong person that got in—or that didn’t get in. My mom, she saw the world a little bit different, because with her life experiences and things I think that—like I said, she had some college and she saw what could happen. She just didn’t put up with a lot of stuff. She would go and fight for better conditions.
Franklin: Yeah. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in the Tri-Cities during the Cold War?
Barton: Like I tell my kids, I said, getting an education is big for us. We wanted want our kids to get a good education. And I said, the more education you get, I said, you’ll make more and you might get treated better, because you’re at that level, and you just always try to be the best. Am I answering that correctly? Did I get off a tangent again, I have to be careful.
Franklin: No, no, no. It’s one of those questions that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer.
Barton: But I just think that if you get an education, then your life’s going to be a whole lot better. Because the challenges that you meet and face, you can deal with a lot more, sometimes, that you’re not struggling just trying to make a day-to-day to live and eat and stuff like that. So, it is a better life for you. You can get out and say, okay, if I can’t work here, I know I can go here, because I got credentials that say I can do it, or I can move somewhere else and get in and do that. That’s what we taught our kids to make sure that they got a good start by getting an education—I think that’s the big thing—and staying out of trouble.
It’s like, if you wanted to—out of Hanford where they pay you well for this area, you don’t want to have anything on your record. If you get arrested and you go out there and it shows up on your record, you’re not going to even get hired. You can forget it. Because you have to have the clearance. I think it’s even more so, because it’s not only the record, but they—
When I left, they would come in and say, okay, we’re going to run your credit score. I go, what? The guy ran mine and he said, yours is better than mine! I said, well, I guess that’s a good thing, huh? [LAUGHTER] Probably you shouldn’t run mine anymore then.
But they look at stuff like that, what kind of person you might be, would you be willing to accept a bribe or something like that, or would you give a secret up because you’re struggling? They want to just know all your background, we would get fingerprinted, we would get all of that done. If we get in trouble, you got to call them and let them know if you got arrested, and depending on the severity of your crime whether you’re going to be working or not.
Barton: Yeah, so, you just keep your nose clean and work hard if you want to move up the ladder. It’s not that way in every case, but it’s a little bit harder because some of the things—like in the trades, you just can’t go out there and say, okay, I’m going to move into this job without going to school for it. You have to go to school. But once you get out there and you know what’s going on, it’s likely if you just do your job and do it well and stay out of trouble, you can do okay. That’s kind of—I don’t know. I don’t know if I knew my job very well, but I knew how to play the system enough to stay out there. [LAUGHTER] I figured it out. Yeah, I figured it out.
Franklin: Is there anything else you would like to mention related to migration, segregation, civil rights and how they impacted your life?
Barton: Help me, babe.
Kathleen Barton: [LAUGHTER] I think if it hadn’t been for the things that were done when you were a child, you would never have gone to college and you and I would never have met, and you wouldn’t have your kids today. Your life would have been considerably different because they stopped school segregation when you were young.
Barton: Yeah. Whittier was pretty much, I think probably 98% black. And then in high school, there was a bunch of fights all the time. The black and white kids—there was a lot of fights. But I didn’t get into any. I had a lot of fights, but I was fighting with the black kids. I don’t know how that worked out. [LAUGHTER] That’s who I was fighting with, all those guys I grew up with. I would see that a lot, people getting skirmishes.
Like in my—like I took some shop classes, like I took automotive class. And the guy said, okay, we’re going to make you the guy that they got to. We’re going to make you the lead in my shop class. So I didn’t see a lot of that. I struggled with my other grades a little bit, but my shop classes, it was kind of a relief because I could pick up on that stuff pretty good and do okay and just have fun.
I didn’t get in any fights—one—a couple at my school, but like I said it was with black kids, but I never had fight with any of the white kids. But I would see the struggle. Then the drugs came along and that made it a lot bad—pretty bad in the ‘60s and stuff when the drugs came in and a lot of people just went downhill after that. I’d see a lot of guys, just—it was terrible. Arrests and deaths and it just took a toll on a lot of people. I think that was the big thing that happened. It was kind of sad. So that made struggles a lot worse, because some were not being able to work. So my mom always said, if you’re not going to work, you’re going to steal. So it’s what they did a lot of times. I could count a lot of guys that just took to doing bad things to survive.
Franklin: Yeah. Well, Keith, thank you so much for coming in and taking the time to interview with us today.
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