Interview with David (Duke) Mitchell
Nuclear weapons industry
Civil rights movements
Radioactive Waste Disposal
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: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Duke Mitchell on March 2nd, 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Duke 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 name for us?
Duke Mitchell: My full name is David Lynn Mitchell. D-I-V-A—D-A-V-I-D, I’m sorry. L-Y-N-N for Lynn, and Mitchell, M-I-T-C-H-E-L-L. However, I’ve been called Duke my entire life. I am now 66 years old and very proud of it. But my dad wanted to name me Duke after Duke Snider, baseball player. But my mother said, no. So they named me David after my grandfather, her father, and Lynn after one of my dad’s brothers.
Franklin: Okay. Your father was very into baseball, right?
Mitchell: Yes! C.J. Mitchell was very into baseball. That was his favorite sport. He grew up doing that, playing that, and he was an umpire for 40 years at least. Umpired in the College World Series four times, did a number of NAIA World Series as well; I think there were about ten of those. And he’s in four or five different halls of fame, not only in the state of Washington, but nationally, in baseball. And then he also umpired and refereed basketball and football at the high school level.
Franklin: Wow. That’s great, and we’ll want to talk a bit more about that later. I’d like to kind of start at the beginning. When and where were you born?
Mitchell: I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1951. June 30th.
Franklin: Okay. But your father had been to the area before you were born, correct?
Franklin: I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about that.
Mitchell: I’ll tell you what I think I know.
Franklin: Okay, perfect.
Mitchell: He and my mother both told me along the way, but then also I did watch the interview of him just the other day. But I do know that he came out to the Hanford area in 1947 when he was 16 years old, after graduating from high school, Perfection High, in Kildare, Texas. He followed some of his relatives out here looking for work. So he was here for a couple different occasions, it turned out.
I didn’t realize until I watched the video on him that he had come here, became homesick, went back to Texas, and then he came back a second time and stayed longer. But then he went back and married my mother, his high school sweetheart, in June of 1950, June 3rd, in fact. Then they moved to Chicago, Illinois, following other relatives, looking for work. While they were there, I was born. We stayed there just a brief time, and then we moved to Hermiston, Oregon in late 1951 or early 1952, as my dad worked as a laborer on the McNary Dam, helping to construct the McNary Dam. Then shortly after that, we moved to Pasco, Washington, and my dad worked on the Blue Bridge as a laborer once again. And he did other kinds of odds-and-ends jobs as well, until he was finally able to get a job out at Hanford, working in construction in all these cases, helping to build the K Basins, he has told us, and other kinds of contracting labor, I guess it would be.
Until he was finally able to realize, and was encouraged by some of his supervisors to go to school, go to college. He went to Columbia Basin College and studied chemistry and math, primarily, because those were the things that would apply to what he was doing there at Hanford. And he was able to then work himself into some better jobs as a result, to the point where he became a metallurgical technician in the 300 Area here at Hanford, just north of Richland. That was a good thing for him, got him out of the construction area, into a little more technical fields. And then from there he was able to, again, continue on with his education. Took him 14 years to get his two-year degree at Columbia Basin College it turns out.
Mitchell: That’s a long time. A lot of starting and stopping. And in fact, I’m a trustee at Columbia Basin College right now myself, in my eighth year as a trustee. But education has always been an important thing to my parents. All the years as we were growing up, they always talked about education. We were pretty good athletes and played a lot of sports as we were growing up. But my dad and mom always said, that’s not how you’re going to make it, as far as making a living, and you need to get as much education as you can. That’s going to be your ticket to success. They always told us that, and it is definitely true.
Franklin: Yeah. Did your mother ever attain higher education as well?
Mitchell: Not schooling-wise, but she was a really smart person and hard-working person. And I think the biggest thing is she had a lot of courage and got involved with things. In fact, I’ve thought about them over the last ten years at least, realized how much courage they had to do some of the things that they did as African American people in the time that they did it. So, again, to answer your question, no, my mother did not have higher education, but she did have a lot of experience, life learning, life lessons, I guess you would say. Got involved with a lot of things and allowed us children to also get involved with a lot of things.
Franklin: Could you offer any specifics on some of the courageous things that you felt they did as African Americans?
Mitchell: Just kind of sticking their neck out, to use one of my dad’s phrases, in that they got involved in areas where they were the only African Americans there. At a time when oftentimes, folks didn’t want to see us around.
Franklin: Such as?
Mitchell: Such as getting involved with Boy Scouts and the City of Richland. Moving to the city of Richland, for that matter, because—and we moved here in 1955—it was difficult for African Americans to move into Richland because it was a controlled situation. It was a government-owned community; you had to have a full-time job in order to move to Richland. We lived in east Pasco, as all—not all—most African Americans back then, that’s where we lived. That’s where we were allowed to live. So I lived with my parents in east Pasco, probably from the time I was two until I was four or five years old, when we moved to Richland.
So the fact that they went to Chicago, following their relatives, places they knew nothing about, then they moved to Hermiston, Oregon. My mother had never been there; my father had. Then they moved to Pasco, and then they moved to Richland, all by the time I was five years old. Like I say, once we got to Richland--and that’s when I can really start remembering what was going on--just getting involved with activities—my mother was involved when I was in Cub Scouts; she was a Cub Scout leader. She used to go to school board meetings, for years, I understand. I wasn’t here after I left in 1969, going to college. But my mother became very active in the community.
My dad, also, just the fact that he got involved with a lot of things, took a lot of risks in terms of the jobs that he pursued and he was saying in the video that I watched, the oral interview with him, about taking a pay cut in one instance, hoping to get a job. He did get a job and it turned out real well for him. The fact that he went on 17 interviews, I think was the number that he cited, before he actually got one. Or maybe it was 16 and he got an interview on the 17th.
Those kinds of things, in the 1950s, that was courageous for African Americans. I know that now, from my experiences, when I went looking for an apartment to live in in Southern California in the 1970s once I graduated from the Air Force Academy, my first duty assignment. There were certain areas that wouldn’t rent to me, wouldn’t rent to them when they were going through that process. That’s why I call them somewhat courageous.
Franklin: Yeah, definitely. Did your parents ever talk about their time living in east Pasco, kind of what the conditions were and why they moved to Richland?
Mitchell: Well, I do remember some of the living in east Pasco. I have a lot of relatives that lived there then and still quite a few that live there now. But, to refresh what I had recalled and what I was told along the way, looking again at the oral interview with my father: in east Pasco, back in the late ‘40s, certainly in the ‘50s when I was there, and even into the ‘60s and ‘70s, the infrastructure there was not good. They had outhouses at times while I was there. I remember there were chickens and things walking around, kind of loose in some of the neighborhood when I was a kid myself. Running water, things of that nature, were not what they should have been. It was definitely a second-class environment in east Pasco there. But at the same time, the African American community made themselves a home there. There were a lot of things going on there, there was a lot of cultural things going on there, a lot of activity. But going over to Pasco from Richland, once we moved over here—because we used to go to church in east Pasco, the African American churches, if you will.
Franklin: And which church did you attend?
Mitchell: We went to Morning Star for one, and there’s a New Hope Church there and there’s some others that we attended. But I had several great-uncles that were in Pasco: Vanis Daniels, Senior, and then Willy Daniels, they were two brothers. They were brothers of my dad’s mother. We used to go over there on Sundays a lot. There were some other relatives that I had there that we would visit as well. But I bring up Willy Daniels because he just lived down the street on Douglas Street there in east Pasco, from Morning Star Baptist Church. I do remember going to church with him.
But the reason I get into that, going over there, going through downtown Pasco, Lewis Street was the main drag back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a Sears Roebuck there. I think that might be the Booth Building now; I’m not sure if that’s the same one, where the Pasco School District is located and their facilities. But going again east on Lewis Street, through downtown Pasco, then you go underneath a bridge, I guess it’s a railroad bridge or whatever. That was the dividing line between Pasco and east Pasco. It was like going to almost a different world in some respects, because of just the change in the conditions. Not only the folks, from a Caucasian world, if you will, into an African American world, but just the quality of what was there just wasn’t the same. At the same time, folks made the best life that they could there. I certainly respect and love my relatives who live there, came there, and are still there, some of them.
Franklin: You still have some relatives in Pasco?
Mitchell: Absolutely, yes. I have a number of relatives still in Pasco. Some in east Pasco, some who have moved. Because when Urban Renewal happened in, what, I think it was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s—
Franklin: That sounds about right.
Mitchell: Yeah, but then they dispersed some of the ethnic neighborhoods, if you will. Certainly in Pasco it was some of the dispersal of African Americans throughout the community and things of that nature. But Vanis Daniels, Senior lived there, but his son, Vanis Daniels, Junior, is still over there, he and his family. And then Edmon Daniels, his brother. There are a number of others, but I don’t want to name too many names because I’ll leave somebody out and then I will—folks won’t be happy with me.
Franklin: I understand completely. It’s so interesting. I like the way you described that, going under the bridge. I think so many of us have heard that phrase, right, “on the other side of the tracks.”
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s definitely the other side of the tracks.
Franklin: Or sometimes “on the wrong side of the tracks.” But that’s literally how it was.
Franklin: I mean, the tracks were kind of this dividing line, this de facto segregated line.
Mitchell: Yes, they were. And when I say under the bridge, it was a railroad bridge. The tracks went across the top of the bridge. So going on West Lewis to East Lewis, you’d go down underneath the railroad tracks through this tunnel, this bridge, and then come back up on the other side. Back then, there was Whittier Elementary School, which is where most of the African American students went because that was in our part of town, if you will. There was a definite distinction.
Franklin: Awesome, thank you. Okay. So Richland, obviously, was kind of a different world.
Mitchell: It was.
Franklin: And you described how you had to work at Hanford to live in Richland. I’m wondering if you could talk about your early memories in Richland, and maybe even going back as far as your moving from Pasco to Richland and how that change was for you and your family.
Mitchell: I’d love to. As I say, I was probably four to five years old when we moved to Richland from Pasco. At that time, there was myself and then my brother, Greg, would have been—well, he is two years younger than me, so he would have been two to three years old. And then our brother Nestor was born in 1955. He was born in Kennewick General Hospital. I don’t know if he was born before we actually moved to Richland or right after we moved to Richland. But the big thing was, we lived in a prefab at 100 Craighill in Richland and when we first moved there, there was four of us, I would say: my mother and father and myself and Greg. It’s a two-bedroom prefab and it has one bathroom. By the time we moved out of that house in 1965, there were eight of us.
Mitchell: That was big, because the bathroom was the crunch point. I mean, that was where—we had to get through the bathroom in order to get to church on time, and we were almost always late for church, which really stuck in my mind. As far as moving there, the community there in what was the old south end of Richland, we were treated pretty well. At the same time, we were—there was another African-American family on the next street, Casey Street, which was the Wallace family. There were a number of children there. Theartis Wallace was a very good basketball player for Richland High School. He had a brother, Maurice, who also played basketball. Another brother, Bruce, several years younger who played basketball for Richland, et cetera. And then down another corner there was the Rockamore family, African American family. They are cousins of mine, ours, as well. All from Texas. Most of us—
Franklin: All three families?
Mitchell: All three families. Yeah, many of the families that I knew, anyway, came from a place called Kildare, Texas. That’s where my parents went to high school and where they’re from.
Franklin: How do you spell that?
Mitchell: K-I-L-D-A-R-E. I think my dad did talk about that in his segment, as well.
Franklin: Yes, yeah.
Mitchell: A lot of folks from Kildare came to the Tri-Cities because once they found they could have a job, find a job, folks came looking for work. Because as my dad always said, you could always find a job here and it paid much better than the jobs did in east Texas. So that was one of the reasons that they were drawn here. At the same time realizing that they weren’t always welcome. But they could find a job, and generally speaking, it was a better condition than what they had left. So they were willing to come here.
As far as growing up, once again, I started to say, we were treated fairly well by the folks in our community, the Caucasian folks. Realizing that there were some differences. I’ve thought about those things before I came here today. One of the things that we were always taught was to treat folks well and respectfully. There were some rules, some unwritten rules, certainly, as far as how the races interacted or didn’t interact together. We were aware of those. One of the ones that I think about is, we didn’t go to other folks’ houses, normally, and certainly didn’t go in their house. In my family, we were expected to be home before dark, so we were always home before dark. And my parents were pretty strict with that.
We played sports—I was the oldest of the six, of course. When I was eight years old, I started playing Little League baseball, and I was pretty good. My brothers coming along were pretty good as well. Sports was a good thing for us, because it did allow us to interact with others and others to interact with us. And also get to know us, because many of the folks, Caucasian folks, in the community hadn’t really dealt with black folks in the past. So that was a way for us to interact and that kind of thing. That was good. They got to know us, and we got to know them somewhat. Like I say, I was always treated well and the teachers were really helpful. And I was a star on the playground, which was a good thing. But at the same time, again, the school was the big thing for us, according to my parents, and I believed it.
However, I finally got to seventh grade, and I played football, baseball and basketball in the seventh grade and eighth grade, throughout. But I didn’t do well in school that seventh grade year. In fact, I got three Ds.
Franklin: Oh my.
Mitchell: That year, my first report card in junior high school. Not middle school, junior high school back then. My parents said, no more sports for you until you get your grades straightened out. So that caught my attention.
Franklin: Yeah, that must’ve hurt, as a—
Mitchell: It did, because that’s what I did! I was pretty good. Well, you know, he’d always told me, my parents always told me about the importance of education. And then I was also starting to see that, too.
Watching some of the programs on television that I used to watch. Whether it be the sports programs—because I watched every ball game that was on television if I could. Back in the mid-‘50s, late ‘50s, we only had two TV stations, I think, in the Tri-Cities then. Whatever was on that was sports, I would watch it. Especially college football, I would watch that. That’s when I first fell in love with USC Trojan football team, because every November, we could watch Ohio State and Michigan in the morning and USC and UCLA in the afternoon. And I watched them all. I loved what I saw. That was one of the reasons that I started thinking, I think I want to go to college.
And then also, the environment in Richland, education is a big thing in Richland, as it is throughout the Tri-Cities, but Richland in particular. And I do—many would attribute that to the fact that Hanford is here and there are a lot of well-educated people here. That trickles down to their kids and it’s expected that you do well in school.
Being a competitive individual, some of my classmates were doing really well in education. I can do that, too. In eighth grade I decided that I was going to be on honor roll, because that’s what they do in Richland. I was accustomed—well, being kind of a—I won’t say top dog but certainly competitive. So I wanted to do that.
Also in eighth grade is when I had a crush on a young lady and I found out that she liked guys who did well in school. From them on, I did well in school. Turns out, she’s also the young lady that asked me to run for class president when I was a senior in high school. I did, to impress her, feeling I wouldn’t win anyway. However, I did win.
I’ve been paying for it for 50 years, in that every time I come home from the military for my class reunions, I had the privilege of giving a speech. And then also since I’ve been back for the last 25 years, my best friend and I have been some of the leaders in putting together the recent reunions. And in fact, I was just asked on Monday at Fred Meyer, what are we going to do for our 50th reunion next year? So, like I say, that’s continued on for a long time, that responsibility. But it’s been a privilege and it also helped me get into the Air Force Academy.
Franklin: It’s the gift that keeps on giving, huh?
Mitchell: It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Franklin: And what year did you graduate school?
Mitchell: Richland High School class of 1969.
Franklin: But that would be Columbia High School, right?
Mitchell: We were Columbia High School back then. Although we did have an R on our helmets; we were always called Richland, but officially we were Columbia High School.
Franklin: I just, I only say that because when I said Richland High School to Ann Roseberry, she—
Mitchell: She corrected you?
Franklin: She was very—yes. Very, very prompt to correct me that it was indeed Columbia High School.
Mitchell: Okay, yeah. Ann Roseberry has recently been the manager of the Richland Public Library. She invited me to be on the Richland Public Library board about nine years ago. So I’m in my ninth year of being on that board because of Ann Roseberry, formerly Ann Chamberlain when we were growing up. Her father is—or was—a retired lieutenant—excuse me, a retired full colonel in the Air Force. When I went to the Air Force Academy one of the people that I talked with when I came back was her father. So we’ve been connected somewhat for 50 years. I’m a lieutenant colonel, retired, and I got through the Air Force Academy as a football player. I was recruited to play football for the Air Force.
Franklin: Oh, wow, so sports was—
Mitchell: And I did play. Sports was a big thing for us. In fact, of the six of us children, three of us were put through college playing college football.
Franklin: Wow. And you played for which—
Mitchell: I played for the Air Force Academy. And my brother, Greg, played for University of Puget Sound. He was a wide receiver and defensive back. I was a defensive back and a quarterback and a tailback in college at Air Force. And then our brother, Cameron, who was a high school American football player, and I understand also a high school All-American basketball player at Richland High School, but he played for Washington State University. And he’s now a superior court judge. And I have a brother, Nestor, who was a pretty good baseball player as well. He had the opportunity to play at Washington State University. But apparently he and the coach didn’t see eye to eye, so he didn’t stay there for that purpose for that long. He’s a recently retired fireman from the City of Seattle, however.
Franklin: Wow. I imagine when you were growing up watching sports, that would have been the time where the leagues were starting to desegregate, or have more African American players in them, right? Because that would have been—
Mitchell: Absolutely. That was one of the reasons, I guess, that I—partially why I fell in love with USC. Because there were not a lot of the major schools that had African American players in the ‘50s, certainly, and into the ‘60s—because I graduated in ’69. But USC had a lot of really good teams; they also had a lot of good—well, not a lot—they had three or four good African American ball players on their team. That was not that big of a—not that prominent—not that prevalent, is the right word. Not that prevalent at that time. In fact, in the SEC, Southeastern Conference, that the Air Force played in Tennessee in the 1971 Sugar Bowl, the SEC was totally segregated. Well, not totally—99.9% segregated. Now you look at the SEC and as far as football and basketball, most of their players are in fact African American. But when we played them in the ‘70s, early ’69, ’70, ’71, is when I played for the Air Force, they did not have more than two or three African American players in the SEC and other leagues as well. Even the Big 10, which had a fair number of African American players, on a given team, you’d probably only have three or four or five and they were all pretty good or they wouldn’t be on the team, probably. So that was a transition period, for sure. In fact, we played, I think at least one game, or one team that was somewhat hesitant to play Air Force because of the African American teams on Air Force. Even in 1969, ’70 timeframe.
Franklin: Right. Still definitely well within the civil rights era.
Mitchell: Absolutely. That’s another thing that I was thinking about. Again, I went to the Air Force Academy in 1969. I was selected to go there, probably just a little less than a year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I do know that the United States government was trying to find ways to integrate and to change some of the policies and procedures that were going on in this country at the time. I certainly believe that one of the reasons that I was able to go to the Air Force Academy—I was recruited, again, to play football—but I think there was more emphasis on finding qualified African American students who could be in service academies and other aspects of life in the United States. So.
Franklin: Great. You had mentioned some of these unwritten rules and without getting too personal, I wanted to know, how did dating figure into that when you were in high school?
Mitchell: Ha, ha. Yeah, that was one of those unwritten areas. It was one of those things that it was pretty well understood that as an African American guy, black guy, you really probably shouldn’t date Caucasian girls, white girls. The first date I had, however, was something called Tolo at Richland High School. It’s like Sadie Hawkins.
Franklin: Yes, okay.
Mitchell: Where the girls invite the guys. I was invited by a Caucasian lady to go to that with her. And in fact, I was one of two sophomore princes for Tolo in 1967, it would have been. Yeah, ’67. Maybe ’66, ’67, when I was a sophomore at Richland High School.
But getting back to the specific question, yeah. We went to Richland Baptist Church on George Washington Way here in Richland. It was—I think we were the only black family there. There might have been others that came and went while we were there. And there were some young ladies that I certainly was attracted to, but at the same time, I knew, no, that’s not going to work. And then also being a Southern Baptist church, just—no.
And then another one that has been in the news recently is about Kennewick and how we knew that we weren’t supposed to be in Kennewick. Unless we maybe had a specific purpose, maybe going to a store to pick up something. I think we went to Basin Surplus, I think that’s in Kennewick, to buy something several times with my parents. We played sports over in Kennewick, but then we got on a bus and came home.
Franklin: Yeah, I wanted to ask a little bit more about that. I’ve heard from many that there was kind of a de facto rule that African Americans weren’t encouraged—were not encouraged to be in Kennewick after dark and would be stopped by the police if they were. Did that ever happen to you or anyone you know? Do you have any experience or recollection of that kind of treatment?
Mitchell: Okay. I have heard about it. I never personally experienced it, because I am one who tried to learn—I tried to learn from others and their experiences. And have always been taught to not put yourself in a situation where you can find yourself in trouble if you can help it. So from my specific situation, I would have to say it’s hearsay. Because I never really saw the sign. But yeah, I certainly heard it, and I strongly believe that I felt it. Even in Pasco and Richland, I mean, there were certain areas that you knew that you probably ought not to be in, and so you didn’t go there.
Franklin: Even in Richland?
Mitchell: Even in Richland. There were some areas—well, again, in 1965, my dad talked about how he tried to buy a house up in Beverly Heights, which is just to the southwest of Carmichael.
Mitchell: Okay. And I do remember that because I was 14 years old at the time and we thought we were going to get out of that two-bedroom prefab with eight of us and get a new house, or a different house. And it fell through. But having been in that area, even in the recent few years, yeah, that would be an area that I don’t think would be welcoming to us, even now.
And then my dad who was a realtor for a number of years—he did pass away January 24th, 2016. But he was selling real estate almost up until that time.
Mitchell: Well, 2014 is when I found he was ill. He was still a realtor at that time but he didn’t do a lot of selling because I took him to a lot of medical appointments then. But we’ll say 2010, just as a number—a year. But there were some areas in Pasco, West Pasco that he says that he was showing an African American family some potential houses to buy, and some folks came up to him, basically, and said, no, not in this area. You’re not really welcome here. So that was approximately 2010 timeframe in West Pasco.
As far as Richland, my dad did experience some difficulties there on 115 Spring Street, which he purchased that house in 2000—excuse me, 1976. 1976. I know that for a fact, because I loaned him $10,000 towards his down payment. The reason that I was able to do that, I was a lieutenant in the Air Force, my wife was working, we didn’t have any children. Also, I had just received a legal settlement and some dollars from my car accident where I had been run into by a drunk in Colorado—excuse me, in Wyoming, on my way back to Colorado. And so, I was able to loan my dad $10,000 for a down payment on that 115 Spring Street house.
But he did receive at least one anonymous phone call threatening him and us. And then one of his coworkers there at Hanford did inform my dad that when this coworker was about to move into a house on Spring Street, that this coworker was quizzed as to whether or not he knew about “those folks down the street,” talking about our family. Now, I wasn’t in that house. I was in California at that time. Because, again, I left Richland in June of 1969 on my way to the Air Force Academy.
Mitchell: Okay. So I would come home during my breaks and such but I never lived in Richland directly again until 1993. So, you know, I observed things, I heard things, but I was gone for 24 years.
Franklin: Okay, great. Oh, I say that all the time. Richland, especially when you would have first moved here, was a very peculiar town in that it was owned by the government—
Mitchell: Yes, it was.
Franklin: --which is a distinction very few towns in America have. I’m wondering if you could talk about whether—I guess it would be more upon reflection, but kind of the peculiarities of living in this government town where everyone had a job and everyone was assigned housing and things like that.
Mitchell: I’d love to. Primarily because I’m a retired Air Force officer. And I, along the way, came to realize that the government towns of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and there in New Mexico and also here at Richland were designed and built on a military model—a military base. And the assignment of houses was based on a military model, and that you received the kind of house that you were offered based on your rank, if you will. Whether or not you were a manager or how high a manager, or if you were further down on the totem pole, if you will. For the African Americans, I do remember that almost every one of us that I can think of lived in a prefab. I think there were three-bedroom prefabs and two-bedroom prefabs. I know we had a two-bedroom prefab. I don’t know what the Wallaces had because they had a fairly good sized family as well. I don’t know if they had a two-bedroom or a three-bedroom, 102 Casey Street. Down the street on Craighill, my cousins, again, the Rockamores, I think—they only had one daughter, so I think they had a two-bedroom. But one of the things living in Tri—Richland, I’m sorry, in Richland—I think they had inspections of the yards and things were maintained very well here. Also, Richland was fairly new, too. Because, now looking back on it, leaving here in 1969, and Richland I think was really built in 1943 or ’42, or something like that. It wasn’t that old.
Franklin: Yeah. No, it certainly wasn’t.
Mitchell: But things were in pretty good shape. We had a lot of what are called Quonset hut-type buildings. The library was in one of those. It’s the buildings that have kind of the round roof, that kind of thing. There are not many left now.
Franklin: A lot of those were military surplus.
Mitchell: Well, that was military. Yeah, exactly. That’s what I’m saying. And then just up the street—well, up here was where Camp Hanford was. That was a Army camp, because they had the Army here, I believe, to help with security for Hanford. That’s my best knowledge of why we had that group of military stationed here. In fact, my dad’s—one of my dad’s three sisters, Emma Mitchell, now Emma Peeples, married an Army enlisted person while she was here. She moved up from Texas to here to live with our family in that two-bedroom prefab. So there was maybe nine of us at some point. I mean, I can’t remember how many there were.
Franklin: When I first got to town, I lived in a two-bedroom prefab with my wife. It was small just for two of us and a cat. I just—
Mitchell: Well, we had bunk beds. I know we had two sets of bunk beds. I can’t remember where everybody slept. We had one sister. I don’t think she slept in the same room with us guys. I don’t know that for a fact. It was tight.
Franklin: Yeah, I—it would have to be.
Mitchell: Yeah. But again, everybody that lived in Richland at that time was pretty much connected to Hanford in some fashion. So we all had that in common. Going to school, education was significant and important to almost everybody. If you weren’t trying to do well in school, you were an anomaly, I would say. That’s the way I felt, anyway. Because we were expected—at least the folks I hung out with, and I hung out with ball players, a lot, and students who did well in school, just because those were the kinds of folks I was attracted to as well.
But taking higher math or physics or biology or chemistry or whatever, those were things that I did do, because I realized, again, going back to eighth grade that I wanted to go to college. I didn’t know what I was going to study, but I just wanted to be prepared. And then when I did take the SAT, I did do well on that. I was a semifinalist on the SAT. I didn’t realize what it took to become a finalist until my son took the SAT when we got back here and he did very well with it and he was a finalist. In fact, he ended up being a Rhoads Scholar candidate. He’s pretty bright guy. He’s got a PhD now in history. And then my daughter’s also pretty bright as well.
Franklin: Does your son teach?
Mitchell: He teaches at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee right now. He’s been there three years; he’s on a tenure track position.
Franklin: Those are—I’m a historian myself, I know how coveted those positions are. So he must really be a bright guy.
Mitchell: Yeah, he’s pretty bright. Like I say, he’s—well, yeah. And my wife is pretty bright, too. That’s where they got it from, I’m sure.
Franklin: Yeah. That’s a good thing to say on camera.
Mitchell: Well, that’s how I truly believe.
Franklin: Oh, I know.
Mitchell: At the same time, I’m no slouch, to use my dad’s, another one of his phrases. Yeah.
Franklin: Social events, what kind of social/community events in Richland or in Pasco do you remember participating in growing up?
Mitchell: I didn’t participate in a lot. Primarily, it was in church, whether it would be at Richland Baptist Church. There were a few early on, perhaps in Pasco, when we’d go back to Pasco and spend time with our relatives and that kind of thing. But I didn’t go to many social activities, again, while going through—I went through Lewis and Clark Elementary School, Carmichael Junior High, and then Richland High School. And I didn’t go to dances. I didn’t do a lot of things at night, like I said, because we were expected to be home at night. So I generally was.
I was the first-born, and I do believe in birth order having an impact on how you do things. I do believe, oftentimes the first-born tries to be a little more obedient to their parents and do what the parents expect. So I didn’t break a lot of rules or whatever. Now, as my parents had more kids, they became a little less strict. My brothers and sisters, I strongly believe, were able to do a lot of things I wasn’t able to do. But at the same time, I really didn’t want to do a lot of those things just because, as I say, I did have that feeling at times that I wasn’t always welcome or that—you know. I was a little different.
Franklin: Yeah. Connected to that, you would have been in middle school and high school at the height of the civil rights movement, nationwide. I’m wondering if you could reflect on how that impacted you.
Mitchell: Well, it definitely did in that I have relatives who lived in Watts, California, outside of—well, LA. And when Watts was burning and they were having riots there, I was concerned for my relatives and that. I’d been there before, visiting, in, well, 1964. My family and I were there visiting some of my mother’s sisters and other relatives in Los Angeles, in Watts. And so in 1965 when I’m seeing Watts burn and that—and there’s also riots going on in Detroit, Michigan and in Chicago—which, I have relatives in Chicago; I was born in Chicago, as I said. I have relatives in Detroit, I have relatives in Oakland, I have relatives in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, and lots of other places. So I was fearful, I was concerned. I was concerned about what might happen here, locally. Because there was also some strife in Pasco as a result of just the fact that the conditions were not what they should have been. With other folks around the country expressing their frustration with being suppressed in many respects, some things did happen in Pasco as well. So that started getting kind of close to home. So I was fearful, I was concerned, and then, again, when folks started getting shot, I mean, some of our leaders started getting shot—of course, John Kennedy was out here visiting Hanford Site, N Reactor, I think in 1962 is when he visited?
Mitchell: ’63, okay.
Franklin: About two months before—
Mitchell: So then November 22nd, ’63, he’s assassinated. And then his brother gets killed shortly thereafter, and of course, Martin Luther King gets killed, and Malcolm X gets killed. There’s a lot going on in the ‘60s.
Mitchell: And then we had Sharon Tate from Richland High School and Charles Manson.
Franklin: Did you know—
Mitchell: No. No, no, I’m ’69; I think she was like ’61 or ’62. No, I mean, I would have been in elementary school or probably not even to junior high yet. But we knew about her. And then we had some other significant athletes and such out of the Richland School District that I think—well, I won’t try to name names again, but we had some folks who were prominent.
And then one of the guys my dad didn’t make mention of when he was doing his interview—what is his name? Mike McCormick, former state senator, I think he was, for the State of Washington, and he was one of my dad’s supervisors. He’s one of the ones that helped to encourage my dad—or did encourage my dad to go to Columbia Basin College so that he could move on and get perhaps a different job. That did work out for my dad. I did go to school with one of Mike McCormick’s children, I believe it was. If not children, maybe a nephew or niece.
So there were just a lot of folks that were important in my life. The football stadium was named after Fran Rish. I played on his last football team. I did start for him as a sophomore in football. I never played, actually, directly for Art Dawald, who the gym’s named after, but I did have him for a government instructor or teacher. I played on the junior varsity my sophomore year for Richland Bombers. And I actually played for Ray Juricich who was the head of the sophomore team, and of course Art Dawald was the overall basketball coach. And then I ran track and field and went to state and relays twice when I was a junior and senior. Did not have real good technique, but I was fairly fast and we had a really good relay team. We, in fact, still have a school record at Richland High School Track and Field after 40-some years. Because they don’t run that race anymore.
Franklin: Oh, well, that helps.
Mitchell: Yeah. We ran the 4x220-yard dash relay. Now it’d be the 4x200 meters. The girls run that, but the guys don’t run that race anymore. So we still have that record.
Franklin: I’m wondering if—what do you know about the events that happened in Pasco, the strife that happened in Pasco sometime in the late—like ’67?
Mitchell: Well, I know—some of my relatives, again, were some of the leaders in Pasco that got involved with some of that. As I understand it, it was trying to get running water and perhaps electricity and paved roads in Pasco, were some of the things that came up during that time. Again, just some basic services that we didn’t have on the east side of Pasco that were in west Pasco, or central Pasco, but the black side of town didn’t have those. So some folks were concerned about that. And then some educational things. And just fair treatment all around to begin with. Because even here in the Tri-Cities, there were places that wouldn’t rent to us, that wouldn’t sell us a house, things of that nature, and those kinds of frustrations and feelings of being second-class citizens and such certainly boiled over. It was just a time of United States history when folks started saying enough is enough and we don’t want to accept this anymore. Some of that was here, too.
Franklin: Was there any—did you or your family ever face any discrimination in, like, going out to eat for example?
Mitchell: I don’t remember that directly, but sometimes you would get to a place and you would—it was kind of like you weren’t there. Folks would walk by you, and didn’t really want to take you to a table or offer you a place to sit. Things of that nature, sometimes.
Franklin: They’d just kind of wait you out?
Mitchell: Yeah. But we didn’t go out that much anyway, because there were so many of us. Again, family of eight, my dad was working—he worked two or three jobs, back then, two or three. And then he was umpiring along the way as well. But we didn’t go out to eat a whole lot. I never had a steak in my life until I went to the Air Force Academy. That was the first time I ever had a steak for a meal. We went fishing and we did things of that nature, and that was things they did in Texas, that’s things we did here. So we did fish frys and chicken and things of that nature. Peach cobbler was a big thing in our house. My mom did that really well. We had a lot of collard greens and cornbread and beans and things. We never went hungry in my house. We never, ever went hungry in my house. But at the same time, we just had some of those basic kinds of food, and we didn’t often go to a restaurant.
In fact, probably one of the first restaurants I really remember—I don’t remember the exact restaurant, but I remember when I went to the state track meet, it was held—when I was a junior, it was held at WSU Pullman. We were undefeated in our relay at that time, and we ended up going from first to last. I think there were eight teams. One of our guys took off too soon, so we had to stop. So we went from wherever we were to the last place. Then we ended up finishing, I think, sixth overall out of the eight. But I remember going to a restaurant there, and that was a big deal for me, because I’d never really done that kind of thing. I don’t remember what I had to eat, but that was nice.
And then another time—well, we used to go to the basketball tournaments over in Seattle, because Richland Bombers used to go to state a lot. Kind of like now, like they’re over there right now. I have a nephew who’s playing for Richland this year, Nathan Mitchell, Cameron’s son. But we had relatives there in central Seattle, went to Garfield High School, which was the predominantly black school, back then. We stayed with our relatives, the Lowe family, but we’d go to Hec Edmundson Pavilion there on U-Dub campus and we went a number of years when the Bombers were playing. One of those times we went to Ivar’s, and I don’t think it was with my family, but I don’t know if it was track or what it was related to, but I remember going to Ivar’s, the main one, the primary one, the first one. That was a big deal for me.
Franklin: Just because you hadn’t really been to many restaurants growing up?
Mitchell: No, no, no, no. Well, when we traveled places, as with most African American families, you didn’t really stop. When we went to California or wherever, we pretty much drove all the way through, and you’d just change up drivers. Because, again, most motels didn’t really want us, and we didn’t stop along the way. You’d pack up the food that you needed and you hit the road and you get there.
Franklin: That’s interesting. I’ve heard that related often when people were from the South would say that about the South, but you—even on the West Coast, your family would—just felt safer not stopping?
Mitchell: Well, that was it, and that was how you knew how to do it. Because you don’t know when you pull into a place—well, first of all, they’re probably not going to want you there anyway, and secondly, it might not be safe for you. But, again, when I was—after I graduated from the Air Force Academy, and I’d travel between here, the Tri-Cities and back to Colorado Springs, several trips I went with some of my classmates and friends that were Caucasian and such, so we didn’t run into a lot of problems that way. But when I traveled by myself, and I know when I was a lieutenant—I guess I had become a captain—in 1979, I went from California to Montgomery, Alabama for one of my military schools, and back. I was just careful, and even in ’79, you could tell when folks weren’t real thrilled that you were there, wanting to get a room. But I also made sure that I went to the big chains, like Ramada Inn, I would go to that, or I would go to Holiday Inn, or wherever, as opposed to other places.
Franklin: Why? Why would you pick a chain instead of a mom-and-pop?
Mitchell: Because they probably were a little more accepting and had rules and regulations about how you treat people and also they wouldn’t want to have a lawsuit if they didn’t treat you well. They wouldn’t want to experience any negative situation.
Mitchell: So that’s something that I just learned along the way, that you try to put things, again, in your favor. So that if you’re going to have a difficult situation, you want to minimize it or avoid it altogether.
Franklin: Kind of leverage their want to keep a good reputation.
Mitchell: Absolutely. And their want to help keep you safe. Because it’s in their best interest to do that.
Franklin: Yeah. Because your money is just as good anyone else’s money.
Mitchell: It is. And my money’s not as good if they get a negative rap, then other folks aren’t going to go there, either. And also they could get sued.
Franklin: Yeah, definitely.
Mitchell: So there was a lot of reasons. But, you know, we all do that. Even today. I’m sure you do those kinds of things, too. You think about it. What’s going to be in your best interest. And certainly, as African Americans, you learn to do that. Because you know there are lot of folks actively not interested in your well-being, necessarily.
Franklin: Right. You mentioned when Kennedy came to visit and your—did you go out—
Mitchell: Yeah, our whole family went out there.
Franklin: I’m wondering if you could talk about that day and that experience.
Mitchell: Well, I can’t remember it in great detail, other than that there was a ton of people. It was a big deal. Again, I don’t know if I got it from watching my dad’s segment or not, but apparently they had cleared some of the sagebrush away and waste to ensure that more vehicles could get out there, because we parked in the sand and sagebrush out there, when we got out there. And in the last—well, since I’ve been back here and I’ve worked at the K Basins, and I’ve worked out in the outer area at Hanford over my 18 years at Hanford, it’s a long way out there.
Franklin: Yeah, N Reactor’s pretty far out there.
Mitchell: It’s pretty far out there. It’s almost out to the, well, not the Vernita Bridge, but it’s almost that far, it’s just not that same road. It takes a while to get out there. But it was a big, big deal. Big in the community, and probably—I don’t know if it was a school day or not, but I think that they let us out of school. Yeah, there was all kinds of folks out there.
Franklin: It’s not everyday the President of the United States comes to town.
Mitchell: No, especially John Kennedy, I mean—they were really—like they talk about Camelot and all that stuff and then Jackie Kennedy, et cetera. It was a big deal. We were pleased we had an opportunity to go out there.
Franklin: So your father, when you moved to Richland, your father started working at Hanford from where you were a young boy, and then he continued working there until you left and afterwards. What did you know about your father’s job at Hanford, and what did you know about Hanford growing up?
Mitchell: Well, we were here in Richland when they had the buses that would drive around in the morning and pick folks up and that. And, in fact, my dad was in a car—yeah, a car accident where one of the buses hit him in the fog one time. But it was a very controlled situation. Not everybody—well, you didn’t know what everyone else did, and everyone knew you didn’t know what everyone else did. That’s the way it had to be, because it’s Hanford and it’s all secret and that kind of thing. Government town, there was rules and regulations, standards on the houses and that type of thing. Like I say, there were inspections on the houses if I’m not mistaken, on the various houses and your yards and that kind of thing. They expected you to take care of your yard, just like on a military base. Again, everybody that you knew and you went to school with, had a relative that was working at Hanford. So you felt some camaraderie with that.
At that time, Richland Bomber basketball team was a big deal. And in fact, we had the current gym, the big gym that we have, was built, I think, 1965. It has three big floors on it. When they rolled the bleachers back, and I know we had our PE classes and that kind of thing in there.
Davis of Yakima was probably our biggest rival early on when I was coming along, and then Pasco, later, became our biggest basketball rival. But they had some good players. For Pasco, a guy named Ron Howard, graduated class of ’70. So I played football against him and basketball just one year for me, but I ran track and field against him, et cetera. But he played basketball, Seattle University, and then he played football for the Dallas Cowboys. And then he was in the Super Bowl at least twice. I probably haven’t seen him for about five or six, seven years now, but last time I did talk with him, he was coaching at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle.
And then another guy, Albert Wilkins, who’s pastor over here at Morning Star Baptist Church, and in fact, he presided over the funeral of both my mom and dad. But he was a Pasco High running back, class of ’69, good ball player, went to University of Washington, played for them for a brief time.
Then another guy that I never played against but know of is Michael Jackson who played for both the Washington Huskies and also the Seattle Seahawks, outstanding basketball player.
As far as Richland goes, coming along, Ray Stein was one of the ones that we all looked up to and that. He went to Washington State University and played basketball for them. I think he graduated in about ’63 or so.
And then, of course, the Wallace brothers and the Brown brothers, those were both African American families in basketball. When I was playing football for Richland, we weren’t very good. I was team captain my senior year and also I was the quarterback my senior year, although I got hurt a couple times. I had a super sophomore year as a football player in high school, then injuries in both my junior and senior year. But—
Franklin: Speaking of Richland sports, Richland High sports in general, there’s been some controversy in recent years over the mascot of—I just would like to get your thoughts on that subject.
Mitchell: Okay. I have thought about that. I’ve also thought—not for this discussion, but I have thought about in the past about it for future discussions. I can understand why a lot of folks don’t like it, because of what it symbolizes as far as destruction—death and destruction in a lot of respects. Same time, I, for one, strongly believe that if it had not been for the atomic bomb being dropped in Japan—on Japan, the war would have been quite different in terms of the loss of life; it would have been much greater on both sides, had the United States and its allies tried to go into Japan and the islands and fight the Japanese until they were willing to give up. I don’t think they would’ve given up, just given their culture and such, and the belief that their emperor was basically like god, they would fight to the death in many respects, I believe. And I think, with the bomb actually being used, it did bring the war to an end much more quickly than it would have been otherwise.
Now, as far as the symbol and our still using it, I can understand why folks don’t think it’s necessary or would like to see us get rid of it. And having worn that on my helmet, on my uniform in the past, I would be willing to give it up. At the same time, I’m not willing to be an activist to try to make it happen. But, yeah, I think over time, it’s probably going to go.
Franklin: That’s a very well-reasoned response.
Franklin: Well-thought-out. Thank you. I just—since sports were so crucial to you, I really wanted to get—
Franklin: Because that’s certainly—it’s definitely kind of a flashpoint in a very—as someone who’s not from the community, not from this area originally, it’s a very—mascots are generally of a certain ethnicity or an animal, and it’s very interesting just in terms of that it’s really a mascot for a focal point in time.
Mitchell: Yes, it is.
Franklin: And that, to me, is pretty—it makes it pretty unique among many mascots.
Mitchell: It does, but Richland, Oak Ridge, Tennessee—yeah, they’re unique communities because of World War II and what resulted in the outcomes of World War II as a result of these facilities.
Franklin: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And their, of course, also work in the Cold War, and their 40-plus years of helping to construct the US nuclear weapons stockpile, which is a very formidable resource.
Mitchell: And we just tore down the Plutonium Finishing Plant, PFP, recently. And we’re tearing down many of the other facilities, and rightfully so. Yeah.
Franklin: Okay, we’ve covered so much, I’m trying to—I just want to get a good gather on where we go now. Did segregation or racism affect your education in any way in Richland?
Mitchell: I think once we were here, no. I think that—there are other folks that maybe it impacted, because we were here. But me, directly, no. In that, again, I think sports helped in that I was a good ballplayer—we were pretty good ballplayers. There were other African Americans in the community that were pretty good ballplayers. And as a result, we were somewhat accepted. At the same time, I know there were folks that didn’t like it—who didn’t like us, necessarily. But I don’t care who you are or where you are, there’s always somebody that doesn’t like you, isn’t going to care for you or whatever. But don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about that. I do try to treat others the way I would like to be treated, and treat them respectfully. If I don’t necessarily care for them—and I don’t care for everybody; I don’t think any of us do—but I try to stay away from them if I don’t care for them.
Mitchell: And certainly they have as much right to be people and do what they want to do as I do. And I would hope that folks would feel that way about me. And if they don’t care for me or my family, that’s fine. Just leave us alone, and we’ll do the same for you. But—
Lori Larson: Can I ask a question?
Mitchell: Yes, please.
Larson: [LAUGHTER] So how did your insertion and your family’s insertions across the Tri-Cities, how did you affect segregation?
Franklin: Sorry, before you respond, could you state your name?
Larson: Oh. Lori Larson.
Mitchell: Okay, Lori Larson. Most of the African American folks in the community, including my family—and my family has been fairly prominent in the community because we’ve been blessed to be able to do some things—I think it’s helped a lot, because folks get to know us and find out that we’re people just like them. Many times, when we haven’t been around other ethnic groups, we don’t know about them, we’re a little bit fearful of them, regardless of what group it is, just because they’re different. And we are different. But at the same time, we’re very much the same. We’re all humans and we all have the same feelings and emotions and needs and that kind of thing.
So I think that, especially when we were ballplayers, getting to know people and folks getting to know us, and I know I had my name in the paper quite a bit for sports. But also, I really enjoyed having my name in the paper for being in the honor roll. It was a big thing for me. My kids as well when they were on the honor roll. The fact that, yeah, we can compete and we can do things that are positive. Everything we do is not just negative. And sometimes you feel that folks feel that way about you. That, you know, you guys are just negative.
So, have I answered your question? I think that we contributed by allowing folks to get to know us. And see us. And see that we’re not a whole lot different than they are.
Franklin: Great, thank you. Were there any civil rights actions or demonstrations in Richland that you know of? I know there was a local, I think a CORE office or a human rights commission. But I’m wondering if there were any organized marches or anything like that?
Mitchell: Not that I know of directly, but, again, John Dam Plaza was here then, just like it’s here now. And there might have been something at John Dam Plaza. I know that my mother got involved with some activities—I don’t know if she was part of NAACP or not. But I know there was a guy named Art Fletcher who came from Washington, DC, African American guy, he played football, I think, for the Baltimore Colts back when they were the Baltimore Colts. He was one of the presidential appointees for some of the activity out here in the Tri-Cities and Hanford area. He did get involved with some things related to some racial issues. But I don’t know the details.
Franklin: Okay. I’d like to kind of jump ahead. You mentioned that you worked at Hanford.
Mitchell: Yes, I did.
Franklin: And kind of—I assume that was after your career in the Air Force.
Mitchell: Yes, as I said before, I came back here in June of 1993. One of the reasons I came back here, is because, again, of my children, 13 and six. Not wanting to go to the DC area with my family, because I told my wife I was going to retire at the 20-year point, which we did, in ’93. But we came back here and—well, what was the exact question again?
Franklin: Oh, I just wanted you to talk about your decision to go to work at Hanford and your job there.
Mitchell: Well, one of the reasons that I came back here—and the other place we would have gone would have been Colorado because my wife’s from Colorado and we like Colorado a lot. But we came back to Richland because of the amount of family that I have here, because people know me here, because I could get a job at Hanford. Because my technical background—I have an engineering management degree from the Air Force Academy. And I have a safety and systems management degree from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree. Those kinds of jobs—excuse me, that education tied into jobs I could get here at Hanford. Specifically in the project controls area. Project controls has to do with budgets, cost schedule, performance measures, and that’s what I did, first for Westinghouse and then when they reorganized Hanford, I ended up working for Fluor Daniel Hanford, and Waste Services Hanford, and Waste Federal Services Hanford, and other companies as well. But the continuity of service was the same; it stayed the same, it was just a different name on the paycheck, basically.
Franklin: You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that. [LAUGHTER]
Mitchell: Oh, okay. And that started in 1996. I got here in ’93. ’96. And I ended up retiring from the Hanford contractors community in 2009. Then I went and found another job working for a company, and that company had a job at Hanford in Richland, Washington, so I took it. Well, I applied for it and I got it. So I worked for a company as a consultant to DOE Hanford, overseeing—or assisting with overseeing the contracts for the 200 Central Plateau area, which is where I’d worked—some of where I’d worked when I’d been working for Fluor Daniel Hanford and other companies.
So I came back here, again, because of the job and also because of the school system. Again, specifically the Richland school system, because I am a Bomber and I am familiar with the school system. And also when I was in Alaska as the comptroller sitting up there, and I was up there at Elmendorf Air Force base in Alaska, and I don’t know if I was on the internet or I got some materials from somewhere about the rank order of the high schools and their performance in the state of Washington. And Richland high schools, Hanford in particular, Richland, too, were right near the top of all the high schools in the state of Washington. Having been through the system myself, it’s good for me, good for my kids.
Franklin: How long did you live in Alaska?
Mitchell: Three-and-a-half years.
Franklin: I’m from Alaska, originally.
Franklin: Palmer, and Anchorage.
Mitchell: Okay, I’ve been through Palmer several times. Of course, as you know, there aren’t many highways in Alaska.
Franklin: No, and Palmer’s a town you just pretty much drive through usually.
Mitchell: Drive through, yeah, driving through Palmer on your way to Fairbanks and then back around. So. Yeah. I—yes. It’s good.
Franklin: It’s fine. I miss it sometimes. I don’t miss the winter.
Mitchell: No. Well, I was there three-and-a-half years and I tell folks, when they say, how’d you like it? I say, well, after doing everything three times, I was ready to leave, in that, as you know, everything’s based on the calendar in the year, and when it snows is pretty much predicted, and when it’s going to do this is pretty much predicted, and when the fish are going to run, it’s the same kind of deal. So everything’s very cyclical and very predictable.
Franklin: Yes, yes, it is. We have three seasons there, right? There’s winter, break-up, and construction season.
Mitchell: Yes. That’s true.
Franklin: Yeah, fall’s like two weeks.
Mitchell: Not long, not long.
Franklin: Anyway. Well, I digress. So you kind of carried on this family legacy of working at Hanford. How did you—did you find—how do I word this question? When did your father retire from Hanford?
Mitchell: He retired officially in ’93.
Mitchell: When I came back here. So, just almost the exact same time he retired. However, then he continued—they’d bring him back, because he was in human resources person, HR person, and he used to give tours of the Hanford Site.
Mitchell: So probably from ’93 until maybe 2013, 2014 timeframe, he did tours for Hanford Site and he worked for PNNL part-time, however the contract was set up. So he still had his badge and he still had the access to the facility and such, and he would go out on these Hanford tours that they’re doing right now. In fact, at one time, I was a tour guide myself. I wasn’t real good at it. But he was really good at it, I understand, and a lot of folks have told me that. And a number of folks have been working at Hanford in the recent past go, oh yeah—if they work for Battelle—yeah, C.J. hired me in when I came in! Whenever that was. Yeah, he was out there for a long time.
Franklin: Yeah. I kind of want to ask about that. How was that—I imagine that your father must have left a legacy—
Mitchell: Oh, absolutely.
Franklin: --at Hanford, and you would have become—kind of walked into that and been—and everyone—so many people would have known your father, and known you, and you came back and were working. I’m wondering if you could talk about that, kind of the continuation of your family’s work at Hanford.
Mitchell: Well, yeah, that was, and is, a good thing, not only to work at Hanford, but coming back—and today, whenever I go somewhere, I usually see somebody that I know, or somebody who knows me, or of my family. I think even you made mention of the fact, the Mitchell family is fairly well-known around here. But my kids, again, my 13-year-old son and my 6-year-old daughter when we moved back here in ’93. But over the years, being associated with—or seeing that, and hearing that and feeling that, it’s a big deal for us. We feel that we’ve done a lot of positive things in the community and contributed in a lot of ways. We’ve also been blessed and given an opportunity to do a lot of things here. Another reason why I came back.
Before I left the Air Force, I would come home and go to lunch with the chief of the financial organization there at Battelle. I’m talking specifically about Allan Johnston and then I bought his house when I came back. But I didn’t work with him directly; he’d already left. When I’d come back on leave, I would go to lunch with him, two or three times, during that period of time, feeling that when I did retire from the Air Force, I was going to apply for a job and hopefully work for him—work for them. I did end up doing the application part and in fact I was invited in 1993 for an interview at PNNL and Battelle, went through that process, flew back to Anchorage, Alaska, feeling I had gotten the job. I’m sure I’m going to get that job. Well, shortly after, I did receive a call or whatever it was, letting me know that I wasn’t going to be able to have that job, because they had an individual who had been basically reduction-enforced—ripped out. So they were going to take care of him and give him the opportunity to have that job instead. So sorry.
So, then I turned around and applied for a job with Westinghouse, who my mother had worked for before she became ill—she had dementia. Then I flew down for an interview with them, and I went back to Alaska. I know I’ve got that job. Well, I did get that job. And so I went to work for them in July, probably July 1st or right around July 1st, 1993. And that all worked out.
But again, folks knew something of me, they knew about me, they knew something of my history. A lot of folks think they know more about me than they think they know. But that’s with all of us. But, again, my family’s been here for a long time and has been observed for a lot of people, folks know my brothers and my sister and my mom and my dad. And so they feel that they knew me and that’s been a positive for me. And that’s one of the reasons I came back.
Franklin: I wanted to ask you about your mother. Was she a working mother, for your childhood?
Mitchell: Well, one of the things I’ve learned is that all mothers are working mothers. But! Outside the home. Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.
Franklin: Yes, I should be more specific.
Mitchell: No, no. She did not work outside the home when I was coming along, but later on, she did go to work for Westinghouse. She was a secretary for a number of senior folks, I understand.
But that did have an impact on my youngest brother. Unfortunately, it has been a negative impact, in that he did get involved—I don’t know if it was here or when he was at University of Washington. He went to University of Washington, was a cheerleader there and graduated with a degree in marketing. But he also got hung up in drugs there. I think that’s where it happened. Somewhere.
But in 1974, ’75 when I was a lieutenant in Los Angeles’ GPS program, I got a phone call from Robin, my youngest brother. And he was very distraught in that he felt really lonely, he said. Because my mom wasn’t there when he’d come home from school, and just other things. So he felt alone. He was the youngest of the six of us. For the rest of us, we always had younger brothers or sisters. He didn’t have anybody that was younger. We all grew up and moved out, well, he’s still there.
So, yeah, that had an impact on him. Even to this day, he’s still dealing with some of those issues. As far as we know, he’s clean, he’s—he went back to school, Columbia Basin College, and then Washington State University Tri-Cities, where we are. And right now, he got an electrical engineering degree two or three years ago. I mean, he’s over 50 years old. But he’s not using that degree directly. He is currently working as a counselor in one of the organizations here in the Tri-Cities, assisting other people who are having substance abuse issues. But, I, for one, tie a lot of his problems to the fact that my mother wasn’t there, the rest of us weren’t there, and he did get off-track.
So, yeah, she did work outside the home after I was gone. There was a different dynamic in the family as a result. And I talked about the birth order situation. That was part of the deal in my view, and my perception—and this is all, obviously, just my opinion. But overtime, many parents become a little less attentive to their kids as the kids are growing up and that kind of thing, they’re doing other things in addition to being the parent and that, so things do loosen up a little bit, as far as the strictness. I believe some of that happened in my family when my mom went to work.
Not that she shouldn’t have gone to work, because she had the issues—not issues, but needs as well and desires to want to do other things, and she did become active in the community and in particular going to school board meetings and other things. Also, she was one of the committee members on getting the what we call, still, I think, the “new” police station here in Richland on George Washington Way. Her name’s down there on one of the plaques because she was one of the active members on helping get that done, as far as—I don’t know if she did lobbying or help raise money or whatever, but I know that she was a participant in that. How’s that for an answer to your question?
Franklin: That’s a great answer. I wanted to go back to Hanford for this next question. When you left the community in ’69, still very much in production mode. Not high production, but still, N Reactor’s running, we’re still processing. And when you came back, the Cold War was over. And you would, of course, in the Air Force would have been a service member during the Cold War and then still been in the—I’m wondering if you could talk about that shift in production to cleanup and the end of the Cold War as you observed it at Hanford and how it changed the community.
Mitchell: Well, when I came back here in ’93, they were still hiring more people. Excuse me. That’s why I was hired here, to help with Hanford cleanup. Hanford cleanup was going on for quite a while. I think it started in the late—like ’88, ’89 timeframe. Christine Gregoire who was our mayor—not mayor, our governor, I think at least twice—in fact, when I became a Columbia Basin College trustee, she’s the one that appointed me as a trustee. The reason I get into that is, it’s been going on a while. It’s been a change, certainly. It’s something that has to happen, should happen. We’ve had to fight for it, and we’ll probably have to continue to fight for it, because it has taken a long time and it’s cost a lot of money to clean it up.
So, before, during production when I was here as a high school student, things were very secretive, we didn’t know what was going on, but everyone was pretty much supportive of, whatever it is that’s going on needs to be going on. So when I come back—you know, I’d come back off and on, but when I came back in ’93, and now the mission has changed from production to cleaning up all the mess, at that time, in ’93, it was still supportive in that we need to clean up the mess. But over the years—I’ve been back 24-years-plus now—some folks—personally, I do believe that we have some strong senators and other representatives. Sam Volpentest was one. But again, as far as our senator, Patty Murray, I know she’s been a big supporter for Hanford, and others as well have had to fight for the dollars to ensure that we get things cleaned up and that we get what we need in order to do the cleanup. So that’s a big change.
But, having been out there, and having been a financial person out there, I am concerned that perhaps there’s definitely some waste going on out there, and I know that we—Hanford gets a rap for that; DOE gets a rap for that. But I’d have to say that, yeah, Hanford and DOE deserve a rap for some of that stuff, my opinion. Because I just think that it’s taking too long and it’s costing too much money. And I could get into some other specifics about my opinions about the Vit Plant and other things, but I won’t do that.
Franklin: Okay, sounds good. Maybe off-camera.
Franklin: Let’s see here, I think we’re almost—I think we’re almost done here. I just have a couple kind of larger questions. So, second-to-last question is, what would you like future generations to know about living in Richland during the Cold War?
Mitchell: Well, that it was an important mission that we had during the Cold War. And that it was truly a privilege to live in Richland, and I’d say the Tri-Cities overall, for that matter--a lot of folks who work at Hanford don’t live in Richland; they live in Pasco or Kennewick or Yakima or other places. But living in Richland, it was a wonderful place to grow up. One of the reasons to bring my family back here in ’93 is because it was still a wonderful place to raise my kids. And I think it’s still a wonderful place. I do have two grandchildren now in West Richland, my daughter and her family, and they’re going to grow up here as well.
I think it’s definitely needed and desirable that we try to build an economy outside of Hanford and diversify and come up with other things. I’m really pleased that my children don’t work at Hanford. Again, my son’s a history professor. I did try to get him to become an engineer, but he says, I don’t want to do that, Dad. And then my daughter’s a nurse. She also has a business degree, as does my son, has a business degree as well. She’s a Cougar and he’s a Husky.
Franklin: Quite a household.
Mitchell: But I’m a Trojan, and Trojans rule in my house. But I’m just really pleased to have grown up here. Like again, talking about my parents’ being courageous and that type of thing. The fact that they came here, they stayed here, and they built a great life here, I’m really thankful for that. Again, the friends and acquaintances that I have made nad we have made in the Tri-Cities overall and certainly in Richland, we’ve been blessed as a family for over 60 years.
Franklin: I’d say so. Is there anything else you would like to mention related to migration, segregation and civil rights and how they’ve impacted your life in the Tri-Cities?
Mitchell: Well, certainly they have impacted our life tremendously. One of the reasons my family came here in the first place, my dad was 16 years old and then back a couple different times and then married my mother and came back with me, because of the Cold War, because of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, happened because of World War II or after World War II, again, to the big cities of the North in particular, out to the West, resulting in really a much-improved for most all of us who migrated out of the South. Although some did better than others, certainly, and are still doing better, some, than others. But that also gets into, well, you have to do some things for yourself, and also we all have different circumstances and different situations we’re dealt.
But I think overall for the African American population, it’s worked out pretty well. There are a lot of problems, still. I certainly—well, education is one of the things, like I said, was big in my family. I think it’s still a key to success in this world. One of the reasons that I’m really pleased and happy to have been, and currently am being a trustee at Columbia Basin College, is to help other people of whatever background to find a path for themselves, to build a better life for themselves. I think a lot of that has come out of—well, again, World War II, the Cold War, the Hanford experience, and as I already said, we were blessed to have taken advantage of it. A lot of folks didn’t or haven’t, but a lot of folks still can. So I hope that they do.
Franklin: Great, well, Duke, thank you so much for coming and interviewing with us. It was a fabulous interview.
Mitchell: Well, thank you. I’m, again, happy that I was asked and had the opportunity. I’ve watched my dad do a lot of things for a lot of years, and I feel that he’s been an inspiration to others and helped other folks, including myself, to do better than they might have done otherwise. So I’m thankful for that.
Plutonium Finishing Plant
200 Central Plateau Area