Interview with Greg Mitchell
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: My name is Robert Franklin and I am conducting an oral history interview with Greg Mitchell on April 23rd, 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Greg 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?
Greg Mitchell: My full name is Gregory, G-R-E-G-O-R-Y, last name Mitchell, M-I-T-C-H-E-L-L. No middle name.
Franklin: No middle name.
Mitchell: Or initial.
Franklin: Wow, okay. Where did your parents move here from?
Mitchell: Well, if we go way back, my parents started in a little town called Kildare, Texas, which is in the northeastern corner of Texas. Some people will know the town of Texarkana. The closest airport there is Shreveport, Louisiana. And then they moved to Chicago, where my older brother was born. And then from Chicago they moved out to Washington State. There’s some history prior to that with my dad and mom and going back and forth. But as far as I remember, my folks were living in Hermiston, my brother was—he’s two years older than me, so he was probably a year or maybe a little bit, not quite two years old. Dad was here working on McNary Dam, so they were residing in Hermiston. Shortly after that, when that project was completed, they moved to Pasco. We had relatives here—he did, on his mother’s side, two uncles. He moved here to work construction on the Blue Bridge. From there, he migrated work-wise out to the Hanford Site. As a youngster, I remember, my best recollection is remembering my dad coming home, getting off the Hanford buses when we lived in the south end of Richland down in the Craighill area there. Our address was 100 Craighill, I’ll never forget it. Never forget my phone number and the experience of growing up in the south end with lots of friends and going to Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Richland.
Franklin: Great. What year did they come to the Tri-Cities?
Mitchell: Well, like I say, I was born in Pasco, so I assumed that they arrived shortly before that, and I was born July 31st, 1953. So I would assume that they had to move prior to that.
Franklin: What do you know about their lives before they came to work out here?
Mitchell: What I know is just been in conversation with my mom and my dad and then the visits that I made to the Kildare, Texas area as a youngster, and then later on as an adult, that they were—they brother grew up in a rural area, very small community—very, very small. And they were neighbors, field-to-field neighbors, approximately probably quarter-mile apart, up the road and around the corner from each other. So my dad married the girl next-door. Yeah, and they ended up out here, and rest is history.
Franklin: Heh heh. What do you know about their initial experience of coming to work here and finding a place to live?
Mitchell: Their initial experiences is just related to being black in a predominantly white community. What I know about it—I don’t know a lot about it, what I’ve heard about it after the fact, was strictly conversational. As you may have gathered in your interviews with my father and maybe interviews with my brother, that the Hanford—the Manhattan Project, Colonel Leslie Groves, when they embarked on this whole project, it was made known to the point of being put in writing that blacks were going to be used for construction. They were not going to be used for operation, maintenance and follow-on. And then addition to that, that blacks were being steered to the east side of Pasco.
With that type of environment and atmosphere, again, being a youngster, I didn’t experience it, but I did hear stories about it. From my parents, from folks that—relatives that were here, locally, friends of my parents, older folks that had been around that had migrated up here when all the livable wage jobs became known and people tended to come this way from the South and other parts of the United States.
My personal experiences came a little bit later. But I did hear about it. We didn’t question it too much. It wasn’t real overt. But when the topic came up, they were pretty open about the fact that there were some restrictions driven by the times and the thought processes of the times. They were centered on the color of your skin.
Franklin: Your family wasn’t steered towards east Pasco.
Mitchell: My family originally was.
Franklin: Originally was?
Mitchell: I was born in east Pasco.
Mitchell: I remember as a youngster going over to visit relatives. Shortly after I was born, my parents chose to move to Richland. I remember asking Dad about it. He said that he felt he was closer to work; it just made more sense, very practical, and that he was very excited about the school systems. Being so close to the Hanford Site, Richland had a tendency, at least in the minds of lots of folks, to be pretty heavy math-science-oriented. And Dad was very interested in getting us the best education that we could get. So those were the two factors that kind of drove the move: work and education.
Franklin: What do you know about your parents’ education, educational experiences when they were children, and how was that different from yours?
Mitchell: Well, the one thing that I remember—I remember as a young man seeing an old photograph of my father’s graduating class, and he would chuckle. There were five people total in their graduating class, all black, and he said, yeah, of the five people you see in here, if you take me out of it, three of the four are my cousins.
So they grew up in a segregated area in eastern Texas, small school, it was all—they had black educators, black administrators. That was under the guise, I guess, of separate-but-equal. We know that that’s not necessarily true, but that was the selling point of segregation at that point, as explained to me by my parents and other people that I’ve talked to and me doing my studies on history, and then actually visiting and seeing some of these situations. But, yeah, they grew up in a small school, segregated school.
I remember one of the things that really caught my attention was the fact that my mother was playing sports. I thought that was so ironic, because my sister—I have four brothers and a sister; there’s six of us altogether. And as we went through the Richland School District at the time that we went through, there were no sports for my sister. So with six of us, my sister kind of had to make it three-on-three and she was, I thought, very gifted, as a youngster. But she had no opportunity to do it. I thought it was so ironic, because we grew up watching my mom play basketball here in Richland, listening to her stories about being involved in athletics and being able to play athletics as a youngster.
But then we moved here, it wasn’t color-driven, it was just the date and times that were going on that girls did not have the opportunity to participate in athletics as I went through high school and down through probably, I think, almost everybody in our family, there was no girls’ athletics. So to me, that caught my attention. You know, Mom, you played sports? Well, Vanessa doesn’t get to play. That always has been a little bone of contention for me, particularly now that I have granddaughters. I like the fact that they have the opportunities, not only educationally but athletically.
Franklin: Yeah. How would you describe life in the community? In Richland.
Mitchell: Well, I guess that for me, personally, I felt that I grew up like Huckleberry Finn. We had lots of warm weather, good summers, playing baseball, going down to the river, being adventuresome out on Columbia Point, which is now pretty well built-up, but at the time that we grew up on that end of time, it was a pretty rural area. There were people that had pastures down there and horses, one of our neighbors had horses down there and my mom would give us permission occasionally to go down. Sometimes we would sneak down, and go down and do our thing along the riverbank. In those days, the wild horses would actually come into town, into the shelterbelt area down in the south end. So for us, as young kids, you know, we thought this was great. It was outstanding.
As we went to school, we did notice that there weren’t many people that looked like us in the school district. We had a couple of neighbors, and we had one cousin, female cousin, that was a year older than me, and then their families that had gone through. But we didn’t see a lot of other blacks in the school districts.
But initially, it didn’t seem to be a problem. We interacted with the people that we were around, we seemed to enjoy it, they seemed to enjoy our company. I think we kind of naturally fell into positions of leadership, some of it driven by athletic prowess, some of it driven by just, I think, our personalities to extend towards others and they would react. There were times that you would be taken back by an instance that would be racially motivated, or have racial overtones or undertones associated with it. But overall, great place to grow up.
Franklin: What did you—hold on a second, you already answered that. Do you remember any particular community events?
Mitchell: Community events?
Franklin: Could be here or in Pasco.
Mitchell: Well, community events, I remember not so much if they were necessarily community—well, I think we used to have what was called Pioneer Days. I don’t know if it was associated with our elementary school or just the community in general. I think that I hang on to the elementary piece of it because I went to Lewis and Clark Elementary, so when you talk about pioneers, that’s about as pioneering as it gets. And there were pretty fun events around the community. I noticed that one of our neighbors, his father was—if he wasn’t the fire chief, he was pretty high up in the fire department in Richland. They would have the Fire Prevention Days and the parade and setting up your bikes and doing your thing. All that kind of stuff, that was fun. But as far as major events? City-wide, no, this was pre-Water Follies and Boat Race Weekend days.
Franklin: What was housing like where you lived?
Mitchell: Well, where I lived, we lived in prefabricated housing. As some people may or may not know, Richland was, because of the Manhattan Project influence and being driven by the Corps of Engineers, it had a lot of army flavor to it. Armies would set up their living quarters as it was associated with rank. We have what’s now called the Alphabet Houses. The size of your home and the amenities associated with it were driven by your rank, and that carried over in the Manhattan Project. So if you were a laborer, you would usually be directed or offered smaller overall footage housing than somebody that might happen to be a manager, than somebody who might happen to be an upper-level manager. So for us, with my father being a laborer, we were in some of the smallest housing there was. There was eight of us, at one point, in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom. But for us, again, we were happy.
Franklin: Did you attend church?
Franklin: What church did you attend?
Mitchell: We went to Richland Baptist Church on George Washington Way. My parents, I think, believed it was very important that if we were going to live in the community that we immerse ourselves in the community in all aspects, whether it be social, whether it be in giving back to that community, whether it be in leadership positions in the school district, as a student, them in PTA or whatever it was. And part of that was going to a church that was all-white. We did go back and forth to Pasco, and we got exposed to black churches in Pasco. But our church was Richland Baptist Church, and we were the only black family in that church that I recall for a long, long time.
Franklin: Was there—what was different about the white churches in Richland and then the black churches in Pasco?
Mitchell: Well, I think the difference had to do with the fact that—one of the things that a black church, even to do this day, has, and it has a legacy of, being a sanctuary for slaves. People that work six days a week in the field, that were owned by other people, one of the few places that they were able to express themselves was at the church without some type of restitution being paid. So that became a location of celebration, outward celebration. Dancing, music. Whereas, I think, when you look at church elsewhere, in this case, a white church, you tend to have a reverent overtone that is quiet, respectful, et cetera. Those differences were very, very obvious. But no less respectful or religious.
Franklin: What—oh, sorry, you already answered that, too. Do you recall any family or community events or traditions that people brought from the places they came from?
Mitchell: Well, family traditions, let me just think a little bit. I think one of the things—I don’t know if we participated in it so much, but we heard about it. One of the things that people from the South, regardless of color, would do, on New Year’s, the New Year’s Day dinner would always involve black-eyed peas. The idea of eating black-eyed peas—and again, this wasn’t a racial thing; if you go to the South now, they will do this on New Year’s Day, white or black—that is, that it’s supposed to set up good luck for the remainder of the year. So that tradition came with people from the South, again, black and white, that had migrated up to this area for work. But in our house, we would talk about a little bit, my mom would share some of those stories and talk about that being a tradition. It wasn’t so much that we did it all the time. Black-eyed peas were a pretty standard food source. But I don’t recall that we did it specifically for New Year’s, but I remember her telling us about the story and the tradition that that was one of the things that came up with all people from the South. So I thought that was kind of unique and interesting and fun.
Franklin: What about Juneteenth?
Mitchell: Juneteenth, for me, I wasn’t aware of Juneteenth early as a youngster. I didn’t become aware of Juneteenth until post-adulthood. It started being celebrated with parades and food and different things. But once I was introduced to it and asked about what was it, I was informed that during the Civil War—a lot of these folks are from Texas, and Texas was slow to get the information that the Civil War was over. I believe that Juneteenth is associated with—I don’t know if it was the 16th or the 19th of June—in 1865, was when Texas finally found out that the war was over. In this particular case, war being over, the North winning, slaves had been emancipated, but not necessarily considered free in their own mind and the mind of others. So, this tends to be the celebration date and series of days that commemorates Texas being informed the war is over, slavery is officially ended, et cetera, et cetera, and thus the celebration and follow-on that is done annually to include not just Texas, but is done here because of so many people, particularly blacks, that migrated here from Texas.
Franklin: Were there opportunities available here that were not available where your parents came from?
Mitchell: Well, I would have to say yes, simply because my parents went to segregated school. So that, the first thing that pops into my mind was, we did not. So that’s a very glaring difference. Opportunities to do other things? I don’t know; I didn’t share any conversations with my parents as to what types of things they may have felt they were limited in being able to do down there that we were not limited to do as their children up here. I can make some assumptions. I don’t think that my parents were able to avail themselves of the opportunities because the information wasn’t there. For example, my brother and myself gaining appointments to military academies with the assistance of congress people and senators. I don’t believe they were able to do that.
One thing that I know they weren’t able to do in Texas, which my grandfather on my mother’s side did, and that was black people weren’t allowed to own property unless they were ministers. So my grandfather on my mother’s side and my great-grandfather, his father, and I believe his brother all became ordained ministers for the purpose, not only for religious purposes, but also for the purpose of gaining the right within the State of Texas to own land. So my parents weren’t forbidden from owning land here. So to me, that’s another difference.
Franklin: Yeah, yeah. What about work or housing?
Mitchell: Worker housing? In what respect, how that differs from what my parents were able to do?
Franklin: Yeah, yeah.
Mitchell: I don’t know what kind of worker housing my parents were restricted in down there. [COUGH] Excuse me. But I do know that worker housing here was segregated, in the form of domicile, food, and that type of thing. You may recall in the interview with my father talking about the Hanford facilities and the shower facilities and how they were segregated and how he and some of the people that came up here with him that were black were given tents initially to live in. That is not something that me or my siblings had to experience in our working at the Hanford Site, or working anywhere else in this area or in the United States, as we grew and moved about.
Franklin: In what ways were opportunities limited because segregation or racism?
Mitchell: What ways here?
Mitchell: I don’t really feel that they were totally limited. I think that they were probably a little bit scrutinized. And by scrutinized, I think that there were people that were either taken aback or would complain. But in the long run, I would be remiss if I didn’t credit lots of non-black people that assisted in me and my siblings’ development, encouragement, support, whether it be in the school district, whether it be in the neighborhood, whether it be in the church, just as friends, whatever. There were a lot of people that weren’t black that assisted us.
For example, my brother getting his appointment to the Air Force Academy, me getting my appointment to the Naval Academy Prep School. I think all the way through my brother, Cameron, and some of the things and accolades that he’s achieved, my sister being involved in some of her work opportunities, working in a bank, my brother, Rob, doing different things, my brother, Nestor, being involved in certain things, were because there were a lot of people that either looked past, felt it was ridiculous, or simply just said, hey, the right thing to do is to judge somebody on character and merit. So in that regard, I don’t believe that we were ultimately limited.
I think there were hiccups along the way. There were a couple of things that occurred that were surprising and/or hurtful. I remember one time, I was playing basketball at Richland, I was on the junior varsity team, we had gone to Pasco. I'm the only black player in the program at any level. The game is over, JV team, we had played earlier; the varsity team played later. The varsity game had gotten over. Richland had won the game; Pasco was very upset--obviously, at that time a very predominantly black-populated high school. There were some hard feelings because the rivalry is very intense. And I remember that there were some folks banging on the door accusing one of the Richland players of using a racial slur towards one of the Pasco players. There were folks—black individuals of Pasco, parents, other students or whatever—that wanted at this young Richland player.
Well, the coach’s reaction to the banging on the door was to call my name, open the door, push me out the door, close the door and yell, talk to them! Assuming that, because I’m black and they’re black, I could quell the situation. Nothing ever really came of it. In other words, there was no fighting that resulted or anything like that. But it caught my attention that for whatever reason, folks were—and I didn’t feel it was so racial as it was an uneducated fear of black people on the uprise. Please, you’re black, go talk to them. And I thought that that was interesting.
But as I got older, I kind of chuckled about the fact that, you know, it was just simple ignorance. Lack of understanding, knowledge, sitting down with someone and finding out about those people to the point of understanding that, if you have 100 black people in the room, you have 100 different personalities. But we had lumped together. I was part of that lump, so, Greg, please go talk to them. I thought that was interesting.
Franklin: Could you describe any interactions that you or your parents had with people from other parts of the Tri-Cities area?
Mitchell: When you say other parts of the Tri-Cities area, you mean like, outside of Richland?
Mitchell: Well, one thing that, along that line, it was common knowledge that in addition to signage—and I’m not sure, but the last time we looked, in the “blue laws” on the books in Kennewick, that blacks were not allowed in Kennewick after dark or after 6:00, sundown, or whatever came first. That was pretty common knowledge growing up, not only for me, but for my white counterparts and colleagues and friends, people pretty much knew that Kennewick, blacks didn’t reside in Kennewick. And to the point where—I didn’t realize until I got older and looked it up, and at that time it was still on the books, not enforced, but it was still on the books. And then I realized that that wasn’t untypical of other places around the Northwest, as we moved around and got a little bit more exposure outside the Tri-Cities. But that was an interesting situation.
I didn’t feel that when we would leave for school purposes, whether it be athletically or academically to go and visit in Kennewick school district, I never saw anything that made me fearful, apprehensive or scared. But we would—we being me and my teammates, white and/or black—would laugh about Kennewick. Blacks not living in Kennewick. And then that barrier was broken by a good friend and their family of ours, that when they moved to Kennewick, and they weren’t prohibited from moving—
Franklin: Who was that?
Mitchell: That was a family, their last name was Slaughters. Greg Slaughter and my brother, Nestor, became very close friends. And then we met the rest of the Slaughter family. Quality people. They seemed to be well-accepted. He attended Kamiakin. So there was—I won’t say that it went away, but I think that they were warmly accepted in their community. I don’t know if it took a little while.
I know for us, it took a little while, as we moved within Richland. I remember in my—the summer between my sixth grade and seventh grade year, we moved from the south end of Richland up to the north end of Richland in what was called the Richland Village. The first part of the summer, we lived in a house on Cove Street, and then we moved to the house that I pretty much grew up in on Newcomer Street.
At that time, we got there, my mom always encouraged us to get out and do things. As kids, we would cut lawns to earn money and do different things. There was a young man down the street from us, his father was one of the local Merrill-Lynch investment executives. This young man had a paper route, Tri-City Herald paper route and he wanted to give it up. I told my mom about it, she said, oh, get that. We can pass that paper route down through the family so we got a little opportunity to generate money. So I ended up accepting this paper route. At that time, the Tri-City Herald did not have a Saturday paper. Sunday paper was the only morning paper, and Monday through Friday was delivered in the evening. So after school, go and deliver papers, et cetera.
I remember when we moved to the Newcomer Street address that my dad had mentioned to me and the three of the oldest of us, of the six, that the day after we moved, that a lot of the houses on either side of us up and down the street and across the street from us, the very next day had for sale signs on them. We just kind of looked at that. Oh, okay. And then it came time for me to collect for the newspaper for that first month that I had been delivering. Across the street and one house over, there was an older couple, and I went to collect for the newspaper.
At that time--to set the scene for this--at that time, Little League baseball was put in the sports section just like the Mariners, the by-lines, per inning, and who got hits and who did different things, and it was done regularly. Small paper looking for news. Well, the Little League games were publicized and people could read about it. I go over to collect, and I knock on the door, and this gentleman opens the door. And I said, hi, my name’s Greg. I’m your paperboy. I am collecting for the Tri-City Herald. And he says, just a minute. And I said, okay, fine. So I stood on the porch behind the screen door. He came out to pay me for the paper. And he said, what’s your name again? And I said, my name’s Greg Mitchell. He says, are you one of those Mitchell boys we read about in the paper? Hitting all those home runs and doing all that stuff? And I said, you’re probably talking about my older brother, Duke. He says, yeah, that Duke guy! He says, yeah. I said, yeah. Yeah, we live right over here. He goes, oh, really? He goes, you guys are those Mitchell boys? And I said, yes, sir. And he said, well, come on in.
Well, I’m not going to enter anybody’s house, regardless of their color or my color, you know? I said, no, I’ll stay right here. And so he leaves and he walks down the hallway and he yells for his wife. I can’t remember if her name was Elaine or Ethel or Irma or whatever. And he yells for her, Irma/Ethel, come up here! And she’s going, what do you need? And he says, we got a future Bomber standing on our porch! He goes, you got to come out and meet this young man.
And it hit me right then, even as a eighth grader. It hit me right then that I guess it’s okay if I can run fast and jump high. You’re going to accept me because there’s something in it for you. But if I wasn’t that Mitchell boy that could run fast and jump high and I just was good at playing clarinet, or if I was really good at doing math equations, or if I was really good at chemistry, would you show me this same respect? I don’t think so.
So, at that point, I realized that people may look at you differently for your physical abilities versus your mental abilities. Even to the point where they might overlook the color of your skin. So that stuck with me. I didn’t feel so insulted or hurt, but it was a good lesson. I would experience that a little bit later on as I got older and continued on to high school and became one of those Bomber players and then went on to college to play collegiate football and watched people and fans react. Because of your ability to jump and run and do different things.
I always remember my father telling us that, these big sports guys—well, you know, you interviewed him. I’m still involved in sports quite a bit, whole family has been. My kids and grandkids are. And I think it’s great. But my dad would always say, sports is something you do; it’s not who you are. And he always drove that home with us. As much as we were immersed in athletics, education was always first, your character. And that it’s something you do; it’s not how you define yourself. And that was a moment that drove that home.
Franklin: Interesting. Do you think--for you and your brothers, sports was a clear path, and as you mentioned, and as I’ve heard in other interviews, sports was a path for acceptance, but it wasn’t so for black women in Richland of your generation.
Mitchell: Well, I think that most of our acceptance wasn’t necessarily driven by sports. I think our acceptance was driven by the fact that—as I look back on it, I think our parents instilled in us—either developed and/or instilled in us leadership qualities. Whether it be communication skills, the ability to stand up for what we know is right and different things. I think it was enhanced by athletics, but for us to be able to—like I say, again, I reach back to Duke going to the Air Force Academy, me getting an appointment to Naval Academy Prep School—it’s not because of athletics. I don’t care how good an athlete you are, you don’t get in the Academy because you can run fast and jump high. If you don’t have the academics and the character, you don’t go.
But for women, I think they were definitely suppressed. And I don’t think only by white people. I think that there was a general belief at that time—we’re talking ‘50s, ‘60s, early ‘70s—where you were still back into grow up, get married, raise a family type of a thought process. We were fortunate that we got to see my mom initially start that way and then move into a working mom.
But when I look at it, I think you’re correct in the fact that black women and/or other minority women were looked at as, outside the homeworkers, only in the service industry: housekeepers, cooks, maids, et cetera. So, yeah, I’d have to agree that there was limitations there.
Franklin: So you mentioned your elementary school. Where did you go for middle and high school?
Mitchell: Well, at the time, we had junior highs, which were seventh, eighth and ninth. We only had three-year high schools here in Richland. They have since moved to the middle school, four-year high school program.
Franklin: Sorry, I went through middle school.
Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, and I understand. As have my kids and now my grandchildren. But I went to Chief Jo. And at that time, it was really interesting, because, as I mentioned, as I was getting ready to leave elementary school at Lewis and Clark and go into junior high, my brother, my older brother, David, was already at Carmichael. So, my friends were all headed to Carmichael. Lewis and Clark is the geographic feeder to Carmichael, just because of proximity to the school. Logistics. Well, we moved up to this end of town, which put me into the Chief Jo Junior High district. My brother was allowed to continue at Carmichael because, as a ninth grader, which—that’s when your high school grades start counting. And they said if you can find a way to get there, he can stay there. So my parents said, yeah, we’re not going to change schools; this is his last year there. But for me entering, they said, ah, start fresh, et cetera. So I was a little bit disappointed; I was excited about wanting to go to the next level of education with my classmates.
So we moved up here, and I ended up getting introduced to new friends. Some of which I had known from summer athletic endeavors and different things or just social interactions at the community pool or whatever. You get to meet other people. So I knew a few names here and there. But overall, I didn’t have this network of friends going to the same school. So that was a little bit interesting.
When I got there, I was able to build new friendships, meet new people, and one of the things that was very distinct in Richland is that, because of the housing, the south end is where the laborers tended to be; whereas the farther you got—the closer you got to the Hanford Site, which means moving north, the more you would run into kids of managers, administrators, and decision-makers. So at Chief Jo, we had quite a few kids of folks that kind of made—the decision-makers of the Hanford Site. So I was exposed, now, to the people that were laborers, artisans, good folks with their hands, craftsmen—and very good craftsmen—to folks that were more in administration, science, decision-making, management, et cetera, and their children. So I got exposed to a little bit more of that type of an environment. As I look back on it now, it was very helpful. It gave me a broader picture, and expanded my knowledge and exposure to what goes on in a whole corporate business, et cetera. And then it also started to expose me to more opportunities and avenues and options as you get older and what you want might want to do and what you might want to become. Not that I felt limited when I was living in the other end; it’s just that this was so professionally expansive. I enjoyed it. So I felt that I kind of got lucky. I had a whole new group of friends.
Franklin: Yeah. Did racism or segregation affect your education?
Mitchell: My education? I don’t think so. I think that—my classroom education, I don’t think so. My social education, I think so, sometimes.
Franklin: How so?
Mitchell: Well, I just remember—and I remember being a senior at Richland High School, playing football, and I was playing both offense and defense. And in the first two weeks, I was performing very well. After the fact, I found out—the coach came to me and said, well, we’re just going to use you on defense. I said, oh, okay, all right. And it was right after an article had come out in the paper that says to stop Richland, all you gotta do is stop Mitchell. He’s the one that’s scoring all the points.
So, anyway. The very next week, the coach says, we’re just going to use you on defense, and I said, okay. And the season went on, and we got through it, and at the end of the year, the person that they had started to highlight when I was moved just to defense ended up becoming an all-conference player. That leads to scholarship opportunities, et cetera, et cetera. And I thought it was very interesting that this player received all-conference honors and had twelve catches—pass/catches in the season, and I had 14 in the first three games.
It was interesting as we got older, that young man, a good friend of mine, came up to me and said that it was his mother who had gone to the school and complained that, you’re throwing all the passes to that black kid. You’re not throwing any to my son. He came up to me and apologized. We were friends at the time, and we’ve been friends since. But he came to me after the fact as we were adults and said, do you remember that? I said, yeah. He said, well that was my mom. And he says, I have to apologize for that.
And then I remember my younger brother, Nestor, playing baseball at Richland. He had the highest batting average in the entire conference. So summer baseball came around. He didn’t make the summer team after being the batting champion and being the trophy as being the batting champion for the entire conference. But he couldn’t make the summer team in the city.
And then years later, one of the dads that was making the decision on who would be on the summer team, his son, he said, his dad came home that evening, and he was very upset. There were three coaches, and he was very upset, and his wife asked him, she said, why? What’s going on? He goes, all I can tell you is we made a horrible decision today. And I’m not proud of it. I’m not proud of myself. We made a horrible decision today.
And come to find out later on, that their son came to me and said that when Dad came home and said that, it was about the fact that the other two coaches didn’t want your brother, Nestor, on the team. He said, he’s the best player in the conference! How—you know. He’s been evaluating these guys out of town, and he can’t make the team in town? And he said, they—two-to-one, he didn’t make the team. And this young man came up to me and said, Dad was just almost in tears about the injustice of that decision. And then that young man came up and said that my dad just felt horrible, felt absolutely horrible.
And then the one that really—I don’t know—that really got me was, my mom occasionally, when we lived on the south end as youngsters, my mom occasionally—we would sometimes go up and meet my dad get off the Hanford buses and then walk with him home. Well, one day, my mom went to meet him. I don’t know if this is while we were too small to go, or whatever. But anyway, my mom was standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus to come and for Dad to get off the bus so they could walk home. There was this youngster that was probably nine or ten. Came running up to her and started screaming at her, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger!” And then took off. And my mom said, come here. And he came back, you know, he’s ten. And my mom looked at him, she said, young man, I’m not a nigger, and you go home and tell your mom and dad that. Because she knew that’s where it was coming from, and sent him home.
Well, years later, I’m done, I’m working here locally, and I’m on the board of Columbia Industries and we’re doing some things, and we’re getting ready to dole some money out. There’s this one young man, a couple of years older than me that we were considering as a board to be the director of this one particular non-profit entity. It’s time to vote. And so they ask him to step out of the room and do whatever. Are we going to put him in charge of this particular non-profit? And we installed him and we funded him and the board, we approved it. As a board, we approved it. We were done with the meeting, we walked outside, and he comes running over to me. And he recounted that story. And he said, I was that young man. Come to find out, he and his family went to our church. I didn’t know him; he was three years ahead of me. I didn’t know him.
But that was interesting, to see, not only hear about and experience the episodes, but to see the full-circle transition. Where people come in and recognize—and I don’t know if that’s something we did, to help educate, my parents did, or we did as a group or a family. Or if people did a little bit on their own, if the community was responsible for some of that. Whatever, but I thought that those were interesting starts and very interesting circular finishes.
Franklin: So I want to move to talk about your work history and experiences at Hanford.
Franklin: What sort of work did you do?
Mitchell: Well, when I started, I mentioned to you earlier that I started—I got a job as a field clerk in the summer of 1972, working at J.A. Jones Construction Company. I was supporting a group of people that were involved in quality control of fabricated piping materials. Basically, what I did, I was a gofer, and I ran paperwork here and there, here and there, here and there. And then—that lasted for a little while, and then they moved me actually on the Hanford Site. I was supporting the quality control and inspection unit that was installing the evaporator building and they were supporting the building—at that time, the double-shelled waste tanks were under construction. These are million-gallon tanks and they had moved from the single-shell design to the double-shell design because they thought that they were more structurally durable and would result in, obviously, a safer holding tank. So I supported that group and learned a little bit more about what was going on out at Hanford.
Went to school, came back, and then post-school, I went looking for work, and I got hired on as what they call an NPO, nuclear process operator. Basically what it is, is you are—in a normal construction field, you’d be considered a field laborer. You do basic labor work: haul this, pick up that, sweep up this, clean up that. I was assigned to the Tank Farms in the 200 East Area. I don’t know if you have any knowledge or have a chance to go out there, but it’s where the farms—it’s right in the heart of the farms, it’s right in the center, geographic center, of the Site. We were in support of the construction of those tanks as well as the day-to-day operations of the tanks that were already had, mixed waste, some that was just environmentally hazardous, some that was radioactive, and we would go out and take monitor readings on some of this. I worked as a shift worker in the summertime, which was interesting, being out there at night and having to go out in the desert, drive out in a truck and check gauges on these tanks to make sure that the pressure—checking pressure gauges or other things, and then having to make—switching. Because all the tanks are connected by piping, and they would move the material in the tanks by pumping them from one tank to the other.
That’s why, to this day, a lot of times—because the records don’t exist—all that pumping that would go on, almost on a daily basis, they don’t know exactly what’s in what, because they didn’t keep the records. The records that were kept no longer exist. So now they have to go out and sample these tanks and chemically identify what’s in them. But initially, we were part of the people that were associated with, in support of, that movement of these wastes from tank to tank.
Franklin: What on-the-job training did you receive?
Mitchell: Well, at that time, you had certifications that you had to go through before you were allowed to be involved. What they would do, there was initial safety trainings that everybody went through that was on the Site. Then there were job-specific trainings. Most of them were safety-related and some of them were job-specific-related.
The job-specific training, as you would pass you would get what they call certified at different levels. What it would do for you, it would allow you to be of more usage of them, you were more capable to do things and do it in a safe way. And over time, it would also allow you to make more money. So there was a way to progress, not only just due to time and tenure, seniority, but also due to certification and, you know, your value to the company and your ability to assist in more work. That was my initial introduction to Hanford. Yeah. And it took a different turn shortly thereafter. I wasn’t out in the facilities.
Franklin: What happened?
Mitchell: Well, what happened was, is that, shortly after I got out there and was working, we went on strike. This was in 1976. We went on strike, and there wasn’t any work, because the union was on strike. Shortly thereafter, I got an interview, based on my education, I got an interview from one the engineering firms to work in the project accounting office, because of my business background, educationally. When I walked back down, after the initial interview, I walked down to the personnel department, now known as human resources, and the personnel manager asked me, he said, well, we’re going to offer you a job. And I said, well, that’s great. He says, but I’m going to give you an option. I said, oh, really? He says, yeah. We’re not going to bid against ourselves as a company. It’s going to be the same pay for the accounting job, or you can come and be my assistant. I said, what? He said, I need an assistant here in the personnel department. It’s just me and my secretary. And he goes, we’re starting to grow and I need more help. He says, again, I’m not—it’s going to be the same pay. It was a whopping $235 a week. Same everything. You can either do the accounting side or you can come and work with me. And I said, I don’t know anything about personnel. He goes, your dad’s a personnel guy. I’m sure you’ve had enough exposure with table talk at the dinner table to know what’s going on.
Again, this is pre-human resources degrees where you study all this stuff. It was simply people that knew the most about the company and how they got paid and all this stuff over time that they would stick in the personnel department; whereas now, it’s something that you actually go to school for. I said, well, yeah, maybe. I said, well, can I give you an answer in a day or so? He goes, oh sure. So I scurry home and I talk to my dad about it, and my dad summed it all up. He simply said, well, he said, educationally, you have a business background. If you go into the business side and down the road decide you want to go into the personnel side, I’d think it would be harder than if you start in the personnel side and then decide that you want to go on the business side, because your education’s on that side. He says, you know, it’s not that you couldn’t return to the business side. I think it would harder to do in reverse, if you go into the business side.
Okay, okay, so I took my dad’s advice. So this gentleman, I called him, and I said, okay, I’ll take the personnel assistant job. [LAUGHTER] And he said, okay. Meet me at the Tri-Cities airport on Sunday—I think this was like a Thursday. He said, meet me in the Tri-Cities airport on Sunday, and bring enough professional attire for eight days. Okay. He says, yeah, we’re going on a recruiting trip. We need some designers—it was an engineering firm—we need some designers and some engineers. I said, okay. He said, we’re going on a four-day trip. We’re going to be two days in each city. Travel on front end, travel on the back. Okay. So we took off, and the first place we went was Adina, Minnesota, which is a suburb of St. Paul-Minneapolis. We stayed at this Ramada Inn. He looked at me and he said, okay, we’ve got a full slate tomorrow. We’ve landed, and tomorrow I’ll meet you and—the standard scenario was you would take a technical recruiter or interviewer and you would take a personnel person and tell them about money and relocation and benefits and all the people-side of the stuff, and he would talk about the job side of the stuff. Well, anyway, we had the chief of our engineering department and he says, we’ve got a full schedule tomorrow. We’ve got an interview every hour on the hour, all day. He says, we’re going to meet downstairs at 6:00; our first interview’s at 8:00. What you’re going to do is you’re going to be in the room with me, working on the people-side and telling them about relocation, listening to me talk about it. At noon, I’m going to watch you the second half of the day, and then on Tuesday we’re going to split the schedule. That was my training. I said, okay.
So we go, I do the trip, and we come back. And the secretary says, don’t you think we ought to sign him up as an employee? Seeing as how he’s already been on the trip, and thank goodness he didn’t get hurt on a business trip before he signed up as an employee. So we kind of chuckled about that and whatever. That kind of launched my HR side of my exposure to Hanford. And then from there, I started doing new graduate recruiting on the technical side, science and engineering. So I spent nine years on the road a lot, going to different locations, interviewing people, new grads, to come out as first year, first time engineers or scientists that come to our company. And I spent a lot of that time with the Westinghouse Corporation at that time, and then moved on to different types of work within human resources to include benefits. I was the EEO officer for a while, which meant that I interacted with a lot of the federal compliance agencies that any company with over 50,000 employees have to deal with.
Franklin: EEO is Equal Employment?
Mitchell: Equal Employment Opportunity. We had the EEOC, which is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal side of it. We have OFCCP, which is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, which oversees any company that has a government contract. So there was a lot of what they call oversight, whether it be state, federal, and different branches within the federal that the companies and the contractors have to, are responsible to report to, to send annual reports and different information, to interact with. And so I moved in that direction for a while.
Later, towards the end of my career, I ended up being over in the employee and labor relations, labor being union, and employee relations being non-union, dealing with day-to-day issues in the workplace, which was very interesting. As it relates to the civil rights and all this other thing, it was interesting to go into that arena and that side of a corporate situation and watch the evolution of women, minorities, as it related to pay, promotion and including age discrimination type of things.
There was no ADA at that time, Americans with Disabilities Act, to where now you see the ramps and all these other things. And having to be a part of getting companies to comply with that, and to watch the corporate culture push back against it—because it cost money. It may have been the right thing to do and some people would go ahead and do it. Whereas now you see upstart companies, newer companies, even companies that have been around a while but are still considered newer like Microsoft—that was just part of their business profile. Because they came after all these things were “normal,” standard.
But to be on the end where this became—you know, the term glass ceiling, where women weren’t being promoted. I remember for the first time hearing glass ceiling. I remember for the first time meeting a Westinghouse corporate vice president, female. Black female, which was interesting. I remember meeting the Secretary of Energy, black female. That was different. So we were on the edge of this change, and seeing how it manifested itself in the workplace, and the grousing that would come about. Because you would find people that were upset about affirmative action. They only got the job because of the color of their skin. They only got the job because they’re female, et cetera, et cetera. You didn’t hear much grousing about, well, they only got the job because they were a veteran. You know, you didn’t hear that.
But it was interesting to be on the frontline of that change and evolution and work through all of that, and personally be a part of it, being promoted to management as a black male, and then watch the opportunities for other people that traditionally were not white male under 40. That was interesting. That was a historical time, in that regard.
Franklin: How would you describe your relationships with your coworkers and your supervisors, management?
Mitchell: My relationship with them?
Mitchell: My relationship was great. Are you asking me my relationship because of the color of my skin?
Mitchell: Okay. The relationship because of the color of my skin, I don’t think played a really big part. I think that one of the things that I am frankly proud of is the fact that I believe that my approach to people—and I believe I’ve seen evidence of this in multiple different types of workplaces, most recently even in the school district and across the street here at Hanford High School, where I spent some time working in the special needs program—is that I think that my training and my personality are such that people aren’t afraid to ask me questions that they’re really curious about, that I think generate communication and understanding. I don’t think people are afraid to come to me and ask me a question about being black, or what’s that like? Is it truly different for you? That kind of thing.
I think it started when I was in elementary school. I remember a young man came up to me and asked me if my blood was black. I think I was in fourth grade. And I said, no, I said, do you want me to show you? So I cut my hand and I said, see? To me, I thought that was always important. I remember being at Chief Jo and the kids wanting to know. It wasn’t because they were prejudiced.
That frustrates me to this day, is that we tend to walk on eggshells rather than to talk to each other. Is it different being black? Is it different being a girl? Is it different, you know, being Hispanic? Is it different now that you’re coming to the United States? What’s it like for you when you come in and you’re dressed in Islamic attire? What’s that like? We don’t talk to each other! I think that a lot of times, people are so afraid that they’re going to offend, that they’re going to move off of the political correct line and communicate with each other, that they tend to assume and proceed with ignorance, and come up with the wrong result.
And I believe that, as it related to my work relationships, I think I’ve always created an atmosphere, at least around my own space and within my groups as a manager, that I wanted to foster that and nurture that. And I think I was successful in doing that, more often than not, whether it be social or professional.
Franklin: What kinds of interactions did you have with coworkers and supervisors outside of work?
Mitchell: Not a lot. I think one of the things that I learned in my brief military stint was that there was a reason the officers didn’t fraternize with enlisted men. I thought it was because they were just smug. But in its barest sense, that philosophy and that term and that cliché comes from the fact that if you learn to know them, respect them and love them, you’re not going to be able to send them over the hill and never come back. So from a military standpoint, it’s simply practical. If I know you and I know her, and I’ve got to pick between you two which one I’m going to send around the corner to Afghanistan, knowing that you’re going to have to stand there and fight and we may not get over there to get you. And I have this deep, in-depth relationship with you, it’s going to complicate my decision-making.
I think that I tended to have a little bit of that in my non-work related deal. Not so much that I was a big wig making lots of decisions. It was just simply, one, I felt that my family’s privacy was important; I felt that my own personal privacy was important, and I respected the privacy of others. But not to the point where I wouldn’t interact with people or do any of those things. But I was mindful of that, and it’s purely out of respect.
Franklin: How did your racial background figure into your work experiences?
Mitchell: I think that it played a role in me getting the equal employment opportunity, EEO officer/manager job. There was a real trend as this became—you need an in-house person. You would see almost 90% of my peers were black males.
Franklin: Why do you think that was?
Mitchell: Well, I think that it was a tangible evidence that a company had embraced the idea of in-house equal opportunity oversight. If you go in, and you see equal opportunity office, and you walk in and you see the manager is black—because it started out primarily as a “black” situation. It was an offshoot of affirmative action, which is primarily black male.
Franklin: Sure, sure.
Mitchell: So I think that’s as tangible evidence as you can get as a company that, we’re involved in this. Now, involved in it versus taking it seriously might be two different things. But I think that that gave me the opportunity and a platform to actually add some substance to it. Because once they put me in the position, don’t give me the job and the authority and that oversight within the company and not expect any results. Because once I got the authority to go in and oversee some of the decisions for promotion, for succession planning, for initial hiring and whatever, that’s where I could make some inroads. I don’t care if it was because I look good, because I was black sitting in the office. Shame’s on you. Now you’re giving me the hammer, I’m going to go use it. So, to me, I’d say, yeah, fine. They’d say, they just put you in there because you’re black. They’re just window-dressing. I said, they may be window dressing; I’m not. I’m going to find some qualified individuals, females, other minorities and whatever, that can come in and do this job. I saw it as an opportunity to expand my beliefs and improve our company. Because I thought that they gave me direct input to building the character of our labor force.
Franklin: Yeah. A common way that some companies addressed equal opportunity was to hire African Americans, sometimes as maybe just window-dressing, for appearances sometimes substantially. I wonder, is there a connection between that kind of action and your story about the basketball tournament in Pasco, where you were represent—the coach thought you would be representative, or would have the unique ability to speak to another group? I’m just wondering, is there any kind of—is that a similar train of thought, or do you see a connection in those?
Mitchell: Not necessarily, because I think what it was, was simply—you know, it was just our regular season game over at Pasco. And I think that the coach, really, was—it was a knee-jerk reaction to something that genuinely scared them. And I think the first reaction was, oh man, how do we get this hostile group of people, in this case black—how do we put a firehose on the fire? And, Greg’s black! I think the first thought was, they’re not going to want to hear from us; they’re already mad at us; we’re white. You know, they’re here banging on the door because they’re angry at white. Maybe they’re not going to be angry at him. Okay, boom, go help us.
Like I said, nothing really resulted from it, but I don’t necessarily see a direct correlation. I think the only correlation would be that the coach’s reaction—because they were human—in that day and time, is not much different from what you would find in the corporate management group in that day and time. And so when they were charged with having to address that, I think that you would run into some of the same lack of information, ignorance, prejudice, some people that simply were just prejudiced, some people that were just mean, and some people that wanted to do the right thing and didn’t know how. You know? I think it was a compilation of all of that. But I think that that’s the only correlation I would make. I would think that were people on the school side as well as on the corporate side that were victims of the reality of the situation, times, thought processes, and societal norms.
Franklin: Sure, sure, okay. Thank you. In what ways did security and/or secrecy at Hanford impact your daily life?
Mitchell: The secrecy part of it was interesting, because I remember, even prior to getting to Hanford, when my brother went to the Air Force Academy, at that time, he had worked at the Safeway down on Cullum Avenue and then right after that I followed him there, because, hey, we got a job, you know, and he’s getting ready to go and take off. So I got this job. Well, I was back in the back, working in produce. I think I was—I believe I was unloading a pallet of Cabana bananas. All of the sudden I see this guy come in and he’s got a tie on and he’s got a hat on. The tie didn’t bother me, but the hat made him a little suspicious in my opinion. And he comes up and he’s got this little flip notebook. Well, what it was is they were doing a background check on my brother. Because if you graduate from the Academy, he’s going to go—maybe he goes to NORAD, which he did do, which is where our nukes are at. So they’re doing security background checks on him. So that was my first exposure to anything secretive and whatever. I knew that my dad had a badge, but I didn’t know what it meant.
So when I went to work out there, they said, okay, we’re going to get you what they call a temp badge. So I went to work out there as a college student in the summer, I got a temporary badge. And then you would hear people talking about, well, you need an L clearance. You need a Q clearance. I didn’t really know what those were.
Well, as I moved into human resources and we start bringing people on, we have to determine what level of classified material they are going to be allowed to see. If it was low level, that was L. If it was Q, okay, that was a little bit higher. And the OPM, the Office of Personnel Management, for the federal government, does all the background checks for every agency. We happened to be contractors of the Department of Energy, but they do the same thing for the military, they do the same thing for everybody. And that was significant because once you—you’d have to do this horrendous amount of paperwork. Every place you’ve ever lived, every college apartment you’d ever had, the whole works. So it’d take a while to compile this information, and then you had to send it back and get in line. Well, you might be in line behind everybody else that OPM’s got to do a background check on. So, it could be months. Sometimes a Q clearance would take a year or even more, depending on what was going on. Boy, you were really disappointed if they found anything they had to go back and reinvestigate because it would just push you back in line.
So from that standpoint, I didn’t have any problems. But I did get exposed to it, because I started out with this temp, I went to an L, the higher I got in management, I would go to a Q. And then I had a little bit of that on the Academy side where they were investigating you. But as far as the impact on my job, per se—what I thought was comical was, for example, if I had an L clearance [LAUGHTER] I could go in, and—let’s say both you and her have Q clearances and you’re looking at something and you need my help. And I walk in as an underling, and I’m reviewing something with you. You guys are okay, because you have the Q clearances. I’m not supposed to see it. But an element of it, you need my help on, because it’s my area of expertise. The government says, it’s okay as long as you guys are there. I couldn’t look at it by myself. But if you guys are there, as if you were going to keep me from reading it, remembering it, and selling it down the road, you know, type of thing. So I thought that was comical. But that was the only impact. It wasn’t really—it was more a nuisance than it was anything else.
Franklin: Did your parents ever talk about their reaction or did they have a reaction to learning that Hanford had contributed to the development of atomic weapons in the nuclear weapon stockpile?
Mitchell: Did they ever make any comments about it?
Franklin: What about—
Mitchell: Not directly. Not that I ever really heard. I think that they were—my parents tended to be—both my mom and my dad tended to be, when they communicated with us as their children, tended to push the pride in what we were doing and wanting to do a good individual job. Now as it related to the big picture, they didn’t comment much on the political/societal impacts of it being, oh, this is where elements of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Japan took place.
Franklin: How do you feel, or how did you feel at the time about working for a company on a larger scale for the development of nuclear weapons?
Mitchell: I felt fine. Because my initial exposure, like I said when I left here and went to Naval Academy Prep School, I had looked at those things, I was looking at the potential career of being in the military. So for me, the idea of the possibility—because my big goal was flight. I might be carrying the bomb. Now, did I have a problem with that? No. Did I have a problem with the idea of the bomb being used on people? No. I had the idea of the bomb being used on the wrong people. To me, again, I felt that I may have some level of control. Not much; I guess you take orders and do what you’re supposed to do at the time, if that really were to have come about.
But did I think, like people say, well, god, how would you feel about a bomb and being somebody to actually deliver that, or being somebody to actually help make that bomb? To me, I have two things that I think about. One, I want to hold the people accountable for making decisions to use it and how to use it, and I’m going to do the best job I can to make sure that the technology that I’m responsible for is being used responsibly. From there, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rest of it and the social impacts and oh my goodness and all that stuff, no.
Franklin: What do you think is the most important legacy of the Hanford Site?
Mitchell: The most important legacy? I think the most important legacy is the fact that it did contribute to--most people think about the war. I think about all the science things that have come out of the Hanford Site. I a lot of people don’t understand or recall that the first artificial heart was developed down the street. Dr. Christian Bernard put it in. It was developed at Battelle. The scanner bars, developed at Battelle. Just like NASA has come out with all the things that we have: freeze drying, irradiated foods. I think Tang was the first thing that we use everyday that came out of NASA. There was a lot of things that came out of Hanford that don’t get—they don’t get any airtime compared to, oh my goodness, the bomb. I think their legacy is the day-in and day-out things that they’ve used or that they’ve developed that we use everyday. Whether it be x-rays and how we use it, how we do carbon dating, not necessarily developed here but enhanced here. And I think there’s so many things that go on that people who lived right here don’t know about that folks out there don’t communicate exist that have, they’re way above and beyond the bomb. And I think that’s the most important legacy, is the day-in-and-day-out contributions to our quality of life, and the life or quality of people worldwide that have come out of Hanford, I think is its greatest legacy.
Franklin: What did you know or learn about the prior history of African American workers at Hanford?
Mitchell: What do I know or learn?
FranklIn: Yeah, what did you learn about it?
Mitchell: I learned over time that it was a segregated, it was initiated as a segregated situation, just like the rest of 1940s America, that I think it has evolved into a much better-educated and socially responsible legacy than how it started. I think that’s good. I think it has tremendous amount of continued potential. I hope it’s used in that way. We’ll see.
Franklin: What were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities when you were coming of age?
Mitchell: Well, I think the major issues were similar to the national issues. I don’t think Hanford was unique. But I think that Hanford was probably more specifically honed-in on employment opportunities. Because that’s what it was about, work opportunities. But as it related to the overall issue, no, we didn’t go downtown and get kicked out of a place.
Franklin: What about housing opportunities?
Mitchell: And housing opportunities?
Franklin: Was that a struggle as well?
Mitchell: I think that was a struggle. But the thing was is that I think housing opportunities were limited or directed similar to like they were in the 1940s anywhere else. And especially up on a military base, which this was based on a military base concept. In fact, we used to have a Camp Hanford. I have an aunt—I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to speak with her, my dad’s sister—but she met her husband here. She was living with us and met her husband at Camp Hanford. Camp Hanford is all of these streets that you see up here behind you between George Washington Way and the river, all these streets that were up here that now people build up on, where these condos are, where the E.L. Food Factory is and all that was part of Camp Hanford. This was part of Camp Hanford, where we are right now.
Franklin: Yes. What actions were taken to address those issues of employment and housing?
Mitchell: I don’t know, then. I just know what I was involved in, and I know there were federal laws that were involved, obviously the civil rights movement in 1964 had some impacts on that. In 1964, I was 11. So it took a while before, one, I was aware of it, two, I was knowledgeable enough to make a, develop a thought process about it and be involved in it and/or impact it. But I think because of that timing, I was able to be involved in the beginning of some of those things actually coming to fruition to where you did see some movement. Is it still necessary? Yes. Yes, it’s still necessary. I think that—
Franklin: Is what still necessary?
Mitchell: Assisting and overseeing that people are getting equal opportunities. Some people say that, you know, affirmative action type of things and that type of mentality was, okay, load the numbers for a federal report. That’s not what people wanted. That’s not what people have ever wanted. That I did know, whether I was young or not. It wasn’t that somebody, well, I didn’t want you to give me a job. I don’t want you to give me a job. I want to be able to earn a job. I want to be able to be evaluated for my performance. I don’t want you to give me anything. I just don’t want you to stop me from earning anything.
And I think that that mentality still needs to be constantly educated, nurtured and supported. Whether it’s because of the color of your skin, your gender, your religion, whatever. I think that’s still important. I think it’s real simple. It’s very, very simple. Martin Luther King said, character not color. Don’t make it hard. Don’t overthink it, people. If the person’s character merits the opportunity, we’re done. The rest of it creates problems and extra energy that’s unnecessary. It’s not hard.
Franklin: Were you directly involved in any civil rights efforts?
Mitchell: Directly involved?
Mitchell: You mean like marching in the street? No.
Franklin: Well, or—
Mitchell: Do you think—I would say yes as being the manager of the EEO office for a Fortune 500 company and one of their subsidiaries and evaluating their hiring practices and who they selected, who they promoted, and how they paid people. Yeah, I was directly involved.
Franklin: And which company was that again?
Franklin: Westinghouse, so here at the Hanford Site.
Franklin: How did the larger national civil rights movement influence civil rights efforts at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Mitchell: Well, I think that once you bring national attention, the one thing that happens that influences nationally, including what happened here at Hanford, is that you have the responsibility and the authority to implement. Doesn’t mean it’s done well, it’s done accurately, timely, or efficiently, but you do have the responsibility and the authority to implement. And I think that’s the influence that a national movement has.
Franklin: Yeah. From your perspective and experience, what, if anything, was different about the civil rights efforts in this community?
Mitchell: I think the civil rights efforts in this community, for me personally, I think that there were folks that were surprised that there was any need for it, particularly in my community as it related to me being in school. Being a predominantly white school, there’s a lot of folks, in this case kids, that didn’t see any racial episodes that imprinted them.
Franklin: Because they were kept away from it.
Mitchell: Well, I don’t know if they were kept away from it, or if they—it didn’t happen everyday. You didn’t see that many other minorities, so you didn’t see it on a daily basis. They may have heard something at school, but the race riots, those things, they didn’t happen down your street, they didn’t happen at your lunch counter, they didn’t happen at your movie theater, they didn’t happen at your drive-in. Not very much. Some of those things would happen, but usually you wouldn’t see it. We had a few things that occurred here.
Franklin: Such as?
Mitchell: Well, I remember that there was a shotgun discharged on Lee Boulevard at Zip’s that unnerved us a little bit. We don’t know if it was directed at my brother or not. There were a couple of episodes where you would have people get in fights and that type of thing. There would be situations in the school districts, at athletic competitions where you would see a predominantly black school, such as Davis out in Yakima or Pasco High out of Pasco, come into Kennewick or Richland or even Eisenhower-Davis, Yakima-to-Yakima, that you could say were based on the energy and concerns people had related to the civil rights movement and what they would see on television and the frustration that they felt that they needed to support, whether it was happening to them everyday or not. I think there were some influences there, where people said, oh, yeah, that’s right, we ought to do something here. What are you going to do? Have you done your homework? Are you educated? Do you know what you—a lot of people will stand up and jump around, and if you stop and say, what do you want the outcome of all this to be? I don’t know; we’re just mad. Well, that’s not good enough. What is it that you really want? What do you see? What do you want changed? When are you going to say that something is actually happening positively towards the goal that you understand and articulate? A lot of times, the back end is not part of it. It’s just a front-end reaction.
Franklin: What were some of the issues here that existed for people to focus on, that weren’t just misdirected energy? But was there any civil rights issues here in the community that needed people’s attention?
Mitchell: Well, here in Richland, not so much. I think in Pasco there were. I think if you recall at all the discussion that you had with Dad, even as a youngster growing up, I remember in Pasco, them fighting for simple things. Water and sewer on the east side. I remember walking over to visit my relatives, and we would go over and I had one great-uncle and we had a set of really, really good friends of ours. To get from one place to the other, there were these boards laid over this, basically an open cesspool. And we would have to walk across the boards to go over the cesspool and then get back on the sidewalk—on the street; there was no sidewalk—get on the street and then walk over to this guy’s house, and then walk on the boards to get back to my great-uncle’s house. They didn’t have sewer. So yeah, there were some civil rights issues that were just basic. Running water and sewer on the east side. But I would come back to Richland, and I could jump in the shower and turn it on and flush the toilet. So, did I live that on a daily basis? Not where I lived. Did I know that it was part of my overall community? Yes.
Franklin: When did your work at Hanford come to an end and what did you do afterwards?
Mitchell: Oh, Hanford, I took an early release in 2005. After that, I was focused on wanting to have a professional career as an umpire. I did that for a little while and found out that it’s harder than it looks. You don’t get paid a lot of money on the low end and you have no insurance. So from there, I decided I would continue to do high school and college basketball and baseball. Then I started working in the school districts as a paraeducator, which is basically a teacher’s assistant. I started out in the Kennewick School District and I worked in the special needs department, which is special education. And I had a couple of assignments in the classroom setting, I had a couple of follow-on assignments one-on-one, and I concluded that, in 2015, here at Hanford, across the street with a classroom assignment, special needs classroom assignment, and then I decided to formally retire, which means basically, apply for my social security, August 2015. Since then, I’ve continued to officiate high school and college basketball and baseball, and I’ve always enjoyed the river and been a fisherman and outdoors in that regard, and I’m going to be doing that as soon as I get paroled from you guys.
Franklin: Sounds good. [LAUGHTER] Well, I just have two more questions.
Mitchell: That’s fine.
Franklin: And then I’ll let you get to the river, because it is a nice day out.
Mitchell: It’s beautiful.
Franklin: It’s going to be nice day outside today. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Richland during the Cold War?
Mitchell: That it was a very unique place in regards to the amount of really exceptional minds that were here, and I hope continue to be here. At the time that the Cold War was going on—now, one of the things the Cold War did, and I hope someone describes the Cold War to them, what’s the difference between a hot war and a cold war—one of the things that our race with the Soviet Union did is that it constantly pushed innovation. I think there’s where some of the things that I mentioned before that really don’t get their horns tooted as much as, oh, this is the place that had to do with the bomb—that’s when a lot of that was just really going—great guns was the push for innovation and using your mind. I think we had some of the greatest minds ever and still do. We have a collection of some very brilliant people here at the Hanford Site.
The other thing I want them to know that during that time, was we weren’t immune to any of the issues that the rest of the country was going through. I think if you look further, it wasn’t just the United States. But I think that we made some progress, that we continue to make more progress. And hopefully they’re grateful for the fact that where they are now is because of other people before, you know, recognizing, standing up, doing for and holding accountable themselves and others. And I hope they remember that.
Franklin: Is there anything else that you would like to mention related to migration, segregation and civil rights and how they impacted your life at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Mitchell: Well, the one thing that I always—I will say that kind of frustrated me—[COUGH] excuse me—in my professional career of being a recruiter, I was unsuccessful in getting some of these corporations—even though at one time Hanford was the biggest summer employer of college students in the United States at one time—I always felt that we had kind of missed a little bit by not tracking our own out-going high school students. By that I mean that we have the ability, especially nowadays, through our technology, to identify kids that are interested in math, science, engineering, and other aspects of the workforce that’s needed here and beyond. I don’t think that we do it very well. I think if we were to mine our own high schools for students that are either going to CBC for technical degrees and workability in two years, to folks that are going elsewhere and maintaining some kind of communication and tracking system that says that these 30 kids coming out of this school and these 27 out of this school, where are they?
Because what I’ve found was, in my recruiting experience, we didn’t find that a lot of young people at the University of Washington in engineering and science would want to come to Hanford. They tended to be folks that wanted to work in lab coats and on computers and didn’t want to get dirty and didn’t want to leave—when I say dirty, be out and about with boots and a hardhat on, walking down a fence looking at something, standing under a tank, coming in here, brushing the dirt off of something. They wanted to be design engineering, design scientists. Well, it would take kind of a different personality that really wanted to come and live here, because of our geographics, our weather, et cetera. So we would end up replacing a high number of those young people. Once they were here, they got relocated here after school, got a job, they got happy, mom and dad were happy, yeah, they’re working. And they’d say, I’m a young person, don’t have a family established yet, they’d be here a year and next thing you know they’ve got to Phoenix to Motorola. Or they’re going to Amazon or they’re going to Microsoft or whatever. Which is fine.
But you still have a need for some folks here, and the kids that grew up here, a lot of them want to go and do those things, too. But in the long run, they tend to come back, and we’d track that part of it, they tend to come back and raise their families here. So we were never successful, in my opinion, in kind of keeping a little bit in touch with those folks and mining our own built-in workforce. So that’s one thing that I wish that we had done better, that I had had more impact on.
Franklin: Hmm. Well, Greg, thank you so much for coming and taking the time to interview with us.
Mitchell: Not a problem.
Franklin: Now, I’ll let you get back to the fishing.
Mitchell: Yeah, I’m going to get on the river and have some fun.
200 East Area
U.S. Department of Energy