Interview with Liz Curfman
West Richland (Wash.)
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: Okay, great. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Liz Curfman on July 16, 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Liz about her experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Elizabeth Curfman: Elizabeth, E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H, Curfman, C-U-R-F-M-A-N.
Franklin: Great, thank you so much. And you prefer to go by Liz?
Curfman: Liz, yes.
Franklin: Okay, great. So, tell me how and why you came to the area to work at Hanford.
Curfman: I actually came to the area in 1968 because my grandmother was living here. And the job prospects here were much greater than they were in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born and raised.
Franklin: Oh, okay. So you were from the South.
Curfman: Yes, uh-huh.
Franklin: How did your grandmother come here?
Curfman: My grandmother was sort of a black migrant worker; she went wherever the work was. She’d go to Florida, she’d go to do oranges, she’d go to different places. She’d come to Washington and do mint and potatoes. And it seemed that Washington had more seasonal work, so she decided to settle here.
Franklin: Where was she living when she first got here?
Franklin: In Pasco.
Franklin: In east Pasco?
Curfman: East Pasco, yes.
Franklin: And did any of your other family members come here?
Curfman: I have two sisters that came here, yes.
Franklin: I want to ask about your grandmother’s experiences as a black woman in Pasco in the ‘50s. Did she tell you about any—about her life and any hardships or struggles?
Curfman: Not really. She did a lot of domestic work and she did a lot of factory-type work, like at the potato sheds and things like that. But she was the kind of person where, when I came here, I was still saying yes, ma’am and yes, sir. She was adamantly against that. You don’t say, yes, ma’am and yes, sir. That’s a slave thing.
Franklin: Right, but that was part of the Jim Crow system, right? Was you would say, yes, ma’am, yes, sir, to white people, children and adults, right?
Curfman: Yes, yes.
Franklin: So you—what year were you born?
Franklin: Okay. So, you were born, then, during the Jim Crow era.
Franklin: Did you go to segregated schools?
Franklin: Did you live in a segregated neighborhood?
Curfman: I did, yes.
Franklin: How did segregation of the South compare to the situation in Pasco when you arrived here?
Curfman: Oh, it was definitely a culture shock, you know? I came to east Pasco to live with my grandmother until I found my own housing. My own housing was in Richland, and I had white neighbors, which I had never had in the South. So there was definitely a culture shock. Even my parents, you know—I have white neighbors, they’re like, oh my goodness. And they were from the—Ma said that that meant you had moved up in the world, kind of. So it was something to be proud of, I guess. Of course, my grandmother was totally the opposite. She was of a different generation than my mom and dad, because she was like, that’s nothing to be proud of. You deserve—you know, you’re just as equal as they are. So she had a different mindset for her generation.
Franklin: It sounds like it. Because your—I imagine your grandmother would’ve been born sometime in the 19th century.
Curfman: Yeah, she was born in 1897, I think.
Franklin: Okay. So she would’ve grown up with segregation as well. Right after Plessy v. Ferguson. What do you remember about some of the landmark civil rights legislation or events when you were in Tennessee? School desegregation and civil rights protests?
Curfman: You know, being in the city, we weren’t involved in very many protests. I do know that I went to a segregated school, as most—well, all black kids did. But we didn’t have the yellow school buses; we had the city buses. And the process was that it would pick the white school districts before it got to the black school district. So I can remember at times getting on the bus and having empty seats next to a white person, but they would have their books sitting on the seats, so you couldn’t ask them to move. You know, so that you couldn’t sit there. It never even crossed our minds to even ask them to, you know. It was just one of those things that you go to the back of the bus.
Franklin: Right, just the way it was.
Curfman: Yes, the way it was, yes.
Franklin: And then do you have any memories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how that affected your life or your family’s life?
Curfman: In 1964, I happened to be up here in the summer, visiting. I was like 14. There was a civil rights march in downtown Pasco. So that was the first involvement I had with anything like that.
Franklin: Oh, did you participate in the march?
Curfman: Yes, I did.
Franklin: Why was that important to you?
Curfman: Because it was something, you know, having been from the South and not having those rights, it was important that those were the kinds of things we were fighting for. At that time, when I came in ’64, there was a lot of things about, we can’t go to Kennewick, or we can’t be in Kennewick after dark. So those were the things that the people doing the march said that we were marching for.
Franklin: Yeah. Greater inclusion.
Franklin: In the Tri-Cities. How would you describe the community in east Pasco when you first encountered it?
Curfman: Mm-hmm. It was—I don’t know how to explain that. It was definitely different from the South, because the people were—some were working out at Hanford in construction, so their economics was totally different than in the South, where the people that I knew worked in restaurants or did domestic work, those kinds of things. So economics were totally different.
Franklin: What were your first impressions of the Tri-Cities when you first arrived here? Yeah, first impressions.
Curfman: You know, of course there was a little bit of fear. But then there was, I don’t want to say shock, but I was in awe of the fact that I could go into the stores and that the store wasn’t all-black. You know, there were white clerks, white people buying groceries. You know, it wasn’t an all-black store or things like that.
Franklin: What about the environment? How did it compare to Tennessee? The physical environment and things.
Curfman: Well, being in Memphis, being more of a city, we had a lot more trees and sidewalks and things like that, compared to east Pasco. But I felt like the people of east Pasco were more involved. I never really had any involvement with civil rights and stuff in the South. My parents didn’t. But when I came up here, it was marches. The NAACP was really active in east Pasco. So I joined that and did some things with them. They just seemed to be more—doing more for black people. They weren’t accepting the status quo; compared to in the South, it was like this is the way it is.
Franklin: Why do you think that was?
Curfman: That’s a good question, based on the fact that a lot of those people came from the South themselves. Again, I think it’s, maybe, making more money, being financially able to do and say things, not totally dependent. You take, for example, working out at Hanford doing construction, versus being a domestic person that’s, you can’t say what you want to say, because you could be fired tomorrow kind of thing. So I think they had more freedom to talk and do things.
Franklin: So you had come out to visit when you were 14.
Curfman: Mm-hmm, yes.
Franklin: And then after ’68—I’m just kind of going by date—you must’ve graduated high school and then you took the big jump and came out here.
Curfman: Yes, I was actually married at that time and had one son, one child. And my grandmother said the job opportunities were better out here for black people than in the South. So she paid for me and my family to come out here.
Franklin: Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s a very common thing we’ve heard, doing this project, was the—yeah. That jobs were the main pull force out of the South for people was the employment.
Franklin: And you said that you, when you first came, you stayed with your grandmother until you got your own place and then you lived in Richland. Where did you live in Richland?
Curfman: My first house was on—actually, my first house was in West Richland which was even worse. I felt like I was treated worse in West Richland than I was in Richland or Kennewick, as far as the white neighbors kind of a thing. It was like I was totally out of place in West Richland. They treated you like you should not be here.
Franklin: Were there any specific incidences that stand out?
Curfman: Just, the neighbors weren’t friendly. They had kind of one little grocery store and you’d go in, it seemed like everyone would be staring at you. The clerks weren’t friendly. You know, they’d just take your money and not say hi, not even give you eye contact. You just felt very unwanted. So, it was a welcome release when we found a rental in Richland and moved to Richland.
Franklin: And where did you land in Richland?
Curfman: I was on Wright Street—Wright Avenue, right by Duportail, right in that area.
Franklin: Yeah, okay. Yup. I know that area very well.
Franklin: So you must’ve been living in an Alphabet House or a prefab?
Curfman: Yes, a prefab, yes.
Franklin: Prefab. A two-bedroom?
Curfman: Two-bedroom, mm-hmm.
Franklin: Just try—I lived the past two years in that neighborhood, so I know that neighborhood very well. So what sort of work did you do at Hanford? What was your first position?
Curfman: My first position was as a lab—at that time they called them chemical analysts in the laboratory, at 222-S Laboratory.
Franklin: Oh, okay. All the way out in the 200 Area.
Franklin: So you—how did you get out there?
Curfman: Of course, my grandmother had brought me up here to go to work out there, because she heard that they were hiring. At that time they had a program that was called the TOP program. It was specifically designed to bring minorities—hire minorities into the library. So they were actively pursuing minorities to go to work out there.
Franklin: That must’ve been somehow connected to civil rights legislation, right?
Franklin: Forcing, kind of—
Curfman: Affirmative Action.
Franklin: Affirmative Action, thank you. So I assume you weren’t the only minority to come out there.
Curfman: Right, no. Yeah, the entire program was all minorities, yes.
Franklin: How were you and your cohort received?
Curfman: I think there was a little bit of fear. I actually worked with one lady that was from Prosser. At that time, there was one black guy working in the laboratory. She was saying that, except for him—he was the first black person she had ever seen, when he went to work out in the laboratory. So we talked about things like that. It was like we were always being watched, and it was kind of like being on the TOP program was kind of a put-down. Like there might have been some kind of resentment that we were being brought in.
Franklin: Right. So you’re saying that there was kind of like the modern-day criticisms of Affirmative Action that some people say, you’re here for quota reasons and maybe—
Franklin: --you took the job of a local or a white person.
Curfman: Yes, absolutely.
Franklin: But you—so, was that just an initial thing, or did that kind of hang over the program for its—
Curfman: No, it was an initial thing. I can’t even remember how long the program lasted. I don’t even know if there was a class after the one class that I was in. I can’t remember. So, it was basically an initial thing. There was some that made it and some that didn’t.
Franklin: What did you know or hear about—did you learn about the prior history of African Americans at Hanford from the Manhattan Project on? Did you know that African Americans had helped to build Hanford and the buildings that you were working in?
Curfman: In the construction area, yes. Yeah, I knew that.
Franklin: Was that something that was kind of common knowledge or talked about?
Curfman: Yes, and being in east—there were people in east Pasco who were still working out there in the construction area. So, you hear about them coming here from Texas and different places in the early ‘50s and late ‘40s.
Franklin: What did you—your work at Hanford was kind of beyond—it seems like you were the class that really went beyond—you expanded the boundaries of blacks at Hanford from construction into labs.
Franklin: How was that received in the African American community? What did the earlier workers, did they ever talk to you about that, or anything like that?
Curfman: The earlier workers, no, I can’t remember talking to any of them about it.
Franklin: Okay. How did you get out to the labs? Did you take a bus?
Curfman: The bus, yes.
Franklin: What was that like?
Curfman: It was interesting. You know, we would drive to the bus lot and catch the bus. When I started working out there, of course everyone had to do the shift work, so I worked the A,B,C,D shift, which was seven days on, two days off kind of thing, and then once a month, you had the four days off. But again, it was one of those things, getting on the bus, you felt like everyone was staring at you. Especially going out to the labs, because at that time, there wasn’t very many black people in the labs, so. Or on the buses period. Because the construction workers normally worked daytime; they weren’t out there at night and things like that. So there would be people that—you know. And almost like old habits never die, still kind of went to the back of the bus kind of thing.
Franklin: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense, sadly. What did your husband do when he came out here? Did he find work out at Hanford?
Curfman: Yes, he was a chemical operator in 200 East area.
Franklin: Was he part of the same program?
Curfman: No, he was not part of the TOP program.
Franklin: Oh, okay. What do you know about his experiences out on Site?
Curfman: I don’t think he had any negative experiences. I can remember having his boss for dinner, things like that. Of course was a white guy. I don’t remember anything negative that he would ever come home and say.
Franklin: Your children eventually must’ve enrolled in Richland School District, right?
Franklin: How was their experience as a minority student in the school district? Were there any people that were really influenced them or mentored them or was there any negative experiences?
Curfman: No, I don’t think there were—because they were both into sports, so that always kind of carried them a long way. They started out in Richland schools. I got divorced and remarried and moved to Benton City, which, again, put them—they were the only two black kids in the all-white school.
Curfman: But, you know, they had lots of friends. We didn’t have any problems. I probably had more issues than they did.
Franklin: Yeah, I would imagine there were not a lot of blacks in Benton City.
Curfman: There was not. We were it. We were it.
Franklin: Yeah. I grew up in a very small farming town and I think it was a similar situation for my friend who was the only black kid in our school for quite a long time.
Franklin: So how was Benton City different from Richland, living there, the community? I wonder if you’d talk about that.
Curfman: Yeah, again, it was about the same experience as being in West Richland. You didn’t feel like you belonged. If you went to the grocery stores, the post office, the bank, you were glared at. Somewhat treated rudely. Not rude to the point of where they could get in trouble; it’s just that they weren’t as friendly. You could stand in line and watch them talk to the white person ahead of you, but then when your turn came, it was, like I said, not even eye contact. Just business as usual. I personally noticed those types of things.
Franklin: Sure, yeah. I think, I guess today we might call them microaggresions or something like that, yeah. But they add up, though, don’t they?
Curfman: Yes, yes.
Franklin: How come you moved out to Benton City?
Curfman: The guy that I remarried was raised on a farm in Montana and he wanted farmland. So we moved out there and bought four acres. He was white, so.
Franklin: He felt that—was that—not to pry too much, but that was kind of a stir at that point, interracial marriage?
Curfman: Yes, yes, yes.
Franklin: Did you ever receive any negative attention because of that?
Curfman: I think so. Actually, I can remember this one time not too long after we moved out there, we were out kind of moving the irrigation pipe around, and this neighbor from around the corner drove up and introduced herself to him. It was almost like she thought me and my kids were his hired help. So she was talking directly to him, inviting him over, you know. We’d like to get to know you, blah, blah, blah. To this day, I really think that—I’m sure after we were there for a while, she found out I was his wife. But at the time she was talking to him, to this day, I think she thought we were just hired help. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Right. Wow. This would’ve been—‘70s? ‘80s?
Curfman: This was ’76, ’78, yeah, in the late ‘70s.
Franklin: How did your family—how was your family, how did they adjust to the marriage? Were they more welcoming? The black community, was it more welcoming?
Curfman: Oh, yes, absolutely. Yes. Yeah, my grandparents and I had an aunt in Pasco at the time, they had no problems. My parents were still in the South. Of course, we didn’t go there and visit. I felt—a couple times I went back and visited, I felt like I had a couple uncles that treated me kind of cold, and I think it was because I was married to a white guy. They kind of took that personally.
Franklin: Because that would’ve caused probably much more of a stir in the South.
Franklin: Especially among that generation, right?
Franklin: Because that had been illegal for quite—not only just a social taboo but it’d been illegal until—some states didn’t even change that until the ‘90s.
Curfman: Right, yeah.
Franklin: Okay. So, you mentioned that you—so you were 222 chemical analyst and you worked shift work. I’m wondering if you could describe a typical work day.
Curfman: Basically, we’d get to work in the morning, we’d have a little short safety meeting. Ahead of time, we’d be assigned stations. We had different stations, like if you were going to be analyzing plutonium. We had different procedures. So I might be assigned to run strontiums tonight; someone else might be assigned to do H-pluses tonight. So you just came in, you know. You expected the shift ahead of you to restock the supplies at the end of their shifts. Sometimes that was done; sometime it wasn’t. So that was always kind of a sore spot, because our analyses were timed, in a sense. Operations would need the results in a timely manner so they could empty a tank or adjust a tank. And if we came in and had to—if the other shift left samples undone and we came in and had to get our supplies together before we could even start, then that just—kind of a snowball effect. So there was always tension between the shifts, depending on if that shift did their housekeeping before they left, before the next shift came in.
But as a rule, we were almost like a family. We did a lot of—for instance, on graveyard, we would do like a communal breakfast on our breaks. Sometimes there was times where people didn’t want to do breakfast; they wanted to take a nap during their lunch hour. So it was one of those things where, I’m going to sleep for 30 minutes; you wake me up. Of course, we had those little clocks we could set. So we just took care of each other.
Franklin: Yeah, how would you describe your relationships with your coworkers?
Curfman: Oh, awesome. Yeah, we did lots of things together. Went to Richland basketball games, we followed the Bombers. A lot of parties at our homes. So, yeah, we did. It was good.
Franklin: You became very close with your fellow coworkers.
Franklin: And did you feel a sense of belonging with your coworkers?
Curfman: Absolutely, yes.
Franklin: How would you describe your relationships with your supervisors or management?
Curfman: I’ve always had a good relationship. When I was on shiftwork, one of my first managers was female, Louise Gray. I think she was—I’m pretty sure she was the first female manager in the laboratory. And we would have—we would go to her house for things and we would do things away from work, like Halloween parties and things like that. So we had a good relationship. Once a month, on our long change there for a while, we would always get together as a group for dinner, like at Chinese Gardens and things like that.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Curfman: So it was always fun.
Franklin: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Franklin: And then you became an engineering tech in ’78.
Franklin: Where was that at?
Curfman: That was at Plutonium Finishing Plant.
Franklin: At PFP.
Franklin: How long did you—did you work there, then, for the rest of your career?
Franklin: Okay. And what is an engineering tech? What does that mean?
Curfman: We kind of assisted the engineers. We would go out—I mean, I would go out and take readings off the tanks in the morning and bring them back to them so that they could do their engineering data calculations and things like that. So that they could in turn tell operations what adjustments they needed to make. So, a lot of data analysis, data gathering. Versus in the lab, I was doing hands-on work.
Franklin: Were your—I imagine, kind of growing up in Tennessee, you know, Hanford may have been the last place you thought you might have ended up, working out with plutonium.
Franklin: How did your family react to your—did they ever express any concern? Were they proud? Were they just really kind of curious?
Curfman: Well, they were afraid when I had to apply for my Q clearance, and at that time the FBI went to your house. So of course, the FBI went to their house in Tennessee and it scared them to death, because what is she doing? [LAUGHTER] What did she do?
But I had somewhat of the same reaction from neighbors in the Tri-Cities when the FBI would go talk to them. I actually had a neighbor mention that here just a couple months ago, that when I moved in—well, it wasn’t when I moved where I am now, but just when they do the every five- or ten-year update, they had gone and talked to this one neighbor and he was saying, like, scared me to death! You know. And that was not too long ago, you know.
Franklin: Wow. And then in 1982, you were promoted to shift supervisor, lab manager.
Franklin: And you were the first African American woman lab manager on Site.
Curfman: That’s true, yeah.
Franklin: Was that—how’d you find out that you were the first?
Curfman: You know, right now it’s just from talking to people and looking back. I’d like to find that out for sure, because I think it would be a legacy to leave to my grandkids. We know that Louise Gray was the first female. I know that a guy by the name of Jim Burden was the first black male. So right now, just from talking, I can’t think of anybody before me.
Franklin: And, certainly, even if you weren’t the first, you were one of—a groundbreaking thing. So you moved into management.
Franklin: And how was that different? How’d you adapt, and what did you do to adapt to that role?
Curfman: Of course, a lot of classes and a lot of training. It was a struggle for a while, because a lot of the people that worked for me had degrees like they may not have necessarily been scientists or chemists but they might have been the next teacher or some other profession where they had a degree. So I think there was some resentment sometimes when not only was I a black female but I didn’t have a degree. So, you know, so that was, just depending on the people.
Franklin: Did you ever have any difficulties managing—being a minority, managing largely a majority white workforce?
Curfman: Yes, uh-huh. Yeah.
Franklin: Could you describe that?
Curfman: Well, you know, certainly there were—of course we had the cultural differences, but I think more than me being black, it was more me not having a degree. Even though I had white counterparts. The male manager that hired me didn’t have a degree. There were a lot of them out there, didn’t have—they did have nuclear experience from the Navy, but they did not have degrees. But it seemed—there seemed to have been a lot of emphasis on me not having a degree. Which, I kind of resented that. I’m like, look at him, look at him, look at—you know.
Franklin: Right, I mean, as long as you can do the—I mean, seniority experience counts for quite a bit.
Franklin: Yeah, that makes sense though. I mean, you know. Certainly something to point to.
Curfman: And it did start—I’m sorry.
Franklin: No, no, go ahead.
Curfman: It did start being less of a problem, because at one point—and I never saw it in writing, but it was said that eight years’ experience was equal to a four-year degree. So, as I got more experience, then it was kind of like, well, in a sense she does.
Franklin: Right, and I feel like you kind of see that on job postings, where it’s like x number of experience or a degree in the field.
Curfman: Yes, yes, uh-huh.
Franklin: And so you were—what kinds of—I mean, as much as you can talk about it, I know PFP there was a lot of secret work going on out there, but what kinds of—what kind of work did you supervise? What kind of work was going on in the lab?
Curfman: Okay, basically, what we did is analyze samples from the operations. You know, they’d send us a sample and they’d want to know if it was, how many grams of plutonium was in it. So we would analyze it and then send the results back to them, and based on the results, they’d say, we’re good, or no, we need to add more acid, or no, we need to add more base. Things of that nature. Or we need to empty the tank or we can’t empty the tank. We can’t empty the tank—it’s full, but we can’t empty it because the results aren’t what they need to be. So it was—so we were quality control, mainly. Yeah.
Franklin: Ah, that makes sense. And you did that until 2010?
Curfman: Yes, but I went from shift manager—in 1983, I was shift manager, and I can’t remember but I was promoted throughout the years in different levels of management. And when I left in—well, I actually left in 2007 because of a health issue. But when I left, I was a Level 3 which was the top laboratory manager.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Franklin: What were the most challenging and/or rewarding aspects of your work at Hanford?
Curfman: Challenging was every ten years they would change contractors, so it was always challenging to learn new management, what the expectations were, new procedures. I had bargaining unit people working for me, so it was always a challenge to work with the unions and answer grievances and things like that. It seems like there was always people that if they could have you in a grievance meeting, they wouldn’t have to be in the lab working. So sometimes you felt like people created problems just to get out of work.
Rewarding was having come from where I came from, to be in the position that I was in. I was 1994 Westinghouse Women’s History Month nominee. So there were things to be proud of. There was a lot of—I did a lot of things, like I represented the laboratory in Washington, DC and won a black national caucus. Represented the caucus at universal Washington black engineers’ conference. Things like that.
Franklin: Oh, wow. Yeah, those are—those really are rewarding aspects. Did you still have family in east Pasco for quite a while after you moved here?
Franklin: Did you go to attend any church events or community events in east Pasco?
Curfman: Oh, yes, uh-huh. I was librarian for East Pasco Church of God for quite a few years. So, yes.
Franklin: Is that a predominantly black church?
Curfman: It was at the time, yes.
Franklin: At the time. What role did church play in the black community?
Curfman: Very important role, and actually, the majority of the churches now are still pretty much black. Morning Star is one of the—used to be one of the biggest in east Pasco, and it’s probably predominantly still black. New Hope, predominantly still black. So, yeah, I don’t know.
Franklin: What about did you go to any cultural celebrations like Juneteenth, or—
Curfman: Oh, yes, uh-huh, yeah. I actually worked with the Juneteenth committee, with the contestants for Miss Black Afro-American—Miss Juneteenth. I was part of that committee with Eloise Williams. Did a lot of that. What else? A lot of church activities. A lot of involvement with—we used to have what was called confederated choir where once a month, the first Sunday of the month, all the churches would go to a different church at 3:00 in the afternoon and all the different choirs would sing. So that was always fun. A lot of church picnics and potlucks and things like that.
Franklin: Yeah, I’ve heard of, I think Pastor Wilkins was telling me about that, the all-church meeting.
Franklin: What’s special about Juneteenth? Why is that such a big event for African Americans?
Curfman: Because we feel like that was when we were really freed. It wasn’t July 4th. So it’s just something to be proud of. We don’t seem to be—the younger generation seems to be losing it; we don’t seem to be getting as large a crowd as we used to. It has diversified. We get a lot of white people that attend, which we like that. You know, we don’t have an issue with that. But we like to keep it going, something that the community can be proud of.
Franklin: Did people bring—or did you or others that migrated from the South bring any other traditions with them, like food, especially?
Curfman: Oh, yeah. Yeah, my family in particular, pecan pie is a big deal for my entire family. But just—I have a sister in Pasco now, I mean, every day she still cooks the soul food, the greens and the cabbage and the black-eyed peas type of thing, because that’s how she was raised. And my grandmother and my aunt and people like that, I think most of the old-timers cook like that. They brought that. Barbecue, of course. Chicken—fried chicken.
Franklin: Yes. Very, very, very good. How was your civil rights experience here different from Memphis?
Curfman: I just feel like it was more freedom. You know, I can remember coming home from church—my mother worked in a restaurant where it was all white. She was a cook. So if we went to visit her, we had to go to the backdoor. She had to go in the backdoor; she couldn’t come in the front. She used to not like us to call at work because the phone was out front. If we called her, she’d have to go out front, and her bosses didn’t want the black people out front. So that was always an issue. If we had some issue at school and we had to call her, you know.
I can remember coming home from church once and it was really hot outside. We cut across the park that was a whites-only park, and we were drinking water from the water fountain, and we saw the police, they were all like, hey, hey, hey! There was like three or four of us and we ran home. Went home, changed clothes, messed up my hair. Because if the police came by looking for us, we didn’t want to look like we had just came from church. We didn’t want to look like the same people.
So coming from that environment and coming here, and going to any park. There were a lot of barbecues back during that—a lot of things in the parks and there were other people besides black people. When I moved on Wright Street I had a neighbor that was a white lady, and she was real strong German, still had a real strong German accent. And she was just lovely to us. She baked cookies for my babies and was just, wow, this is pretty neat. I mean, she was really nice. So that would be something that I could write home and tell my mom: I have this white neighbor and she’s really nice.
Franklin: That’s quite different. Yeah, that’s a very striking difference.
Franklin: Let’s see here. Right there. Could you describe the ways in which the security and/or secrecy at Hanford impacted your work?
Curfman: Yes, because we couldn’t—for instance, when they do the background checks, and I’ve had family or neighbors talk about the FBI coming asking questions, I could tell them it had to do with work, but I couldn’t really tell them why. It didn’t impact the work that much, other than we knew what was secret and what wasn’t, because we had to stamp things secret and we knew what we could talk about and not talk about. I think it was a little better when I was out there, we were starting to lean a little more towards closing down and doing cleanup, versus the people back during construction, as to why were building this plant. The secret, when I was there, the secret stuff came down to analysis. We didn’t want to say what our analysis was, kind of thing, versus what we were doing.
Franklin: What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Richland during the Cold War?
Curfman: I think I would like them to know that opportunities are there. I feel like I’m an example of it. I came from Tennessee, segregated community, no degree and went to work at Hanford and retired at the top of, you know, the management chain. And I do still have family right now that that’s something that—because I still have family in Tennessee that’s doing domestic work and working in restaurants. So, to them, I’m a success story.
Franklin: Is there anything else that you wanted to say in regards to race and your life at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Curfman: Not really. I can’t think of anything in specific. Just that I think you have to work harder than anybody else, and I definitely felt like I had to work harder. I had to take more classes. I felt like I had to take more classes than anybody else. I actually had one manager one time tell me, well, no, we need to let someone else go; you go to too many classes. But the opportunity was there, was presented to me, and I took that opportunity. So, yeah.
Franklin: Like, you kind of had to compensate extra?
Franklin: For being African—a black female.
Curfman: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Franklin: Well, Liz, thank you very much for a very enlightening interview. I really appreciate you telling your experience and your accomplishments.
Curfman: Thank you.
Plutonium Finishing Plant