Interview with John Slaughter
Korean War, 1950-1953
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
Camera operator: You are recording.
Robert Franklin: All right. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with John Slaughter on February 28, 2018. The interview is being conducted at The Brookstone in Kennewick, Washington. I’ll be talking with John about his experiences living in the Tri-Cities. And for the record can you state and spell your full name for us?
John Slaughter: John H. Slaughter. J-O-H-N. H. S-L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R.
Franklin: Great, thank you so much, John. Tell me how and why you came to the area.
Slaughter: I was working with the Snoqualmie National Forest. We ran into some things—this is another—why don’t I just give you the background—
Slaughter: --and you can do whatever it is you want to do.
Slaughter: I graduated from Tennessee State University, and I applied for a job working for the Snoqualmie National Forest. And I was hired. So I worked for about five years for the Snoqualmie National Forest. And what caused me to want to get away, I had a bigot for a boss. He was forever talking about I had a white man’s job.
Franklin: Did he actually say that to you?
Slaughter: Yes! Yes.
Franklin: On one occasion, or more than one occasion?
Slaughter: Oh, all the time. All the time. So I decided, well—excuse me—I’m going to kill that son of a bitch. And I had set about how I could kill him and get away with it. I could not do that. There’s no way I could do that and get away with it. Unless I did something to provoke him. See, he did a lot of things to provoke me.
So I decided—oh, right out—Naches, at the Naches Ranger Station, there, that’s where I lived. We had about 14 houses, cabins I mean, there. And that’s where I stayed. So we had to—I didn’t have a car. That’s about 35 miles from Yakima, where some civilization was. Some people were very, very kind to us. They knew the situation. See, I accepted the job, because I had—by the time I got that job, I had three kids. So hard times. So whenever they said, you’re hired, I just struck out and got on the train with my family and came out here. The people saw what the problem that I had, and many of them helped us out. Every time they had to go to Yakima or anyplace shopping, they’d stop by our cabin and ask, anything you want me to bring you, you want to go shopping with me? That kind of thing. Some were the other kind, but the vast majority of them, of 14 families, probably about two of them were bigots. Of course, that didn’t bother me. So I had to work to get two full paydays enough to go buy an old used car so that I could function.
Slaughter: We’d go to town, my wife needed her hair done. Well, we didn’t know anybody that did black people’s hair. In fact, we didn’t know anybody from Yakima. [LAUGHTER] The point is, we met Herb Jones, a fella. He was—we would go to see one another. He lived in Yakima and I lived out in the woods there. So I got to know Herb. There was an organization called CORE. He became the president of CORE, and so complaining about my situation, he suggested that I apply at the Atomic Energy Commission. And I did.
Well, the first answer, they said they didn’t have any meaningful work to suit my talents. [LAUGHTER] That’s a way of saying go fly a kite. But after a year, complete—a whole year had passed by, I received a letter from the personnel at the Atomic Energy Commission here at Hanford, asking if I was still interested in a position there. And I just jumped for joy. In the first place, I got paid more money and they didn’t have the same level of—I didn’t have anybody trying to beat me down, trying to bend me over, trying to force me to do something to give them an excuse to fire me.
Franklin: That’s what your boss at the forest service would try to do?
Slaughter: Yeah, Melanie. Yeah, he was. So, I couldn’t figure out a way to kill him. So I just—I just lived with it. He was this—the headquarters for Snoqualmie National Forest was on 2nd Avenue in Seattle. So I’d have to live—where we lived out in the woods, and, let’s see. I don’t know if I’m telling this in the right sequence or not, but the point is that he tried to—Melanie tried to convince the people to fire me because I didn’t know what I was doing. He wouldn’t give me credit for knowing anything. And it did rattle me quite a bit, but they wouldn’t fire me. Snoqualmie—the government would not fire me. Come to find out, Melanie, he was a guy from close to my hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee. He used to relate some areas that I knew about.
Anyway, after I went for the interview, and of course, I had to wait a long time because it was working for the Atomic Energy Commission, you had to have a security clearance. That was no problem. But when they hired me, they gave me the dates and the money that I’d make and what-have-you. And I had a problem of trying to find a place for my family. So by this time, Herb Jones, he was head of CORE in Richland, Washington. So they put me up for a couple of nights while I looked for a place for my family. I heard them talking. They had meetings all the time. I heard them talking, saying, well, we’ve got to find somebody who’ll go move over into Kennewick. And voila. I’ll go! [LAUGHTER] Seriously. I said, I will.
Well, they found us—they located a situation where a man school teacher was—he was having problems with his superiors and what-have-you. I don’t know whether he did it to be vindictive or not, but I got with this man who was going to move out of the area anyway. So I signed a lease, six-month lease for his house on W 6th Avenue, pretty close to 395.
I started hearing all the rumors and all of the forebodings from people, saying, be careful. So what I did—I’ma tell you the truth. I had a station wagon, and so when I moved in, moved into that house—it was a nice house—I systematically brought stuff out of my station wagon and put it in the house. And the last thing I did that night, I brought my—I had a target pistol, a .22. But also, some of the activities that I engaged in when I was living at the ranger station was go hunting and fishing. I had to learn to hunt and fish if I was going to be a part of that society.
Slaughter: And I did. And I shot—the first time I went hunting, I shot a deer. So I had a rifle, a .30-06 rifle. I made sure that the whole neighborhood saw me bring my rifle into the house. Because I had been conditioned that I’m not going to take too much of this. So I was conditioned to that. Whenever I needed to. It just so happens—I don’t know, I’m pretty sure nobody was afraid of me—but I wanted to let people know my disposition. I was for real. And I said, anybody walk up on this—you just walk up on this lawn, I’m going to shoot him. Well, nobody walked up on the lawn.
There were a lot of whispering around in the neighborhood, what-have-you. And this one lady, I think it’s this lady who lives here now. She had two daughters, but she didn’t want her daughters to get to know my daughter. So, we did like I always do. I just treat them like they’re not even around. See, one thing I learned, people cannot stand to be ignored. If you ignore—that’s how you get to people. So, if I transacted my business just as if I was the only person in Kennewick.
But suddenly, there was an outpouring of welcome to me. The ministers, I got invited to a lot of churches, I got invited to different civic organizations and I was a Kennewick Jaycee. I remember that. And of course there was the other kind, too, because I was just leasing that house. And I’ll skip the part where I moved out of that man’s house and into a duplex in Richland. I stayed there one year, and decided that, well, I needed to have a house.
So, I got enough money for a down payment. It was at 7404 W Yellowstone. It wasn’t actually in the City of Kennewick, but it was close enough for the purpose. There was a vacant lot next to lot that that house was on that I was trying to buy. Because I wanted to build a bigger house. And they had for sale signs on that lot. I went to the appropriate place to find out who owned it, and I wanted to buy it. He says—I told him who I was. And he said, I know who you are, John Slaughter, but I’m not going to sell you my lot. And he did not. So I just lived in that house until—well, I stayed there, and I was working, and I was doing very, very, very, very good. I had to prove to myself that I was good enough to be an engineer, because everybody around me did not see me as being qualified to do anything.
Franklin: Um—oh, sorry, go ahead.
Slaughter: Well, I could go on. Oh! When the time came to close on the house—and I’m there right now, we’re about to close on the house that I own. [LAUGHTER] That’s why I’m here. We got together on a whole lot of paper and what-have-you. And a document fell out of the bundle of papers that the guy had. It was a—I don’t know what they call it, a promise that you would not sell to a black person. I actually saw that, that was in that. But the one guy, they had been talking, he said, throw it away. So they picked it up. But they couldn’t get it up fast enough for me so that I could not see what that was. That was a covenant. I actually picked up that covenant and gave it back to him. That you don’t—and I was able to buy the—Incidentally, probably the reason it was so easy for me was that was during the time that the federal government was cracking down on these kind of covenants.
Franklin: Oh. Do you remember around what year that was?
Franklin: 1965. Why do you think the realtor was so willing to break the covenant?
Franklin: Oh, my goodness.
Slaughter: --where we were living. That’s how we got along. Maybe when people saw my weapons, they decided they wouldn’t raise any [inaudible]. I didn’t have any problem. Everybody got to know me, John Slaughter, just like I was some celebrity or something.
Slaughter: Really! And I was so proud to be a part of that civic organization, the Kennewick Jaycees. That we would, during Christmas, the Christmas holidays, we’d do some projects to make money to help some of the people who was not as well-off as we were. There were several incidences where you’d see my picture in the paper for what we were doing. I can remember that year, it was close to Christmastime, a little blonde girl, I picked her up and playing with her, and she got snot all over my face. I still remember that. But that didn’t matter. That was something that I really felt that I was part of, and everybody around had made me feel that I’m part of the society. And so that’s, that’s basically, in a nutshell, that’s basically how I got to where I am.
Franklin: Okay. I’d like to back up a little bit and ask you when and where you were born.
Slaughter: July the 30th, 1932. I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Franklin: And did you grow up at in Chattanooga?
Slaughter: Absolutely. Yes.
Franklin: And was Chattanooga an officially segregated town?
Franklin: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, what your life was like growing up with segregation.
Slaughter: Okay. We had our neighborhoods and they had their neighborhoods. To the extents possible, we avoided each other. Because most of the—99% of the black people had absolutely nothing, but they had quite a few white people who were in the same boat that we were in. [LAUGHTER] I still remember, as a little kid, when the railroad—when the train would come by, some of the young men would climb up on there and throw coal off the—onto the ground. And those of us on the ground, would pick it up and take that coal to our houses. [LAUGHTER] And that is true. That is true. I still remember that.
Franklin: Wow, hard times, huh?
Slaughter: Well, ’32—I was born in ’32, that was the worst economic [unknown] that this country’s ever had.
Slaughter: I was born right in the middle of that.
Franklin: Yeah! And you went to segregated schools?
Slaughter: Went to segregated school. I’ll tell you that we didn’t have any school buses. There were school buses around, but none for us. We’d have to sit in the back of the bus. Just like—you know. You’ve heard all of that.
Slaughter: And it got to the point, sometimes I’d figure on doing something to get something started. Because I decided that I was not going to be a second-class citizen. And I had to pay by tokens to ride the bus. And I just got to the point where I don’t feel like getting up today. I never got up. And he stopped the bus. He said, boy, get to the back of the bus. I told him, you put me back there. I have some of my little knives someplace. I had a knife about that long, about that big. Just as soon as the white boys decided they were going to make me go to the back of the bus, I got out my knife and started trimming my fingernails. They knew what that meant. Nobody said a thing to me. This is before Rosa Parks did that. She was a matronly lady, and she was nice and kindhearted and what-have-you. I was just a guy who decided that today I’m going to raise hell.
Franklin: How old were you when this happened?
Slaughter: I was in high school.
Franklin: Okay. And the white people that were accosting you, were they around your same age?
Slaughter: This was just a regular bus system. They didn’t have—not for black people, they didn’t have school buses. Oh. I went to Orchard Knob School, which is a monumental place, kind of a park. It was a park. If you go down South where the Civil War was fought, you can see all the statues and names and what-have-you, like that.
Camera operator: Can we pause here? My card says it’s full.
Franklin: Oh, sure.
Franklin: Are we ready?
Camera operator: Yup.
Franklin: Okay. So you were talking about going down to the park where they had Civil War monuments or something?
Slaughter: Oh, yeah. Called the Battle of Orchard Knob. It’s on a big hill and adjacent, across the street, was the school that I went to through the ninth grade. Then after that, that’s when we’d have to ride the bus across town to go to high school. We had to ride right by city—I don’t know, it was Chattanooga’s City High School. Right by, we’d have to ride the bus to be on the other side of town where our high school was. You probably heard of the situation where I still got the same new book that I was given in the ninth grade, and that book was the one where we learned first aid by the Red Cross. I still got that book. That was the first new book I ever had.
Franklin: New book, as in, the books in school previously would’ve been—
Slaughter: They’d been used and torn up and then they ship them to us.
Slaughter: They’d buy some more books, but they wouldn’t give us the new books.
Franklin: Right, the new books would go to the white schools and then the black schools would get the older textbooks.
Franklin: Yeah. You mentioned that you had graduated from Tennessee State University.
Franklin: What made you want to go to college, and what did you get your degree in?
Slaughter: I was the only person in my family who finished high school.
Slaughter: And I had enough inner change—or I want to say, moxie, I might say, that people start thinking, boy, he’s smart, boy, he’s smart. With them saying that I’ve got the intelligence to go farther. So I decided that—oh. I sang in the glee club, in my high school glee club. Some people thought I had a fair enough voice. In fact, the music teacher, after I graduated from—just before graduating from high school, the ceremony and all, she gave me a $50 check. That was a scholarship. That was the only scholarship I ever had. And I had to take it back to her and tell her, I can’t go—give this to somebody who’s going to go to college. Then after the graduation, just immediately after graduation, I received my letter from the United States government saying I had been selected. [LAUGHTER] So I was drafted.
Robert Franklin: And that was—the Korean War was going on at the time, right?
Franklin: And how long did you stay in the Army for?
Slaughter: Those two years. I’ll tell you now, that’s the interesting thing, because you’re looking at a man who—I loved those military parades. I thought that was entertainment for me to—I enjoyed it. But I tell you one other thing, when we got—a bunch of us trainees got there at the same time to set up battalion headquarters and what-have-you, I was assigned to be a supply specialist, to take care of all the property that the government had given us. And so things were going fine. Of course, I didn’t know a whole lot about that, either, but that’s what—I went to supply specialist training school. When those guys—we called them boy wonders, the National Guardians—when that outfit—there was an outfit of guys who hadn’t had basic training like I had, but they had National Guard. They put a corporal in my place, and he didn’t know anything about being a soldier, either. He just had that uniform on. At any rate, we were put into details to be taken down to Taegu Air Base. We had to camouflage the facilities, just in case they attacked us. And we did have a great number of times when we thought that we were going to be attacked. But I never had to fight; I never had to shoot a bullet, except at the target. Oh, after so long a time in Korea, my outfit, the whole battalion—oh, I’m trying to tell it in sequence and I’m getting it all screwed up.
Franklin: It’s okay.
Slaughter: But there were a bunch of us assigned to go and camouflage tanks on the airport base. Well, that didn’t sit well with me. It was hot as all get-out there in Korea. And so a bunch of us, we’d go down further where the civilization was, where they had day rooms and they had decent living conditions and what-have-you. We’d get up 5:00 in the morning and be shipped down there, and then just as soon as they left, we’d go to the place and shoot pool and do stuff. [LAUGHTER]
And I remember, the one time, I sat there in the chair, I must have lost at pool. But I fell asleep. And I heard somebody, all of the sudden, Slaughter! Slaughter! Woke me up, my first sergeant was right between my legs. What the hell are you doing in here? Mixing. To shorten it, we were done busted. I got an Article 15.
Are you familiar with an Article 15? That’s like going to court and having a trial and mete out the punishment. Well, my punishment—and this is the company commander, he was a first lieutenant. He said, is there anything else you want to say before I employ the sentence? I said, no, sir, but yes. I said, I came on this job and I was doing a good—I was having—I was doing the work well, satisfied—suddenly, when those cowboys came in, you took all the authority and interest away from us, and you put them in there. I told him, I’m a little mad, and I don’t plan to be out working out there in the sun. So, if I got to go back out there, you’re going to find me doing the same thing.
This was a man from Massachusetts. He didn’t have any interest in trying to be hard on anybody. So he said, okay. So I was sentenced to seven days of extra duty in the kitchen. So I did that standing on my head. In fact, we would look forward to getting where the officers had all the little steaks and things, we just cooked our own food—[LAUGHTER] So I’d look forward to that, every night. Let’s go, let’s go to work. [LAUGHTER]
But after that time was over, by the time I’d fulfilled my requirement, we had our orders. We were going to leave and go to Guam. So they needed somebody to be in charge of all of the goods and what-have-you. So they assigned me to be in charge of that. And I’m strolling around there with my clipboard, seeing all this stuff. I was quite proud. They gave me some responsibility, and I was quite proud to be able to do it the best I could. And nobody ever said anything anymore about it. Except if it was justified.
But when I got to Guam—I don’t know if you guys know anything about Guam. That’s the South Seas—one of a string of islands called the Marianas Islands. I’m told that that was—and it was a B-29 air base. I’m told that it was from that place that the atom bomb was loaded and sent to Japan to be—I don’t know if that’s the truth or not.
Franklin: I think it was Tinian Island, was the island. Right? Yeah, Tinian. A different island in the South Seas.
Slaughter: Well, Tinian, it was one of the string—it was part of the Marianas Islands, though.
Franklin: Right. So jumping forward a bit, you went to Tennessee, Tennessee State University.
Slaughter: Oh. I was one of the few people who were married in my outfit. So when payday came, I’d take my money, and I’d send it home to my wife, until I had enough to—you know, a fair amount of money. That, along with the GI Bill, that’s what I used in order to go to college.
Franklin: And what did you get your degree in?
Slaughter: Civil engineering.
Franklin: Oh, civil engineering, okay. And how did you hear about this job in Snoqualmie? And why did you apply to go to Washington, so far away from Tennessee?
Slaughter: Because they had fliers out. You could look on the bulletin board and see who needs who to go where. And I flunked one course in college. That was my first quarter of calculus. I still don’t know calculus. [LAUGHTER] Dang, I lost my train of thought. Oh. Oh, all the people in my class, they were getting ready to go. They were filling out applications, and I’m one quarter behind, but I just couldn’t stand it any longer, because I was the only person who had so many kids at home. I needed a job. So I filled out the application, too. Four applications. I received copies of three of them; they wanted to hire me. And then I had to tell them I won’t be eligible until the summer of 1960. They wrote me another telegram, we’ll hold the job for you.
Slaughter: This is a part of the move to integrate black people and white people in the service. If Kennedy had not taken it upon himself to go personally down to the South to see what the conditions were, we’d probably still be sitting in the back of the bus. Kennedy is the one who built a fire under people. And Johnson, now, he was a southerner. But he was an aristocrat. He didn’t know what the little bitty people were doing, either. So when Kennedy got shot, Johnson took over, he looked for himself what Kennedy was doing, and he just carried it on forward. And I remember reading the paper—one of the papers, big headlines, Johnson, That Son of a Bitch. Because he had been in—he was one of the good ol’ boys before, but he saw how awful it was that black people had to live. And he carried on Kennedy’s interest in integrating the whole thing.
Franklin: When you started on at Hanford, what was your first position?
Slaughter: I was an engineer.
Franklin: And what were you doing there?
Slaughter: Construction engineer. Oh, I did a little—I had done a little bit of surveying. That’s what I did when I was working for the National Forest, surveying and designing roads and bridge approaches, that kind of a thing. So I got to the point where my qualities were well-respected. In fact, when they saw how some of my performance—I skipped a grade—
Franklin: In the Forest Service?
Slaughter: No, no, Atomic Energy Commission.
Franklin: Oh, at the Atomic Energy Commission.
Slaughter: I’ve told this story to a whole lot of people, and I will never fail to tell how those guys took me under their arms—under their wings, and they trained me how to be an engineer.
Franklin: Who was that?
Slaughter: The people at the Atomic Energy Commission. I learned a lot, you’d just be surprised. You’ve been hearing here lately about the leaking field tanks—the leaking waste tanks.
Slaughter: Well, I managed the contracts. Some of those very tanks—we had a lot, a lot of tanks—but this was a new kind of tank. This was a tank-on-tank situation. Not only that—what do they call that? I can’t think of the name of it now. Stress relief, those tanks. Are you familiar with stress relieving?
Franklin: Kind of. There was so much pressure in them, right, from the heat and the radionuclides—
Slaughter: So much pressure, it created stress in the corners. And so therefore, it started to corrode—erode quite a bit. So in order for it to last a long time, you bend the tanks—the steel a certain way. Then, you weld all those welds—10,000 welds per tank. And then to stress relieve it, there’s one bit of knowledge that you need to know. Carbon steel will fold and fall down after 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit.
I want you to imagine having to try to stress relieve every bit of a million-gallon tank. And it has to be—it can’t be a whole lot of stress here, and then—it had to be uniform. And that was a job that I had. I used to stay up all night trying to get them to be just as hot in one place as it was in the other. I think we had to be within 250 degrees all the way through. And I learned to stress relieve—see, I learned this on the job. And also, it had to be radiographed. Each foot—
[POUNDING ON DOOR]
Slaughter: Come in.
[Woman off-camera]: John, are you coming down for lunch?
[Woman off-camera]: Are you coming down for lunch?
Slaughter: Not right now.
[Woman off-camera]: Okay. Okay, sorry.
Slaughter: Okay. [LAUGHTER] Okay, that’s another one that I’m going to be friends with, I think. I don’t know why she came in and asked me if I was coming in for lunch. I don’t know what she wanted.
Franklin: You were talking about the stresses, if you will, of trying to stress relieve these things.
Slaughter: Oh, yes, and I learned how to rig—I didn’t have to do any of it myself, but I learned how under the guy—he was the main inspector. I did the management and all that stuff, but this man, he knew what he was doing, and he taught me everything—well, I don’t know if it was everything he knew, but he taught me a considerable amount. I learned how to look at the radiograph to see if it’s—if you got any bubbles in it—it has to be good, welded steel all the way through, all the way. And 10,000 welds per tank.
And I learned how to do that, and they even tried to—well, it was just marvelous that I learned the technology, and here I am with a degree in civil engineering. But I had more knowledge than most of the people around that. Because Don, was his first name, he taught me everything he knew. And I was so grateful.
I’ll tell you, this was kind of related to what you want, but at Savannah River, you know they’ve got a nuclear reservation there, too. They had a different design than what we used. So we had a delegation of top engineers from here, we went to Savannah River, that’s in South Carolina, in order to see what they’re doing and how theirs is different from ours and try to figure out the ramifications.
And I remember Babcock and Wilcox—that’s a firm that makes asbestos. Asbestos, you know, is dangerous. But we didn’t recognize that danger then. So what we would do, build the tank and then pour asbestos about that thick into the inside of the tank. Whereas, you have all the way around the tank, you’ve got a crawlspace about that wide. And we had all kinds of pipes and different things coming up. So they used those holes, different holes in the top. Yeah, it’d be about—I can’t explain it to you.
But I remember going to—it was time to go to lunch, and this man, he was kind of a high executive with the Babcock and Wilcox Company. So that’s where I got my first look at Augusta, Georgia. It was Augusta where they took us to the Green Jacket. Now those guys, usually, they respected me and my position to the extent that they didn’t want me to be rejected. And I remember, since I was with the government and all these other guys were contractor guys, so that made me boss. [LAUGHTER] The only guy—they knew so much more than I did, I couldn’t even attempt it. But they made me boss, so the man opened the door to the Green Jacket. Now, you’re familiar with the Green Jacket?
Franklin: I’m not.
Slaughter: Okay. Augusta? Master’s Golf?
Slaughter: That’s where the Master’s are done. In August, Georgia. And I remember them opening the door for me and showing me a place to sit. And I looked around and all the black heads peeking from around the corners and what-have-you. They thought that was the greatest thing in the whole world, seeing a man being treated with dignity. And that never left me. That’s why I made it my business—I’m going to be a first-class citizen. It may only be for an hour, but that hour is going to be with dignity. And I did. And I’ve been trying to pull everybody else around up with me, and I think we’ve done very well.
Franklin: Yeah. Did you work with any other black engineers at Hanford?
Slaughter: No. No, I didn’t. No, I didn’t.
Franklin: You’ve mentioned that you were, to your knowledge, the first black person to own a home—
Slaughter: In Kennewick.
Franklin: In Kennewick, yes. Over time, did other black families start moving to Kennewick?
Franklin: Was there a community and there, and were you instrumental in—or were you part of that community?
Slaughter: Yeah. Herb Jones, he’s the one—after I had done—he decided he was going to buy a house, too, down there, by—well, I don’t know where it was, I’ve forgotten where it was. But somebody did something to their car. Had a relative with a brand new Ford, I remember. Something happened to it. But nothing ever happened to me like that.
Franklin: It was like vandalized or something like that?
Franklin: Their car was vandalized or something like that?
Slaughter: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. You could wash—could give it a paint job, and you’d be good as new.
Franklin: Where was the center of the black community in the Tri-Cities? Was there kind of a community in each city, or was east Pasco the focal point?
Slaughter: East Pasco.
Franklin: And did you go to east Pasco often; did you have any friends in the area?
Slaughter: I tried, but—it’s kind of hard to—some of them, it’s kind of hard to get along with them.
Franklin: Why was that?
Slaughter: I don’t know. I think it’s upmanship, you might say. They even—I noticed that they stopped now, I mean, I guess they did. They tried to circulate the fact that I was not the first black person to live in Kennewick. One of them did it. And that wasn’t my purpose.
Franklin: You were just trying to have some dignity, right, some respect and live where you wanted to live?
Slaughter: Oh, yeah. My wife, bless her heart—people just—oh, that’s another thing. I learned how to talk a little bit better—a little bit different than being a Southerner. My wife never—she never lifted one eyelid to change how she talks. And the people who befriended her, they just—it was refreshing. See, even the bigshots’ wives, they’d get sick of people scraping and bowing to them. Well, my wife didn’t do that. And they liked her because of it.
Franklin: Were you ever—how were you treated on the job at Hanford? Did your racial background ever figure into any mistreatment at Hanford?
Slaughter: No, it wasn’t. No, it wasn’t. I had my run-in, but it wasn’t because of race. I know what it was. It stemmed back—remember way back then, when I was being an engineer in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I decided that when I retire, where do I want to live? And so I decided that I wanted to come back here and live. People ask me, why? Because I love the people. The people just opened their doors to me, and I appreciate it.
Franklin: Besides moving to Kennewick in ’65, and really, I think kind of participating in Civil Rights in that way, did you participate in any other civil rights activities in the Tri-Cities?
Slaughter: Yeah, I remember when things were really hot and heavy and the pot was starting to boil over with anger and all. There were a number of us who did not, for some reason—I didn’t hear—nobody did anything to me. Gus Wiley, he used to be the head of Battelle there. Nothing happened to him. And there was a bunch of us. I just named the two, because Gus and I were—we decided to put a stop—to pour some water on this heat, this boiling over. So we decided we’d follow the police around, so whenever they had an encounter, we could see with our own eyes who’s starting the unrest. Because they were just accusing one another. I for one, I’ll die for my cause, but I’m not going to die for somebody else’s cause, see. Gus and I—it just happens that he and I hooked up together. We followed—and we just kind of made the police kind of nervous. Until somebody started some dialogue with the windows down, and we’d talk with one another, the police and us. And after—it didn’t take long for them to see that we weren’t—we were doing what we can to keep a riot from happening. We’re not trying to help one side or the other, but I know somebody’s lying. So before I put my head on the chopping block, I’m going to find out why I’m putting it on there. That was all of our intentions. Once they found out that all we’re trying to do is keep the peace, actually, they just kind of helped us keep the peace.
Franklin: What cities were you doing this in?
Franklin: Pasco. And what were your findings?
Slaughter: I didn’t see anybody do anything. Nobody broke the law or anything. And I came home just as satisfied. I don’t look for trouble. I’m trying to prevent any trouble. But there were some hotheads over on the other side, in Pasco. They were fomenting unrest. They were trying to stir up some things that we were trying to undo.
Franklin: When you say hotheads, do you mean—
Slaughter: People out—black people. Trying to raise hell. And we met with those people to tell them, I’m not going to stick my neck out for you. You’re trying to—a risk is what you’re trying to do. Nothing ever—all that time we were—it lasted for several days. And all that time, when we were doing that, nothing ever happened. Nothing. Good or bad. Nothing ever happened.
Franklin: Why do you think they were trying to stir up trouble, in your opinion?
Slaughter: Well, hell-raisers will do it. You don’t have to have a reason. You don’t have to have a reason. They want to get a job that they’re not qualified for, for example. They want to be thought of as being the biggie. It’s pride—false pride. And we were not interested in that. Anytime somebody let me participate in something with the credentials that Gus Wiley had, I’m more than satisfied. Not Gus Wiley—Gus, that’s his wife. [LAUGHTER] I can’t think of his name right now.
Franklin: I can’t think of his first name right now, either.
Tom Hungate: Bill.
Franklin: Bill Wiley.
Franklin: Right, yeah. Head of PNNL. I’ve heard there were some protests in Pasco in, I think, ’67, around there. Did you participate, or hear, or do you have any memories of those protests?
Franklin: No, okay.
Slaughter: I know there might have been some people who were trying to stir up stuff, and I just ignored them.
Franklin: My last questions are kind of like closing, open-ended questions. In what ways, if any, did the security or secrecy at Hanford impact your work or daily life?
Slaughter: It didn’t.
Franklin: It didn’t? Were you able to talk about what you worked on with your family and friends?
Slaughter: No, I made it a policy to not—there were times when I needed to get some information, I would read a document—a confidential or secret document. But that was just incidental to my work. My work had nothing to do with that problem.
Franklin: Oh, okay. How long did you work at Hanford for?
Slaughter: Let’s see. I came to Hanford in 1965, and ’73, I went back to Oak Ridge for the purpose of trying to move up the ladder. Didn’t work, but it didn’t hurt, either. So after I’d gone at work at Oak Ridge another eight years, I decided to try to figure out, where should I go. And believe it or not, my home town is exactly 100 miles from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But that’s not where I wanted to live. I liked the small town air here. And so that’s why I wanted to come back here to live. And the rest is history.
Franklin: Yes, it is. Speaking of history, what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Slaughter: That’s a biggie. [LAUGHTER] That’s a biggie. I’ve learned—I don’t know. I just don’t know. One thing that I do know that I used to love going, certain parts of the year, the eagles would land in what used to be Hanford. I’d go down there and look at the eagles. I don’t know of anything else.
Franklin: Okay. Is there anything else you’d like to mention related to migration and segregation and civil rights in the Tri-Cities?
Slaughter: You know, I mentioned before, some people thought I had a nice singing voice.
Slaughter: I especially, that church I started going to. Incidentally, I’m still going to that same church, but it’s got a different name and it’s a much, much bigger church. I’m still—I’ve been instrumental in—okay, the pastor we have now, I was instrumental in getting him to be at our church. I got guided to the committee, the pastor search committee. In the beginning, I wasn’t part of it. But it was an older man. They tried to represent older people, younger people—different differences. So going through what is kind of—it’s a hard job, trying to decide who was best suited to be my pastor. That’s not an easy job. Anyway, the guy who was supposed to represent the older people, he backed off. So they asked me to be part of it, and I did. And we—if you go to hear a sermon of our priest, you know that it was a success. I had something to do with his being there. That’s because I just went up to him and asked him, how come you don’t fill in an application? And he said, oh, what’s-his-name is my friend. I said, that has nothing to do with being your friend. I talked him into being interested in being our pastor.
Slaughter: Just edit that out, all right?
Franklin: Sure, sure. Well, John, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Slaughter: Well, there’s so much that I’ve forgotten. I hee-hawed all the way through this thing.
Franklin: No, you’re great. We’re really happy to get what you have, and what you told us is really great. Some really great history there. So thank you for letting us interview you.
Slaughter: Well, thank you. This makes about the third interview that I’ve had concerning Civil Rights, et cetera.
Franklin: I’ll have to look for those other two.
Slaughter: Well, only one had all this stuff.
Franklin: Okay. Well, great.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory