Interview with Bobby Sparks
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. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Bobby Sparks on May 8th 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. We’ll be talking with Bobby 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?
Bobby Sparks: My name is Bobby, B-O-B-B-Y, Ray, R-A-Y, Sparks, S-P-A-R-K-S.
Franklin: Is Bobby your given name?
Sparks: Bobby is my given name on my bible. It wasn’t a birth certificate; it was a bible. We recorded all the births on the bible. That’s my given name, yup.
Franklin: Okay. They just went straight to Bobby.
Sparks: They went straight to Bobby, yup. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Okay. Because I’m a Robert.
Sparks: They didn’t change to Robert later. They said he’s a Bobby, they left me as a Bobby.
Franklin: Right on. So, Bobby, your family migrated here during WWII, right? Or parts from your family migrated here during WWII from Kildare?
Sparks: Yeah. Part of them migrated. Actually some of them partially migrated. They was migrant workers, they came up and worked a few months and then they went back to Kildare. That was my grandfather, Connie Davis. He came up during, like you said, in the ‘40s and stuff to work at the B Plant.
Franklin: The B Reactor or B Plant?
Sparks: He was actually working on building the reactor. He was doing—yeah, the reactor building.
Franklin: You said his name was Connie Davis?
Sparks: Connie Davis.
Franklin: Great. Who else from your family came up?
Sparks: Connie Davis, he was the only one that I know of that came up in that generation. He was one of the older ones. My uncles came up later. They might’ve came up in the early ‘50s and stuff, but--
Franklin: Who were they?
Sparks: One was Dave Smith.
Sparks: James Sparks, and Alford Sparks.
Franklin: When did you come?
Sparks: I came to the Hanford in 1965.
Sparks: I was in the third grade.
Franklin: Third grade, okay. When and where were you born?
Sparks: I was born in Kildare, Texas in 1955.
Franklin: How come your parents moved up here?
Sparks: My father was a farmer. We had maybe 60 acres of land. So he farmed the land in Texas, in east Texas, and it was hard work, very hard work. What happened, his teacher, which was Vanis Daniels, moved to the Tri-Cities area.
Franklin: His teacher?
Sparks: He was one of his instructors, Vanis Daniels.
Franklin: Okay. Is that Vanis Daniels, Senior?
Sparks: Senior, yeah. He sent a little note back and said, hey, this is not too bad! You guys need to join me in the Hanford Site. That’s how my dad got here. He came up before I did. He came up a year before the family moved, checked it all out and got us a home and then we moved up.
Franklin: What else do you know about your dad’s life before you came up here?
Sparks: My dad was farmer, like I said, he worked on the farm for years. He went to the military, fought in the war. He was just a hardworking man. What he did, he fed the family by hunting and fishing and gathering. We did a lot of fishing and hunting and raising animals. He built his own house down in Kildare, Texas. Basically, being a father of fourteen children, he didn’t have much time for anything else except for raising the children.
Franklin: Wow, so you have thirteen siblings?
Sparks: Yeah, I have thirteen siblings. And back in Texas, that was not very unusual, because they basically got married when they was very young, thirteen, fourteen-year-olds and they started having children.
Franklin: How old were your parents when they got married?
Sparks: My mother, I believe she was like fourteen and my dad, he might have been eighteen. They were very young when they got married.
Franklin: What is your mother’s name?
Sparks: My mother’s name is Annie May Davis.
Franklin: Davis, okay. So Connie Davis, your grandfather, was your mother’s father.
Sparks: Mother’s father, yeah. My dad’s father died when he was really young. So, what he did, he actually went up to eighth grade—no, no, it wasn’t even the eighth grade. I think when he was like in the sixth grade, he had to drop out of school and help raise the family. He ended up not only raising his brothers and sisters, but he actually, after they were grown, he raised us, also.
Franklin: Tell me about your mom’s life in Texas. What did she do, and her education and things like that.
Sparks: My mom, since she got married at a very early age, she dropped out of school when she was like in the eighth grade. Basically her life was, she took care of the family. She cleaned and took care of home, cooked, and just took care of the business around the house. My dad, he worked in the lumberyard, he actually worked on the railroad down in Texas also. And because the hours were so long, she had to take care of the children.
The weirdest thing about the house that we were born in, we had no electricity, we had wooden stoves. In order to wash the clothes they had a little creek in the back of the house, and we had to get the water. She was—basically, she didn’t have all the microwaves and the stuff that we have now, so everything that she did, she started cooking in the morning and cooked all day. So that was her job was to--
Franklin: Did the house have running water?
Sparks: Didn’t have running water, we actually had a well in the back of the house where she had to go in and pull the water up out of the well. When she washed the clothes, she had a washboard that she would use. It was from the old school, very old school; we had a wooden stove, we had to go gather wood. For Christmas, we’d go out into our property, cut a big tree and make our own decorations and decorate it.
The community we lived in, in Kildare was a very—it was a divided community, it was a black community and there was a white community. We were basically self-sufficient. We didn’t mingle very much with the Caucasians. So we kind of had our own little city, our own little things that we did. We canned, we hunted, we gathered; basically took care of each other in the community. It was kind of old school. If your house burned, we’d go over and help you build your house back up. If I start rambling too much, let me know.
Franklin: No, no. It’s really important to kind of set the stage from where—how life was there and why so many people left. What do you know about your parents’ initial experience of coming to work at Hanford and finding a place to live?
Sparks: As far as my mother, when they initially got here, there was this placed called the Navy Homes, Navy Homes in Pasco; that’s where a lot of the people moved into. You have thirteen, fourteen sisters and brothers, where do you live in? You go over to the military base and they had houses built in like A-frame homes that we lived in. So they had no issues finding a place to live. My dad, because he was a laborer, it was easy for him to find work in the Hanford Site. Because they were looking for—it was a big demand for hard workers, and my dad was a very hard worker. So he actually got into pouring concrete. Once they got here, their whole social life was around their community, the black people. They didn’t mingle much with the Caucasians.
Franklin: Okay, but they also—at that point, there was a pretty large amount of people from Kildare that had moved, that your parents were either related to or knew pretty well, right? Because you would’ve been related either by marriage or by blood either to the Daniels and the Mitchells and the Browns and that big network.
Sparks: We have a huge, huge extended family. The Miles, the Davises. The community, when we get together at Kurtzman Park, I mean, it was like a family reunion. Everybody was there. So they had a great networking of friends that they ran around with.
Franklin: How old were you, you said you came in ‘65?
Sparks: I was in the third grade.
Franklin: Third grade.
Sparks: Third grade when I came. I went to Longfellow Elementary School.
Franklin: When you came, what were your first impressions when you arrived?
Sparks: Because we didn’t have all the convenience, it was like it was the greatest place I’ve ever seen in my life. I can actually remember traveling up from Kildare in the station wagon with my uncle. And I remember driving into a restaurant and going in like an Arctic Circle, and having my first ice cream cone at the Arctic Circle. It was like, hey, this is the greatest thing in the world. And to get here, walk into the house and hit a light switch and the lights come on, we didn’t have the kerosene lights. It was actually great to me, I thought we was living the best life in the world, from what we came from to what we had here in the state of Washington.
Franklin: Wow. How long did you stay at the Navy Homes? It wasn’t your permanent residence?
Sparks: We actually stayed at the Navy Homes, we stayed there until I was, I think I was in junior high school.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Sparks: Is when my dad finally bought a house on Elm Street in Pasco, in east Pasco, mm-hm.
Franklin: What was the hardest aspect of life in this area to adjust to?
Sparks: As a kid, you don’t notice things. My mom and dad, like I said, they took care of us. We went to school, we came home. Because my dad was into spending a lot of time with his kids, we did a lot of fishing, a lot of hunting, a lot of gardening. We weren’t able, when I was in elementary school, to go play AAU baseball and all that stuff. So we weren’t mingling very much in the community, because we stayed to ourselves, because we were from Texas. When you’re from Texas, you kind of know what to do and what not to do, what you can get away with, and what you cannot get away with. We had learnt that at a very young age.
As far as elementary school, not an issue. Now when you start growing up a little bit and you get into junior high school and you start mingling, and kids are not very kind. They’re not, they’re very hard. I remember when I got in junior high—it was actually in my sixth grade in elementary school, because I had a Southern accent, very, very strong Southern accent, and I would say yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am. I was in a class with kids who didn’t talk like that. So right away they started criticizing. You can’t talk that way, that’s the way slaves used to talk. We don’t say yes ma’am or no ma’am; we say no. Even this older lady pulled me aside one time—I used to mow her lawns—and she said, no, we don’t talk like that. They made us do that in Texas. Don’t call me yes, sir and no, sir. Things like that we had to deal with.
Another thing that they did, when I noticed what was going on, the first class they put me in, they put me in a special ed. Class. Because I was Southern, they mistake the Southern accent for I had a learning disability. In that class, it turned out, they had all the other kids that were like the really bad actors, and so we were all in the same class. When you get in that class, like in the sixth and fifth grade, they normally take you all through that system in that class, special ed. type of class. What happened was, I had a teacher, his name was Ted Ogata, and Mr. Ogata, he pulled me aside and said, Bobby, you’re like in fifth or sixth grade now. He said, if you don’t get your act together, you’re going to be in this class for the rest of your life. And in that class you actually had a different lunches, you rode in a different bus to school--I mean, it was really isolated.
Mr. Ogata kind of became my mentor. He worked with me, took me to his home, and he was able to switch me from, at the time I was like a D to F student, flunking out of school. Within a year, I was able to increase my grades up to—when I got in junior high, they started putting me in honor classes, because I had one person that stepped in and influenced me.
Franklin: Did your parents ever talk about their adjustment here, and what their initial thoughts were or how they adjusted from Texas to the Tri-Cities?
Sparks: Like I said, my mother, she worked in the home. And because they were from Texas, they knew, they were very polite. They didn’t have many experience, like when my dad would come home and say this man called me out of my name. Because my dad was a big man, I mean, he had arms like this, so not very many people wanted to cross my dad. My mother, she was the most loving lady you ever seen in your life. So when you’re nice, and kind, and loving, it’s kind of hard for people to treat you bad. She was the kind of person, she treated her enemies like she wanted to be treated. They kind of, what went around came around. Since she was nice, they kind of treated her nice. I never remember my mother sit back and say, this person spit on my face, this person closed the door on my face, I couldn’t go into this restaurant because there was a sign. They never shared that with us. They kind of sheltered us from that.
Franklin: What about culturally? Was it a tough adjustment for your parents to leave the family and friends, and kind of culture of Texas and come to an environment where things were—because Texas, segregation had been on the books and it had been upfront. In the North, it had existed but it was more subtle.
Sparks: It was very subtle up North. And because my dad, when he came here, he didn’t experience the true issues that came with segregation. When he came here, he was in demand, we need workers. So there was a demand for laborers; he could get a job. Housing at that time was booming, and there was a community that he could move into to get a home. So he didn’t have those kinds of issues when he got here. His mother was already here also. She had a home, my uncles had a home. The east Pasco neighborhood was our neighborhood. And that community, it was houses, it was stores, it was restaurants, they even had a placed called a cotch ball, that’s where, if they wanted to go out to the casinos late at night, they had their own little casinos where they could hang out and drink.
Franklin: What was it called?
Sparks: Call it cotch ball.
Franklin: Can you spell that?
Sparks: Cotch. Spelled it just like a cotch. I can’t spell it, but they just called it a cotch ball. Like a couch. Like--
Franklin: Oh, I got you.
Sparks: And actually, these little places boomed up in east Pasco. When all the other bars and things closed, the Hanford workers would come out late at night and they could gamble and hang out at the cotch ball and have dinner and all kind of other activities went on at the cotch balls. They had their own community. Because my dad was used to that isolation in Texas, he would go and work at the Hanford Site, but all of his social life was in that little community that we had there.
That’s why, like I said, my dad, he never talked about it, my mom didn’t talk about it very often. Because my mom, taking care of the house, the only time she experienced stuff is when she went shopping. And even then, because she is a very quiet woman, she didn’t share those dramatic stories with her kids.
Franklin: Sure. How would you describe life in the community, east Pasco?
Sparks: It was—when you’re poor and everybody else around you is poor, it was bliss. We hadn’t been exposed to people that was very affluent and had the beautiful homes and stuff because we stayed to ourselves. I mean, I would get up and go to school, and hang out with all my buddies all day, just a normal life for us. The only time we started seeing issues is when we started becoming more aware of ourselves and what was happening in the community. When you get a little older in junior high, and high school and you go to college, and then you see that culture shock between what you got and what others got. And then you start mingling with people from all over the state, from the Seattle area, Spokane area, and then you start seeing the chaotic, the racism and stuff that was going on. But as a kid coming up, until I was in probably ninth grade, everything was—to me was—I had no issues.
Franklin: What did you do in your spare time?
Sparks: As a kid, like I said, my dad—we spent a lot time with my dad fishing in Eagle Lake and Moses Lake, and all over the state fishing and hunting, working in the garden. My dad, he was like, he brought up all of his Southern crops up here with him, the okra, the black-eyed peas, the cotter peas. And what he did was, he had a five-acre lot of land, and what he would do, he would farm that lot of land and people would come from all over the state to get his crops. He actually had a huge pig pen and we had pigs and cows and stuff.
My normal day would be getting up at like 5:00, going out with my dad, working in the farm. Then after I worked in the farm, we’d come home. My mom would always have a big breakfast with biscuits, and gravy, and ham. We would have a huge breakfast, and then we would go to school. Go to school all day, get off of school like at three, we would come home and my dad would always have chores for us to do. You create stuff. He’d say, son, go pull out those nails out of the boards. He’d have big piles of boards. So we couldn’t go out and play until we did our chores. Dad was very strict; it was only one rule: it was his way or the highway. Because he didn’t have time to negotiate with that many kids. He had to have a plan and he stuck to the plan. That’s how we were raised, me and all of my sisters and brothers.
Franklin: Do you remember any particular community events from when you were a kid?
Sparks: Oh, we had so many events. The biggest we had was, we had the Juneteenth. That’s when the whole community got together and we celebrate the freedom of slavery at Texas, because all of us was at Texas. At that time, it was like the whole Kurtzman Park, everybody would show up at the park and we would and we would play baseball and have basketball tournaments, have fashion shows, and have preaching and singing. It was just a huge festival that we did. That was the biggest, is the Juneteenth activities, which we did once a year. But with my family, because we had such a huge family, we had a lot of—both side of my family is huge. So we would always have family reunions and everybody would come from down South, and from California, and we would get together, and just have a great time. Go out and rent a park and take over the whole park, get to know our family that we hadn’t seen for years.
Franklin: Right on. Did you attend church?
Sparks: Oh, yes, I attended church.
Franklin: And what church did you attend?
Sparks: All of us that came from Texas, there was a church called Saint John the Baptist Church, that’s in Texas. That’s where I originally started going to church. After we moved to the Tri-Cities, all of my uncles and aunties, and nieces went to New Hope Baptist Church. So our family joined New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, and that’s where we spent a lot of our spare time. They had vacation bible school, they had dinners, so a lot of our social life was centered around the church.
Franklin: What role did the church play in the black community?
Sparks: Actually, the church, if you go back and look at it, it was one of the things that started the civil rights movement. You look at the fact that God created man and made all of us equal. So then you start looking at a lot of the preachers and stuff in our community. It’s like, hey, we’re second to none. You look at a man based on his character but not by the color of his skin. It was very instrumental, a lot of the meetings, Sister Barton, who is one of the city councilmen in the Tri-Cities, she went to my church. The Mitchells, sister Mitchell, their mom went to our church. So a lot of their training as far as speaking publicly, they developed that skill in the church. And their beliefs that all men are created equal and you should treat everyone like you want to be treated, that basic fact was nurtured in the church, and then it grew out into the rest of the community. Even now, the church is the springboard for what happens in that community over there. Because all the meetings, the influential people that’s into the movement came out of the church.
Franklin: Were there any opportunities here that were not available where your parents came from?
Sparks: Oh, there were so many opportunities. Because it was such a little country town, didn’t have the colleges, didn’t have the financial support. If I had have stayed in Texas—I got to tell you a story. My dad when he moved here, he came here first and he got set up in homes. What he did, he sent a letter back to my mother and he said it was really tough out here, because he was away from his family. He had left his children. He did like they did at Hanford Site; he actually left his crops in the field, because he had to move up here really quick. And because he had left all of that he went through a state where he was—you can imagine what he went through, leaving all his children. So he went to a state where he was discouraged. He wrote a letter to my mom, and he told my mom, he said, well, I think I’m going to come back, because he missed his children. My sister, Frankie, intercepted that letter and she knew we didn’t have the same opportunities in Texas as we would have here in the state of Washington, as far as education, homes, sending us children to some of the better schools and stuff. She didn’t give that letter to my mom. That’s why we got here, is because she saw that the opportunities here was really great for us.
Franklin: Where are you in the sibling order?
Sparks: There is fourteen of us and I sit right there in the middle. I am number seven.
Franklin: Oh, yeah? What is the range between the oldest and the youngest?
Sparks: My oldest sister is like 71, and my youngest sister is like 40, 42. So it was a huge range. So for many years—you asked what did my mother do? She made babies. And that’s a lot of labor, a lot of labor.
Franklin: Yes. In what way were opportunities here limited because of segregation and racism?
Sparks: Well, it starts back, if you were a black man and came to the Tri-Cities, you joined the labor local. The labor local took basically unskilled workers, and they taught you how to pull a jackhammer, they taught you how to dig holes. Now, it’s been developed a little higher than it was then, more skilled labor. But it was just—basically, the farmers came and they gave them a skill and that’s what they did. Now what has happened since the Labor Hall developed, then with the changes in the society that the labor unions had to start bringing in more blacks into the halls. When you get into the Electricians’, the Pipefitters’ locals, they had to open it up because of the laws had changed. And even in the Hanford Site, for years, they didn’t have blacks that was moving up through the ranks, but with the government organizations, you can’t do that.
They actually went out with the equal opportunity employee situation, they started bringing blacks in, making them managers, working in the mail rooms: not just the laborers anymore, they started becoming skilled laborers. With the skilled laborer and the money they were making, now they could afford to send their kids to college. The kid has more time to play sports now, he doesn’t have to work in the orchards with his dad. For my case, what it did for me after opening up and my dad started making money, it allowed me to start doing sports; I didn’t have to get up in the morning and work in the garden and stuff anymore. Because I had been a hard worker my whole life, I was just a natural in sports.
Franklin: Makes sense. What schools did you go to?
Sparks: I went to Longfellow Elementary School, I went to Captain Grey Elementary, I went to McLoughlin Junior High, and I graduated from Pasco High School in 1974. I got recruited to wrestle at the University of Washington from 1974 to 1980, and I graduated from the University of Washington in 1982.
Franklin: What did you get your degree in?
Sparks: I got my degree in business economics.
Franklin: How did racism or segregation affect your education?
Sparks: Like I said, I ran into Mr. Ted Ogata, and one man changed my whole perspective on education. Before then, if I had stayed in the system the way that it was set up, I would not had the opportunity to go to the University of Washington. Because even though you get a certificate through the special programs, you cannot apply for the colleges and stuff. If I had not have had Mr. Ogata, I would not have gotten a scholarship to go to the University of Washington. So it would have affected me. Because I did have someone who believed in me and he saw great things that I could do, he pushed me so I got out of that program. But a lot of my buddies did not get out of it, so it did affect them. It affect their income now, it affect their lifestyle, because they didn’t have the same opportunities and opportunities to advance and go to college.
Franklin: Right, they would have been shut out of a lot of--
Sparks: They would’ve been shut out, would’ve been shut out, yeah.
Franklin: To an education.
Sparks: And me, when I was in the University of Washington, one way it affected me—when I got to U-Dub, I started seeing the culture changes and I started seeing the culture shock, the difference in those that have and those that have not. I remember taking a—I think I was taking a logic class and I was struggling with this class. Oh, I was struggling bad. So I was barely getting a C. So the professor brings me into his office and says, you might as well drop out of school. What are you doing here anyway? You’re not going to graduate with a C. I looked at him and I said, well, I may not graduate, but I’ll tell you what. I said, when I get out of school, I’ll make more money than you are making right now. Because I know how much you’re making, and I can drop out right now and become and electrician and make double what you’re making right now. What I did, I wasn’t a nice guy anymore. You challenge me, then I would fight back. And that was a good thing, because you had to have tough skin to make it through the system.
Franklin: Yeah. Could you describe any interactions you or your parents had with other people from other parts of the Tri-Cities?
Sparks: Oh, yeah, I had—because I did sports, I interacted with a lot of people from Pasco, Kennewick, Richland, Walla Walla, Wenatchee. I got to meet a lot of different people. Which was probably the best thing that happened to me because I was raised in an isolated community. So basically I had to end up learning how to speak two languages. Speak the language of my community and speak the language in college, you had to be able to relate to a lot of people. You know, it’s not integrated. If it’s segregated, you can’t get that interface, you can’t grow. You don’t feel comfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable around all races, you can’t go work at Pacific National Laboratory, because we got people from all over the country. You got to be able to get along with everyone.
Franklin: All over the world, right?
Sparks: All over the world. We got them from Japan, we got them from Russia, all over. So that interfacing works to your advantage when you get older. Because now when I interview you, I can speak your language, because I got to sell myself. How can I sell myself if I’m not interfacing with people in the community? So sports helped me a lot in that way. Because I was able to travel all over the United States, even in high school, going to Texas, going to Iowa, Denver, all over the world. I even had an opportunity to go to Japan to mingle with my teammates. We even traveled in a van together from here all the way down to Iowa, circle Oklahoma, go to all the universities, then come back. So we developed a lot of long-lasting friendships.
Franklin: So you graduated in ’82?
Franklin: Then did you come out to work at the Hanford Site?
Sparks: Oh, that’s a long story. [LAUGHTER] I graduated ’82. I had a degree in business economics. I went to University of Washington for five years, and I got out, and I said, I got to go make some money now. So my very first job interview, the guy said, you know what? I applied for a bank. Business economics, go to the bank and get a job. We’ll pay you eight bucks an hour to do this and this and this, and then after so many years, you’d be up to so many bucks an hour. So I went back to what I told that college professor. I said, I can make more money as an electrician than I can make working at the bank.
So what I did, I applied for the apprenticeship program, IBEW, electrical apprenticeship program. That’s how I got to work at the Hanford Site, as an electrical apprentice. And I guess I’ll go one year back. When I was in college, I had an opportunity to come out here and work as an intern. I worked at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory my sophomore year in college. And it’s the craziest thing. My job was, they put me in an animal research laboratory and they had beagles. And the craziest thing, my job was to smoke the beagles. And when Vanis was telling a story about the beagles, it was like identical to my story. But I did it as a summer intern.
So when I started there, I got my feet in the door for PNL, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, so when I came back—which was years later—and applied for a job there, the payroll number that they gave me when I was a kid, I got that same payroll number, which is 35810, to work for the laboratory. So, yeah, I did work at the Hanford Site as an electrician apprentice for four years. When I became a journeyman wireman, I applied for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and I actually became an electrician at the laboratory also.
Franklin: Where did you work out at the Hanford Site?
Sparks: I actually worked throughout the Hanford Site. I worked at the 221-T Plant, I worked at, there was a reactor, I never remember the name of it, but it was out by the river, the deactivated reactor, we did research in there. I worked at the 300 Area, throughout the buildings in the 300 Area, multiple buildings. I worked at FFTF. I worked at—actually, one of the jobs I had was they was going to automate FFTF, and my job was to make the panels that operate the computers and stuff and put those together, the interface panels.
Franklin: What on-the-job training did you receive, if any?
Sparks: Basically, I took four years on-the-job training as an apprentice. I had a journeyman wireman, and they basically take you from doing absolutely nothing about electricity, then you almost become like a plasma physicist. You know everything about it. Actually, I got to the point where I got challenged and I decided to start my business. So I actually started electrical contracting business along with working at the Hanford Site. Because always—my position was always—I knew if they ever let me go, then I would have my own business to fall back on.
Franklin: [YAWN] Sorry, excuse me. Did you acquire any experience or skills on the job that helped you later in life?
Sparks: Like I said, the skills that I learned on the job actually led me into become a businessman. I actually opened my own business, electric contracting business.
Franklin: What’s that called?
Sparks: J and B Sparks Electric. Jevon, my son’s name is Jevon, my daughter’s name is Brittany. So I named it after my son—J and B Sparks Electric.
Franklin: Kind of a good coincidence that your last name is Sparks.
Sparks: Sparks! Everywhere I go, it’s perfect. Automatic advertisement. That’s the Sparks. Pick that guy up! [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Can you describe a typical workday out on the Site?
Sparks: Now? Or when?
Franklin: [COUGH] Sorry, excuse me. I have something stuck in my throat.
Franklin: No, like when you were out on Site as an apprentice when you were working out at Hanford.
Sparks: Actually, as an apprentice, I worked at the WPPSS plant. So my typical day at WPPSS plant would—I would come in at work, there was a crew of probably 50 electricians, we’d meet together. They’d have this guy who would be assigned to me, he would be my journeyman wireman. His supervisor would come up and have a plan of a day meeting. At the plan of a day meeting, he’d give us a task to do. Today, we want you guys to go in those manholes—because all around WPPSS there’s manholes—and we want you to take every manhole up, and we want to drill a hole in that manhole and we’re going to have a pipe to come up through it. So my very first job as apprentice—you’ve seen the movie Conan, when he’s walking around—remember that one deal he had a job where he was actually walking around the whale? My first job was like Conan the Barbarian. I’m out there walking with this big old tap, making holes in these big old huge manhole covers.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Sparks: So that was my typical day. You go out, you get a job, and a lot of your jobs would last for, you know, six months. So then once you get your job, you can report to your job site and do the work. Yeah.
Franklin: What do you recall about working at B Reactor or any of the other buildings and structures still present on the Site today?
Sparks: What I recall is—I was from University of Washington. So I’m coming from a college that’s got 40,000 people or more. Big, huge structures and libraries and stuff all the way, all around the place. So my very first thing, driving up to that reactor, it’s like somebody dropped a nuclear bomb on it. This whole area was just—nothing was there. Nothing but desert and weeds, and I’m thinking, oh, man, what happened here? How did I—I died and went to hell. [LAUGHTER]
So my first day on the job site, I drive out to that reactor, and my car break down. So I’m in the middle of this desert, it’s cold and ice, and my car broke down. And that’s when they had the bus system come through. This guy came through in a bus and picked me up and took me back downtown. But it was really bad. It was really—the rules were not the same as the rules we have now in the building.
Franklin: How so?
Sparks: I remember one building that I worked in, I walked into the building and there was a research project set up. And I looked at the floor, and I said, it looked like the concrete had melted away. It turned out they was doing some type of research and lost whatever they were using, and it actually built a hole in the concrete. And I’m looking at that and said, I don’t want to work here. Because I thought it was not safe. But then over the years, the safety did improve and things are better out there now.
Franklin: How would you describe your relationships with your coworkers and your supervisors or management?
Sparks: I would have to go back to when I was an apprentice. During that time, because a lot of the guys that was working here was what you call travelers. And the travelers that were guys, like out of, say, Texas, and they were up here looking for work. So the travelers had a different attitude about the people that they work with. Most of them was very humble people, and they taught me everything that I needed to know. But every once in a while you’d run into one who wants to treat you like an apprentice. He want you to run and get his coffee, run and get his lunch and stuff for him. But because I was from a background where, being a wrestler, I had been exposed to the senior guy on the team, you would—that’s the way he treated you. The fraternities, they treated you that way in the fraternity. So in my mind, I said, this is just a pecking order. Because the money is so good, no way in the world am I going to walk away from this.
One of the worst incidents that I had on a job site was at WPPSS number 2. Actually, this is when I was in college and I came there to work as an intern. And I was working with one of the older guys there. We were carrying two-by-fours on our shoulder and we was taking them over and stacking them in a pile. Well, he walked past me and hit me upside the head with the two-by-four. And the guy looks at me and I said, oh, that was an accident, huh? He said, yeah, just an accident. But then he came back again. This time, he hit me again, he swung it around, and hit me upside the head. I said, you can’t do that again. Then he looked at me, called me out of my name, and he say, you know what? He said, you took my son’s job. You shouldn’t even be out here. He said, I’m going to kick your butt. So he was behind—there was a big wall like that wall over there. This guy jumped on me, tackled me to the ground—and I’m thinking I’m making more money in my life, but if I don’t get this guy off me, he’s going to hurt me back here. So I actually had to put something on him, get him off of me, control him. And the weirdest thing about it is that we were working in this area where it was like wall was here and wall was there, and it turned out the guys at the job were sitting up there looking at us, and they did not stop it. And I said, why did you do that? They said, oh, we figured it was just a matter of time before you take care of this guy. So yeah, it was some cases of that out there. It wasn’t all good. Yeah.
And another, to go back to the social part of the life, I used to go bowling a lot in Kennewick. After a wrestling match, me and my cousin was out bowling. And we were sitting there bowling. This is when bowling was big time, I mean, the bowling alley was full. Everybody was there, that’s where everybody hung out.
Franklin: Was this the mid-to-late ‘70s?
Sparks: Oh, yeah. It was big time. I’m sitting there bowling, having a good time. And I look up, and there’s two policemen coming in. And I say, what in the heck is this? So everybody—because he comes right out to the bowling lanes. He say, everybody up against the wall! So he makes everybody go up against the wall. He say, you two! He grabbed me and my cousin, and he say, you guys over here. And they took us out. I mean, the whole bowling alley, everybody’s watching—common criminals. I said, what in the world is going on? What happened? He said, a store had got robbed, he said it was a black guy—two black guys, one was tall and one was short. Well, I’m 5’9”. My cousin, he’s about 6’4”, so we fit the description. And the weirdest thing about it is that after he grabbed up, threw us up against the wall, because I’m a wrestler, my next, first reflex is to react. And he went just like this. And if I had reacted further, I would have been shot.
So anyway, he took me to the Kennewick police station, they booked us. And I said, can I call my coach? And they said, why? I said, if I call him, he’ll tell you where I was at when this crime happened. You said the crime happened around 6:00. So I get my coach on the phone, I say, hey, I’m in jail. Can you get on this phone and tell this guy where I was at at 6:00? So he gets on the phone, he said, that is Bobby Sparks, and at 6:00 he was out in Walla Walla. We had a wrestling match in Walla Walla. Because he’s our lightweight, he was on the mat at this time. Will you please let him go? So anyway it, like I said, as I got older and as I started mingling, I started seeing a lot of the racism. Even, this was in, like you say, in the early ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Franklin: Let’s see here. You already kind of covered some of these. How did your racial background figure into your working experiences?
Sparks: You know, it’s the craziest thing. Here I am, let me give you my credentials. I went to University of Washington; I got a degree in business economics. IBEW Local 112, I got electrical training, journeyman wireman. I got my business license, which is electrical administrators for the State of Washington when I started working. So you look at all of my credentials, you say, this guy can go in, and he can get a job anywhere he wants to, based on his past performance. You know, if you look at my application for the companies that I applied for—which, I just found this out recently, and it kind of pisses me off—which is a good deal, I guess, I shouldn’t complain. But instead of going in and hiring me based on my credentials, based on the skill level that I had, they brought me in as an equal opportunity employee, as a special employee. And to me, because I’ve always been a competitor my whole life, I’m thinking, why you got to bring me in that way, instead of bringing me in just normal? So that kind of insulted me, yeah.
Franklin: Right, because that idea is to counteract the bias inherent in hiring and to get us to a world that would be strictly merit-based, that’s the ideal. Even though it doesn’t exist. But you’re saying, I’m coming in under merit, but we’re so far away from that for blacks, that you’re going to bring me in under equal opportunity.
Sparks: Equal opportunity employee. And I looked at that—because I’ve been a competitor. I was a national wrestling champ coming out of high school. I went to University of Washington, I went to NCAAs and I wrestled and I competed at that level. So then to say, you got to change the playing ground for me to get hired, it blew me away. Yeah, blew me away. But anyway, those are some of the things that, because we are in the state of Washington, it’s the unspoken things. And I found this out after about two, three years ago, when I was looking at some of my forms that had the special Affirmative Action stamp on it. And I’m thinking, affirmative action? And the amazing thing about it is that after I’d worked there, and that’s one of the things that I was going to show you, is the accomplishments that I have received after I got there. From EFCOG, which is one of the biggest DOE operations out there, they gave me a special award. They take me to Washington, DC and I got the DOE Secretary appreciation award. So that affirmative deal on my application just blew me away. But anyway.
Franklin: That’s interesting, though, because it seems like one could still argue that without that program you might not have been hired at all. Right? I mean, because that was set up to—because blacks weren’t being hired on merit to begin with.
Sparks: You’re correct. If that had not existed, I would not have been hired. But to me, that’s a slap in the face. You bring in a man who meets all the merits, but he’s not given the opportunity because of the color of his skin. But if I hadn’t have gotten hired, I would have been successful anyway. Because I would have just stepped out on my own and probably become a contractor. Which was what I did. But anyway, that’s just a twist.
Franklin: That’s an interesting wrinkle into the whole thing. In what ways did the security and/or secrecy at Hanford impact your work or daily life?
Sparks: Hm! Even after, like you say, after the early ‘40s and stuff, there was still a lot of proprietary type of things at the Hanford Site and a lot of secrecy. Because a lot of work we was doing was still with—you couldn’t go out—I can’t share right now on this some of the things that I do. So it’s still—it’s not the fact that we building the bomb, but it’s fact that we have companies that we’re working for that were proprietary type of stuff. I can’t just go in and take a picture and give it to you and you show it on this. So the secrecy is still there. But it’s just for other reasons.
Franklin: You mentioned how you were treated on the job. What kinds of interactions did you have with coworkers and supervisors outside of work?
Sparks: Outside of work, it’s like they say, the church is the most segregated thing on Sunday morning.
Franklin: It’s funny, Vanis and Edmon said that yesterday.
Sparks: It is, it’s the same thing. So it’s kind of the same way with—I go to Dallas to a convention and stuff, and one thing I’ve learnt because I’m from Texas, I don’t want to go to convention and hang out and drink with you. Because I’ve been on a wrestling team, and we go to, say University of Minnesota. And as a team, we sit around at a bar and we drinking and we having a good time. Then all of the sudden a little boy who’s got a little problem with me wants to challenge me. So in order for me to stop having those confrontations, then before we get too drunk, I’m leaving. So I learned that a long time ago, at U-Dub, at Arizona State, a lot of the college, you know. You get too much liquor and the tongue gets kind of loose and I get a little upset if you call me out of my name.
Franklin: Yup. You kind of mentioned some of your first impressions of the working conditions, with the concrete melting—you know, the spill and things. What were the most difficult aspects of the job?
Sparks: Because I was from sports, at the time, I was in great physical shape. So as far as the physical side of the job, there was no challenge there. I did have issues with some of the double standards on the job site.
Franklin: Such as?
Sparks: Such as, you and I sitting here, right, and they having a plan of the day meeting. I’m a journeyman, you’re an apprentice. Normally, at a plan of the day meeting, they come to the journeyman and give him the job. But it got to the point that they started going to the apprentice, give the apprentice the job for the day, and then we would walk out. So, I don’t even think they were aware of it; it was like, that happens. So, just that type of deal. The unfair treatment on the job site. Yeah.
Franklin: Let’s see here. So, you mentioned that you worked kind of all over 300 Area, 221, FFTF. How did you feel at the time, during the Cold War, about working on the development of nuclear weapons?
Sparks: See, I’m not that old. I’m only 63. So I didn’t have anything to do with the development of the nuclear weapon. My job was more, after the weapons were developed, I got with the research and development laboratory, and our mission was a little different. Our mission was to clean it up.
Franklin: Right, but in the ‘80s, Hanford was still producing plutonium for the US nuclear weapon stockpile.
Sparks: They were producing plutonium, but, like you say, they weren’t using it. It wasn’t like it was a secret, we’re going to drop this on a country because we’re at war. To me it was more like, especially research, they were finding the effects of it, they were trying to find some medical use. Because I went with research and development. We were more into separating it out than stockpiling it. But you know, it was just like, the threat wasn’t there, we were just trying to compete with Russia, let Russia and all these other countries know that we have it. But Battelle’s mission was different. And a lot of their funding was not for the development of plutonium. The majority they worked with was research and development, maybe for the cigarette companies, automotive companies, and other type of technology.
Franklin: Right, what do they call it? It’s like non-1830 or something?
Sparks: That type of work. And most of the jobs that I did was that type of work. I wasn’t into the development of the bomb.
Franklin: What do you think is the most important legacy of the Hanford Site?
Sparks: The most important legacy of the Hanford Site—I saw the guy from Japan. He came here and he saw the bomb and stuff. And they talked to him, because I guess he was from Nagasaki. And he saw the effects of it. Then after he saw the effects of it, then he comes out here. And we were still praising the bomb. So for him to look at that, and see his family’s affected by it and stuff—it was like, a bad thing.
But now, because it’s cleaning up and trying to rebrand itself and show that we’re trying to get away from the mission of doing this, and now our mission is to help and develop, like you say, different isotopes to help for cancer, isotopes for prostate cancer and all that stuff. Even though they developed that bad stuff, as long as you can use it for some good things, then that is great.
You look at the guy that cried when he saw the bombs, the Richland bomb out there. But you look at it, and I look back at it and I say, if we hadn’t have dropped the bomb, then how many lives would have died, and how many lives was killed at Pearl Harbor? So some good things came out of it, but you can also see the power of the bomb. Now man is able to wipe itself out. So now we have to have some ways of controlling that energy out there after we release, let it out.
Franklin: What did you—so you came here in the mid-‘60s and then grew up here, what did you know or learn about the prior history of African American workers at Hanford?
Sparks: The prior history? The only history I had of the African workers is, like I say, when I visited my granddaddy in Kildare, Texas, and he had a picture of the Hanford—I think it was one of the old pictures of the Hanford Site. He showed me that picture. So the only history I had was the history of my grandfather gave me of the workers coming out here. They don’t talk about the hardship. They’re from Texas, and they’re real private guys. They’re macho men. We just suck it up, put up with it. So he didn’t go into great detail. It was more, to him, it was like, he was proud, because he knew that I was working there at a place where he had built and he was instrumental in pouring the concrete, getting the concrete in.
Franklin: Did he talk about that pride of having—
Sparks: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. I mean, my granddad is a huge man with a booming voice. I’d walk into the house and, boy, how you doing?! He’s yelling at me and stuff. I heard you work at the Hanford Site! He’d say, don’t you know I worked there in da-da-da-da-da?! And he talked a little about the storms and what he did. But he, and a lot of our other family members have land in Texas. So what he did, he didn’t stay here. He made some money, went back and paid for his land, bought him some apartment complexes and homes and stuff, and he lived a great life based on the money that he made at the Hanford Site. So he was really proud of that.
Franklin: So it really kind of changed his life.
Sparks: It do. I mean, I don’t know the exact amount of money that they were making in Kildare at the time, compared to what they was making there. But I heard it was a huge increase in income.
Franklin: Yeah, it certainly was.
Sparks: Huge boom. So, it did, it changed his life drastically.
Franklin: From your perspective, what do you—what were their, the African Americans that worked at Hanford and the Manhattan Project, what were their most important contributions in the areas of work, community life, and civil rights?
Sparks: The guys that work at the Hanford Site, like you say, you look at community life. Not only did they work, but they look back at the community, and they’re saying, dude, you’re back here, you’re breaking your back, you’re making absolutely nothing, just enough to feed your family. If you actually come to the Hanford Site, then you can not only feed your family, but you can raise enough money for your kids to go to college. There’s some opportunities out here that you would never, ever get in Texas. Because in Texas, you couldn’t become an electrician, you couldn’t become a laborer; they didn’t have those trades. You’re a farmer. Either a farmer, or worked in the lumber mills, or you worked on the railroad tracks. And the amount that they paid was below minimum. So there was some huge economic advantages of coming here and moving your family up to a nice home and education. Even sewer system—we didn’t have a sewer system down in Texas. So it was all kind of advantages for coming and working at the Hanford Site.
Franklin: What were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities?
Sparks: The main—it’s weird. I bought a house. Originally I applied for a home in Pasco. They said I didn’t make enough income, money, to buy the home in Pasco. Which is crazy. So then I applied for a home in Kennewick. And they said, oh, yeah, we can let you. It was the same price; it might have just been the institution, but it was weird to me. So I bought the house in Kennewick. And before I bought the house, I had the real estate company that was working for me, and it actually was my buddy. What she did was she brought an old form up, and on this form they even had statements, like no blacks allowed, and this is like, has slave quarters and stuff out there on this form that she gave me. So a lot of discrimination. Ask the question one more time—I think I got kind of sidetracked.
Franklin: No problem. What were the major civil rights issues for African Americans at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities during your time here?
Sparks: Okay. So that’s the one, is housing. The second one is the double standards. You go to east Pasco and we had dirt roads and no sidewalks. So it wasn’t—
Franklin: Compared to west Pasco, right--
Sparks: Compared to west Pasco.
Franklin: --which had sidewalks.
Sparks: Sidewalks, yeah. Another thing is, when I was put in the special class, they didn’t grade me and put me in a special class because you’re special. They put me in the special class because—you know. Because of the color of my skin, is what I assumed it was. So there was issues like that. So those were the main ones to me, is housing and education.
Franklin: What actions were being taken to address those issues?
Sparks: Back then?
Sparks: Basically what they did, it got to the point where people start protesting for equal housing. They knew that in order to make a change, we had to get on the city councils, we had to get into touch with the congressmen to change the way that they looked at the black community. Urban Renewal came in, and one thing that they did—a lot of the houses was really not up to code. So one thing that they did, they removed a lot of those older houses that was out of code which didn’t have septic systems in. They brought new septic systems in, they put sidewalks in. In the schools, they started hiring more black teachers so the kids could have a mentor that they could relate to, and counselors. So those are the things that they did.
Franklin: Who were the important leaders of civil rights efforts in the area?
Sparks: Well, one of the big leaders was, I call her Sister Barton. She was one of the leaders of the civil rights in the area. They had another gentleman by the name of Fletcher, he was another great leader and spokesman for the civil rights movements. They had Jackson, who was—most of these people got into the political side of it—
Franklin: Was that Joe?
Sparks: Yeah, Joe Jackson. They knew if they got on the political side of it they could make a change. They actually had not only Joe Jackson, you had Wayne Jackson also. He was involved in coming in and working with the cities to improve the conditions in east Pasco.
Franklin: What were some notable successes of the civil rights movement?
Sparks: Notable successes? Well, I guess I’m one of them. I’m a notable success. Because they made us—they made the government—the unions started counting how many people of color they had working in their armed forces and the services and stuff. And they started seeing there was none, and it wasn’t compatible to what the population was. So then they tried to go in there and ratify that—to take care of it.
Franklin: What were some of the biggest challenges?
Sparks: The biggest challenges? The biggest challenge is to change the culture. You have people who have believed for a long time that this is right. So you have to change that, to show them that it was not right. It was just wrong.
Franklin: Yeah. And you’ve stayed at Hanford since you came here in the apprentice program, right? Or you stayed at Hanford/PNNL?
Franklin: Did you move away at all, or--?
Sparks: No. When I left college in ’82, I started working at Hanford, and I’ve been out there for 34 years. Actually, I’m getting ready to retire from the Hanford Site. So like I said, the conditions are really good. They question the safety of it, but the safety is probably—their record is better than any other records in the state of Washington when it comes to safety. So I’ve enjoyed working there. It’s been a great career.
Franklin: Good. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in the Tri-Cities during the Cold War?
Sparks: During the Cold War? Future generations? Basically, asked me that a long time ago. It’s that basically you got to treat a man the way you want to be treated. If I was to bring my child out there, and he was to get a job at the Hanford Site, I want them to come in there with the knowledge that you are equal. The amazing thing about the Hanford Site is you can be everything from a plasma physicist to, you can be a laborer. There’s so many different jobs that you can do out there, and so many different people, and so much knowledge that you can get from the Hanford Site. Because, like I said, you got the science, you got the biology, you got fishing—I mean, you name it, PNNL has it. And then you got the other sites, which they’re in the process of cleaning it up and making it better. So they still have that also. As far as a place to work, and not only do you work at the Hanford Site—Hanford reaches out to all over the United States. There’s jobs in Seattle and Sequim, Washington. Places you can work doing research with fish, with animals. So it’s very diverse. It’s the most diverse place that you can find for work, is at the Hanford Site.
Franklin: Is there anything else 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?
Sparks: I think I covered it all.
Sparks: I think I dipped into everything.
Franklin: Yeah, you did a really great job.
Sparks: I think I did.
Franklin: Well, thank you, Bobby. I really appreciate you taking the time and coming to interview with us.
Sparks: Oh, thank you for interviewing me. Yeah.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
FFTF (Fast Flux Test Facility)
WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply Systems)