Interview with Cornelius Walker
McNary Lock and Dam (Or.)
An interview conducted by the African American Community Cultural and Educational Society (AACCES) as part of an oral history project documenting the lives of African Americans in the Tri-Cities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Vanis Daniels: Mr. Walker, we would like to conduct an interview with you as to when you came to the Tri-City area. And the reason why we are wanting to conduct an interview with you—we are with the Triple-A-S History and Recognition Committee and we would like to interview you to find out the part that blacks played in developing the Pacific Northwest and their contributions to like World War II and the Tri-Cities in general and the Pacific Northwest since then. So, my first question to you is, do you remember when you arrived in the Tri-City area, what year did you come here?
Cornelius Walker: ’48.
Daniels: In 1948.
Daniels: Did you come by yourself, or did you come with someone, like a group of people?
Walker: I traveled by myself.
Daniels: You traveled by yourself. Where did you live before you came to the Tri-Cities?
Walker: I lived in Vallejo, California.
Daniels: And before Vallejo?
Walker: St. Louis.
Daniels: And before St. Louis?
Walker: Gregory, Arkansas.
Daniels: Say that again?
Walker: Gregory, Arkansas.
Daniels: Gregory, Arkansas. Okay. What kind of work did you do in Arkansas, before you—
Walker: Farm work.
Daniels: Farm. And when you went to St. Louis, what kind of work did you do?
Walker: I worked in the steel foundry.
Daniels: How many years did you work in St. Louis at the steel foundry?
Walker: Oh, I’d say about, it was pretty close to two years.
Daniels: And then, when you went to Vallejo, what kind of work did you do there?
Walker: Worked at the shipyard.
Daniels: How many years did you work at the shipyard in California?
Walker: Oh, I would say almost three years, around.
Daniels: Do you remember how old you were when you left Vallejo and came to the Tri-Cities?
Walker: Oh, wait a minute—no, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Hold on now. Just wait just a minute. Erase that. When I left—
Walker: No, I left Vallejo and came here.
Walker: Vallejo. Now, ask the question over again.
Daniels: Okay. Do you remember how old you were when you left Vallejo and came to the Tri-Cities or Pasco?
Walker: I must’ve been 22, I believe.
Daniels: Okay. Why did you leave Vallejo and come to Pasco?
Walker: Because I heard it was better jobs up in here. And I think, I’m pretty sure, some of the Hanford work had started and I just heard it was better construction work up here.
Daniels: Do you remember—I’m getting kind of personal, but do you remember your rate of pay when you came here, against what you were making in Vallejo?
Walker: Oh, I think we was at that time, we must’ve been getting $0.80-something an hour. That was at the shipyard. So when I came—no, at the ship—let me get it straight. I left the shipyard and started working construction. I worked at Fairfield, California. Vacaville, I worked there, all up through there. Of course, my company had a job, I’d go one job to the other one. When I left there, I came here.
Daniels: Okay. And you heard about Hanford and that it was paying more money?
Walker: Oh, yeah. They said there was a lot of work out here. I wouldn’t worry so much about the pay. I was young, I was looking for longer work, you know.
Daniels: I understand.
Leonard Moore: Did he stay in construction work?
Daniels: Did you stay in construction work?
Daniels: Okay. Now, when you left Vallejo and came here, did you come by car or train, bus--?
Daniels: Oh, okay. And did you come to—you came from Vallejo to Pasco by yourself?
Walker: Right, I didn’t have no—I didn’t travel with friends. That’s the way I’d make it by myself. I didn’t travel with friends. I just—because I didn’t want to get nobody—if I found me the bed, I wouldn’t need to help nobody. So I just traveled by myself.
Daniels: Now, do you remember when you first came to the Tri-Cities or Pasco, do you remember where you lived?
Walker: I got a job and I lived at the—North Richland, in the barracks.
Daniels: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about your living conditions? What was it like?
Walker: It was really nice there. We had good food, we had the maid change the beds and everything—it was a joint to clean the barracks everyday. It was good living conditions there. I really did like it there.
Daniels: Now, did you eat in a mess hall, or did—in the barracks, were you allowed to do your own cooking, or did you eat in the mess hall?
Walker: No, they had a big mess hall. [INAUDIBLE] They had a small one first before they got the big one built, then they closed down the little ones, small ones. Of course, you know, they really started hiring later, and they had to get that done where the men had a place to stay and eat. That was their position, to feed the mens and house them.
Daniels: Now, after you came here and went to work, do you remember what areas you worked in?
Walker: Well, I didn’t work in the Area at first, because I worked for a company, J.A. Turlin. Richland was classified as the Area, but it wasn’t out in the Area that we might be speaking about.
Daniels: Okay. How did they treat you? I mean, when you lived in the barracks out at Richland, was they segregated? Were they mixed?
Walker: Oh, they was mixed. There wasn’t no segregation at that time. They didn’t have separate barracks for this race, they all lived together. If there was room in a certain barracks, that’s where we went, wherever they wanted to put you at. There was nothing about like no segregation.
Daniels: Now, once you got to the barracks, how did you get to and from your job, from the barracks to your job and back to your barracks?
Walker: They had transportation for that. Worked their way from the barracks.
Daniels: Again, were you a skilled craftsman or did you do plain labor, or what did you do?
Walker: I did labor work, like that. Most of the time, I did skilled work because I was a pipe layer. I laid pipe. So that would be classified as skilled work, but it’s labor skill.
Daniels: Again, would you give me the name of the person you worked for?
Walker: The company?
Walker: J.A. Turlin.
Daniels: J.A. Turlin, okay. Now, I want you to tell me in your own words how you felt about working at Hanford. And before you say anything, when I ask you this, coming from Arkansas to St. Louis to Vallejo, California to the Tri-Cities, the transition is what I’m trying to get from you, as to whether you felt that you were treated right or you felt comfortable with your job and with your supervisors, or did they sort of, I guess what I want to say is, kind of intimidate you?
Walker: No, there was no intimidation. I had a good job, and the bosses all, from the superintendent down, were just like that with me. Because they believed in me, they trusted me, over the crew, over the type of work we were doing. Because they knew if they sent me on, it’s going to be done. That’s the reputation I had.
Daniels: Now, what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to—and this is the entire area, including your work—when you came to the Tri-Cities? And that means the social life, after work, at work, the area in general, you know, was built up, was it shacks? Whatever it was.
Walker: No, no, it wasn’t no shacks. It was all new barracks. They’d build ‘em, they’d move them in. Because that’s the way they was hiring at the time. They couldn’t hire too many mens at the time and have somewhere for them to stay. They didn’t come, or hire nobody that they would depending on having them find place for themself. They had a place for them.
Daniels: Now, do you remember what you did once you got off work as far as social life? Was there places to go? Could you go out and eat dinner or maybe dance, or whatever your preference were?
Walker: No, there wasn’t no places like that then. Because Richland was the closest place, and it wasn’t built up. At the time, the places that was, they was kind of segregated, you know? So I didn’t worry about going to them of course. We had fun at the barracks, we could play ball like with the fellows around there, you all got together, you could do that.
Moore: Did you play baseball?
Walker: Beg your pardon?
Moore: Did you play baseball?
Walker: Yeah, I played a lot of baseball. But I didn’t get as good as I wanted to get. Of course, I wanted to go to the big leagues. But then my situation I had come here to work and so forth so I just kind of forgot about it.
Daniels: I see. In working out at Hanford, did anybody ever tell you, or did you ever know, the project you were working on? What I mean by that is, did you know what—when you built whatever you built, worked on whatever you worked, did you know what they were going to do with it after you got it built?
Walker: Well, I know is something was on a chemical plant, like I said. Something I worked at before they started building the building, I was laying pipe and such as that.
Daniels: And nobody ever told you that this was to further the war effort or anything like that? Where you worked, were you allowed to talk about it after you got off work with people that you knew?
Walker: It was explained to us, they didn’t want the mens going out doing talk about the Project. They was explaining that to you at least once a month. Of course, there’s new guys coming in. They just wouldn’t take the new guys; they’d go over everything with the old guys, too. They listened to it, too. They had to.
Daniels: I see. Can you tell me a little bit—I understand that you left here in the early ‘50s and did a lot of work in Alaska, but you would come back. You still had a family and a home and all that stuff here. So can you tell me a little bit about your travels and your jobs and how you would progress through the years and able to retire and—
Walker: Well, when I would go to Alaska, I always had good jobs—always had a job. I had people, after the first year, I had companies that I’d work for and when they got ready for me, they would either send for me, or if I didn’t have the money, they would send it and just get the ticket and come over. They’d refund the ticket. Them kind of people I would work for, and that’s the kind of job—I was a hard worker, taking care of my own business. I didn’t associate—it was all right, but I didn’t associate, drinking. A lot of guys get off from work, they’d sit around the barracks and drink and get drunk. Well, that wasn’t my thing, because I didn’t drink. So not that I thought I was more than they were. They weren’t doing what I liked to do. I found God, we sat down, sometimes we’d play cards. You could play cards and all that stuff. Sit down and talk about some of your back-life, where you come from and how you come up and all of that.
Daniels: Do you remember any African Americans or black people, do you remember the names of any of them that you worked with while you worked here at Hanford?
Walker: Mm—names I don’t hold in my head so good. But let me see if I can think of some of them.
[man off-camera]: I’m going to stop it right here.
[man off-camera]: Okay, go ahead.
Daniels: Okay, I understand that you worked on McNary Dam, and at the time, you moved from the barracks to Pasco. Can you tell me where you lived when you came to Pasco?
Walker: Mm, let me see now. Where did I move when I moved from Pasco? I really—I’m sorry to say, I really don’t know exactly where I was living at the time.
Moore: Was it a house or a trailer?
Walker: It was a house.
Moore: But here in east Pasco?
Daniels: When you—do you remember what year you worked on the dams?
Walker: I don’t know exactly what year I worked—I know it was in the ‘50s.
Moore: In the ‘50s.
Daniels: Would it have been ’50, ’51 and maybe the first part of ’52?
Walker: I worked there in ’52, I know that, yeah. I worked at the dams a little while.
Moore: What kind of work did you do?
Daniels: What kind of work did you do at the dam?
Walker: Well, I was just labor, but I worked in concrete.
Daniels: And you can’t remember any of the names of the people, either by nickname or real name, that you worked with?
Walker: Oh, one guy, Stan Cooper, he lived up in Hermiston. Stan Cooper. That was one guy. Let’s see, I’m trying to think now. You know, I just can’t call it now. It been long time.
Daniels: That’s okay if you can’t remember.
Walker: And got old. Other things have happened since then. [LAUGHTER]
Daniels: Now, do you have any pictures or anything of any of that area back in there that you might want to share with us?
Walker: No, I don’t have no pictures. I’m sorry.
Daniels: Well, do you know of anyone else that we might be able to talk with and interview and get some information from them?
Walker: Not other people that worked on the dam with, they gone. But one guy, I don’t know if he’s still living or not. I don’t think he’s still living, because he used to come over and see me every year. That was EC Stalker. I worked with him. I just don’t know.
Daniels: Can you tell us a little bit about your kids and grandkids?
Walker: I just had that one kid. I got another boy, but I don’t know which way he went after I left St. Louis. I used to try to keep up with him, but when they got of age, they just get away from their parents sometimes.
Moore: But you had the one daughter.
Moore: Her name was—your daughter’s name was Eva?
Walker: No, not Eva. Martha.
Moore: Martha. Okay.
Daniels: Yeah, and your grandkids? Names?
Walker: Avery and Elvis.
Daniels: All right.
Moore: They don’t live around here.
Walker: They live in Fresno, California.
Daniels: [whispering] Shut it off just a sec.
Moore: Ask him about the house.
Daniels: Okay, now.
Walker: We didn’t come by that house. They didn’t buy because they had no money to buy from. Walter, the husband, he worked over there at the cemetery. And right across the street, he got acquainted with these people. On account of him associating and so forth, the people—
Moore: Let me have you start over, because we don’t know who these—
Daniels: Now, can you tell us about your daughter and son-in-law living in Kennewick and owning a home?
Walker: Well, this is what happened. Her husband were working at the cemetery, and right across the street, the people lived. So he got acquainted and the peoples gave him the home. They gave him a home, but the people didn’t want him to live over there. So in order for them not to live over there, somebody just set the house on fire and burned it down. By them, hadn’t been able to get insurance and everything, so there wasn’t nothing left for them but to get out of there.
Daniels: So, in the early years, there was still prejudices in the Tri-Cities, and this is one example of what you could and could not do in the Tri-Cities, or what they wanted you to do and what they didn’t want you to do.
Walker: Well, like job and things, if hye didn’t want you on, you wasn’t gonna have no job. That’s just it, because they wouldn’t hire you. All there wasn’t a contractor for, some do union, like that. We had a business here, maybe you know who I’m talking about, because his name Charlton Knapp.
Walker: He was really prejudiced. He wouldn’t send a black man out on no kind of good job. He’d just have to—contractor started squawking, you finds me mens! So that’s the only way they got out.
Moore: He was a union?
Walker: Yeah, he finished his BA.
Daniels: He finished his Business Agent.
[man off-camera]: And what was his name?
Walker: Charlton Knapp.
Moore: Okay. So there was—let me turn this off for a minute.
Walker: Be caught after dark. That’s just the way it was. They wasn’t mean people, but there was mean people over there. You know, mean people, and they would hurt you if you were caught over there. If you doing—if you had to go the store or something over there, do some business, get out of there before dark.
Moore: That was Kennewick.
Walker: You know, at the time, when I first got going, it wasn’t too many black people living nearby. It was like four or five there and some of them had they own homes, some of them was just there. But as time went by and all the work started, then they had to hire black because they was crying for people to come to work. At one time, young white peoples, they was kind of like scared to go up there. They wouldn’t take the chance that the black would take. They had a job, man, they kept it. Most of them did have jobs here. But a lot of black people left their jobs here because a lot of them wouldn’t study. They had no future to look out for. They working when they needed them, but when they got done, you didn’t have no job. So that’s the way that went.
Walker: Moving to Anchorage, they got good jobs, they had foreman jobs. Of course, they had the opportunity to have ‘em, because they needed fresh peoples there. The man needed somebody to work. On a lot of jobs, they didn’t want to work black, but they had to. And then when the union got strong, when they called—you can call, you could call and request us all the time but they weren’t calling for nothing but white people. The union broke that up. You say, you call, I got mens. I’ll send you who available. If it don’t work out, send them back to the hall.
Daniels: Yeah. Okay, Mr. Walker, that concludes our interview. We want to thank you and hopefully we have gotten some information and we thank you very much for your interview.
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