Interview with Joe Williams
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
[camera operator]: It’s recording.
Vanis Daniels: I better turn mine on?
[camera operator]: No.
[camera operator]: Go ahead.
Daniels: Good afternoon, my name is Vanis Daniels. We are here to interview Mr. Joe Williams. We are from the Historical and Recognition Committee, which is a sub-committee of Triple-A-S. We would like to interview you and find out, if we could, please, some of the things that you did when you first came to the state of Washington, and why you came. We’ll start with, when did you arrive in the Tri-City area?
Joe Williams: Is Tri-City and Hanford the same thing?
Williams: In 1943, I think. It was in February.
Daniels: Did you come alone? Or if not, who came with you?
Williams: My wife, and the three other fellow workers.
Daniels: Okay, could you give me their names, please?
Williams: I can give you their nicknames. One of them they called Long Coat and the other one High Pocket.
Daniels: Okay. And your wife’s name?
Williams: Was Velma.
Daniels: Okay. Approximately how old were you?
Fields: He was a young man.
Williams: Years, I can’t remember, but I was pretty young then.
Daniels: Where did you live before you came to the Tri-Cities? Where did you come from when you came to the Tri-Cities?
Williams: From California.
Fields: And prior to that, where were you? Where did you come from?
Daniels: Yeah, where were you originally from?
Fields: Because he came from the South.
Williams: Where I’m originally from?
Williams: South. Alabama. Atmore, Alabama.
Daniels: Okay. What kind of work did you do in Alabama, before you left Alabama?
Williams: Well, I was putting out magnesite, and spark-proof and concrete and bricks.
Daniels: And after you moved to California?
Williams: The same trade. I was shipped from Alabama to California.
Daniels: Okay. How did you hear about Hanford?
Williams: I was sent from Mare Island Navy Yard, by the Col., to Hanford.
Daniels: And you decided to come because of your job?
Williams: I was drafted.
Daniels: How did you travel when you came to Hanford? By car, train --?
Williams: By car.
Daniels: Okay. And how long did it take you to get here?
Williams: They gave us five ten-hour days to drive from California up here, but we couldn’t drive but 25 miles an hour. Five working days.
Daniels: Where was the first place you stayed after you arrived in the Tri-Cities? Or at Hanford?
Williams: Hanford. I stayed at Barrack 205. At Hanford.
Daniels: Okay. Now, was that a segregated barracks, or was it--?
Daniels: How did you get to and from work? That means from the barracks to the job and back.
Williams: They had what they called buses that they’d bus us from the cafeteria to the job.
Daniels: And what kind of work did you do after you went to work?
Williams: See, I was a brick layer, cement finisher, and putting out spark-proof and magnesite.
Daniels: Now, do you remember any of the areas that you worked in out there at Hanford?
Williams: 200-East, 200-West, and 205.
Daniels: Do you remember the name of your employer, the man that you worked for? Or the company you worked for?
Williams: It was Marine Decking Company out of New York. But at that time, DuPont had the job—assumed it from the government. And we were transferred out there to put out magnesite and spark-proof. And rubberizing those plug tanks.
Daniels: How did you feel about working at Hanford?
Williams: Oh, I felt the same working one place I did; it didn’t make no difference. Because I working strictly on the old manpower labor board.
Daniels: How were you treated on your job?
Williams: Well, on the job, fine. Didn’t have no trouble. It was segregated. The black worked with the blacks, and the white worked with the whites.
Daniels: What was the hardest thing you found that you had to get adjusted to by being in a new place and new surroundings?
Williams: Well, at that time I had been transferred about 20 times–it wasn’t nothing to get adjusted to because I be used to it.
Daniels: What did you and your coworkers do in your off hours? When I ask you that, I mean like, where did you go, where did you spend your time? You know, like if you had clubs you could go to, or churches. What did you do for relaxation, I guess I’m asking you.
Williams: They had a big room, there in those barracks–that were full wing barracks–and one room was a rec-room. And in that rec-room they had every kind of game that you could play, or you could do this. If you wanted to shoot dice or gamble in the middle of the week or the street, it was legal.
Daniels: Let’s shut it off.
Daniels: Okay. How long did you work at Hanford?
Williams: Three-and-a-half years.
Daniels: Okay. Now, did you have any idea what you were working on? Did they give you any information about what you were doing? Did they say anything to you as to whether you should talk about what you were doing or anything like that?
Williams: You couldn’t talk about nothing you was doing. With nobody.
Daniels: And, did you know what—have any idea what you were building or what you was contributing to, or anything?
Williams: Nope. Because you go in one cell; if you was in Cell 45, you wouldn’t know what they was doing in Cell 18–now, you stuck with 45. And that’s where I was stuck, on Cell 45.
Leonard Moore: And Cell 45, it was a work room?
Williams: No, that down in the ground, 45 feet deep.
Moore: Oh, it was an area.
Williams: Uh-huh. Where you had the rubberizing. Rubberizing, spark-proofing and all like that. No crew worked—they worked in once place. It wasn’t the way you work here and work there. I was assigned out as being a chief rubberizer, spark-proof, stop any leaks that ever started. That’s what we were transferred all the way from back east here for that. Weren’t but eight peoples in the United States had that trade and I was dumb enough to be one out the eight.
Moore: Let’s talk about the barracks.
Daniels: Okay. In living in the barracks, were you and your wife able to live together?
Daniels: Would you tell us a little bit about how you guys lived out in the barracks?
Williams: She lived in the women barracks and I lived in the men barracks. And they had wired fences up like penitentiary around all the women barracks. And the only way you could get in there—you had to get—you could visit–and they had a big rec-room and that’s far as you could get. You didn’t know what room she slept in, or didn’t know nothing. You could go in the rec-room, that’s far as you could go. But she could come to the men’s barracks, down there, and go all the way through it. But a man couldn’t go in the women’s barrack without going through the police, or the guard, or whatever he was.
Daniels: Okay. Do you remember any African Americans that you worked with at Hanford? Any black people?
Williams: Did I remember--?
Daniels: Remember any of them’s names?
Williams: In the beginning or the ending?
Daniels: All the way through.
Williams: Well, in the beginning, no. I just knew the one that was shipped out. Eight of us had this trade in the United States, the whole United States, only eight of us had this, what they can stop any leaks, rubberize all [UNKNOWN] tanks. And that’s why we were transferred all over the country. But later on up in the year I recognized some. But we never knew what each other was doing. Us four was together, but they never would let but two of us work side by side. It always be somebody else that you didn’t know and they didn’t know you when you was in those cells.
Daniels: Okay. Now, If, when you—after, in other words, since you couldn’t talk about what you did, and you didn’t know what the project was about, when did you learn that you were working on the Manhattan Project or that you were helping the war effort by the job that you were doing?
Williams: After they started testing it. We didn’t know what we was doing. We was just doing, in one cell. Men worked in 45 cells, and I don’t know nothing but for the one. You don’t work—don’t nobody work in each other’s cells. About five different craftsman worked in the cells. And we was on the high—what they call it, when it says, it started at one up to three?
Williams: Yeah. Q Clearance.
Williams: And 45, that was the toughest ward in the whole place because it was 45 foot in the ground. And now what happened in the other cells, I don’t know no more than you do. That’s the only cell I worked in.
Daniels: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the things that you have done since you left Hanford?
Williams: Oh, I left Hanford, and come to Pasco and started to try to do business there and had things where the banks didn’t lend no money on the east side of 4th Street. And we started a little mortgage company. A bunch of us pooled-in. And about the time as it got ready to start up and draw a little money out and leave, one more guy had a little write-up in a paper that we’re going through anyway. And then here come a guy out of Spokane with Intermountain Mortgage started to lending money there in Pasco.
Daniels: And once they started loaning money, did you go into business for yourself? And if so, what kind of business and were you prosperous in your adventure?
Williams: Yeah, I started in the home building, which, that’s all I ever do. I started at 15 years old.
Daniels: And you owned your own company?
Daniels: And did you always live in the Tri-Cities? Or did you leave the Tri-Cities?
Williams: Yeah, I left Tri-Cities and worked in Alaska.
Daniels: How long did you live in Alaska?
Williams: Twenty-some years.
Daniels: Did you own your own business in Alaska?
Daniels: Then you left Alaska, and--?
Williams: Come to Oregon to retire. More like retarded.
Daniels: And since you have been here in Oregon, have you enjoyed it? How has life been here in Oregon for you?
Williams: It’s like a dream come—a good dream come true.
Daniels: Were you able to do any extra work, or anything after you moved here to Oregon?
Williams: I stayed flooded with work.
Daniels: And you built—how many homes have you built since you’ve been down here in Oregon?
Williams: About thirty-something.
Daniels: All right. And is there any of them close enough where we could look at them?
Daniels: Can I ask one personal question, and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. What range of house would you build? Did you build?
Williams: I built dream homes.
Fields: Sure did.
Daniels: That’s all I needed to know.
Daniels: Mr. Williams, since you left Hanford and after you left Hanford and moved to the Tri-Cities and started your own business, could you tell us a little bit about your life at Hanford? And before we get started with you, I would like to introduce your daughter, Bessie May Williams--
Fields: Doctor Bessie May Williams-Fields. And this is my father, Joe Williams. And I am the second child of my father and my mother, Velma and Joe.
Daniels: Now, if you could, could you tell us a little bit about your life after you moved to Pasco from Hanford?
Williams: You talking to me?
Daniels: Mm-hmm. And Mrs. Fields—Fields.
Williams: What part of that life you asking about?
Daniels: Well, what did you--
Fields: I can share some basic stuff that I remember, when my father—A long time ago, you know where they had the railroad tracks? Front Street is where I remember living there with my father and my mother and their children, my sisters and brothers. And we lived in a house that I think dad built himself, and he also built a café there. There were very, very few people of color living in Pasco at that time. It was a lot of tumbleweeds. When my father moved up on Orange Street, there was nothing but tumbleweeds. And that’s where you built, he built a really, really nice house on Orange Street. But he’s built numerous homes on Orange Street.
And they also started the first church there in the state of Washington—Pasco, Washington. My uncle, my father, my mother, they started praying in their homes, and they started uniting together and from that became the biggest church in Pasco, Washington today, Morning Star Baptist Church. Tremendous minds got together and they did tremendous things.
Daniels: Wait, just before you start.
[camera operator]: Go ahead.
Daniels: Make sure you tell us about the red line. In other words, once you got past 1st Street or 4th Street, or wherever it was, nobody would loan you any money. Where they red-lined east Pasco.
Williams: Oh yeah. Okay, I see.
Daniels: Mr. Williams, could you tell us a little bit about the living conditions and the availability of funds for black people or being able to better yourself in Pasco?
Williams: The banks had a boundary. Nobody on the east side of 4th Street would they lend. Nobody, to nobody. On the east side of 4th Street.
Daniels: And, you said that you started your own little banking industry?
Williams: Just me and my brother-in-law and the relations and a friend pooled up X amount dollars and was going to start a loaning company. And, when we got up to where we had about, oh, $60,000-$70,000, before we could open it up, they chickened out. Well, me and one of the boys just kept on and we pretend that we was doing it, and it got in the paper. And then Intermountain Mortgage come out of Yakima and started to lending money then. We put the bluff in there because Buck and Luzell and all them chickened out. And we just had that in the paper that we were going to go ahead anyway. And that’s what started the foreigners coming in as an outfit for Intermountain Mortgage out of Spokane, Washington.
Daniels: And were you able to go in restaurants, and sit down and have a meal? Or was it segregated? How did you do for getting haircuts, et cetera, et cetera?
Williams: Well, it wasn’t any place, legally, for haircuts. And we had one colored guy run a café there, that’s the only one you could go in. I forget the name of it. And no place for cleaning or laundry; you had to settle to Walla Walla, Washington.
Daniels: Okay. Fields, you went to school in Pasco. Could you elaborate on that a little bit for us? Tell us about the conditions, the hardships you ran into. And just growing up and going through school.
Fields: I started school, I think, around 1945, and I graduated in 1958. During that time there were not a lot of people of color going to school. There are very few people that I can think of that was real inspirational in terms of my academic years in school. I do remember that I had a math teacher that was an excellent teacher, Mr. Metcalf. But I found, as a person of color, I did not have a lot of support; I didn’t have a lot of encouragement in terms of what I should do with my mind. I was always told that I had good dexterity, which I was real good in my fingers, and I was encouraged to, perhaps, be a beautician.
To me that was like an insult, because I felt that, maybe if black people were still picking cotton, that would have been a perfectly good place for me to go, because I had good dexterity in my hands, to start picking cotton. But I didn’t get the kind of encouragement and the support I think I could have gotten had we not had a segregated, in some sense of the word, even though blacks and whites did go to school together. But they did not, specifically did not want you to mingle together. Because I and another student, a white male, and me, a black woman, or student, was holding hands as we walked down the halls in the school, going to each other’s locker. And we was called into the principal’s office, and sat down, and talked to us about, do your parents know that you’re black and he’s white and you guys are co-mingling together? And made a big deal out of something that was really relatively nothing.
So, my experiences at the high school level was not the most positive experience that I had.
No jobs. When I graduated from high school, did you see people as role models? Black people that you could look up and say, wow, I can do that. No, you didn’t have any role models, so what could you do? I left there, what, in the ‘60s? I think I left maybe—no, I think I left there in 1959, Pasco. Because I saw no way for me to—I didn’t have role models. You need role models. You need people support and encourage you. You have family, but what about, you know, other people? It just wasn’t there at that time. Hopefully it’s different now, but I don’t know.
Fields: --you can ask me that.
Daniels: Yeah. Back to Williams. In the Tri-Cities, was there, like, any other high schools around? What do you know about blacks and academically? And, just, how was it?
Fields: I think, in terms of academia, and blacks at this college –not college, but—yeah, I did go to Columbia Basin College for a while. But prior to that, while I was in high school, in fact, when I graduated there was only two of us that graduated the year that I graduated in ’58. But my experience academically, there wasn’t, like I said earlier, a lot of academic support for people of color.
And in terms of working at Hanford, I wasn’t cognizant that they was even hiring people at Hanford. Coming out of high school, no one ever told me that there was job openings at Hanford that I could even try to apply to a position. So, I did not work there, nor did I even know they was hiring people to work there at that time when I graduated from high school. I just tried to look at the shops and maybe get a job at some of the shops, but I was never hired. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. [LAUGHTER]
Daniels: Did you intermingle with any of the high school kids from Kennewick and Richland?
Fields: No, I think Kennewick was kind of like, and Richland, was kind of, forbidden territory. You know, you wasn’t, you didn’t feel accepted when you went there. So, I didn’t really go over there very often. Seldom. Very seldom did I ever go. And I’d heard of experiences of people of color who had gone over there and they were negative experiences, so therefore you wasn’t encouraged to go over there.
[camera operator]: Go ahead.
Daniels: Okay, Dr. Fields, you have since gone on and furthered your education. Would you like to tell us about it?
Fields: Yes, I did. I went to Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. I left Pasco, Washington and moved to the state of Oregon. I got married, and I married a person by the name of Fredrick Marshall Fields. He was black. He also went to Pasco Senior High School. But I left there. We had two children. And then I went back to school and I got a baccalaureate degree in education, because I wanted to teach children.
And when I graduated with my degree in elementary ed., at the same time that I graduated, Portland State University, who I never even applied for a position, called me up and asked me would I apply for a position there? And I also had an offer to teach sixth grade in the state of Oregon. But then when I thought about it, why not work at the college, because that’s like working at the house of knowledge, and you can work and go to school constantly. So, then I worked there for 12 years, and during that 12 years I completed my Master’s Degree in counseling, so I was counseling when I left.
And then I left there and I went on vacation in Alaska. I was hired there, almost, like, on the spot, to work as a counselor there. And then, while I was there working at the house of knowledge again, I went back to college and I got my doctorate in education administration. And I still work in academia today. I teach college and I’m also a counselor. And then I also do work with people who are mentally and physically challenged.
Daniels: And how many sisters and brothers do you have?
Fields: It’s ten of us all together. And I’m the second of ten. And I think there are nine of us currently living in—well, maybe there could be one brother living in Pasco, or in the state of Washington now.
Daniels: Could you tell us a little bit about what they do?
Fields: I have a sister that’s an accountant. I have a brother that’s working for the federal government. I have another sister who worked on the pipeline in Alaska. Some working for Boeing. And so, all of us are doing quite well in the fields that we chose.
Moore: So, basically with Mr. Williams coming to this area, and raising his family here, it brought a lot to the area as a whole. Okay, so, that’s what we want to get out of that.
Williams: In Hanford, you was associated with your grade average. Peoples you knew you didn’t have nothing to do with them because your average was up here—your Q Clearance, and you stayed in the back with the peoples on the same Q clearance, eat with them, all the time. But the rowdy bunch, they couldn’t stay in the barracks that the guys with the high Qs lived in. They couldn’t eat in the mess hall with the high Qs. And I had Q-4, the highest. There was only ten of us. That’s all I can give you on account of the ten of us that worked together.
Moore: So, you were pretty isolated.
Williams: Yeah. We were totally isolated.
Fields: Very isolated.
Williams: See, the highest you could go was Q-4, and I was Q-4. And when it got down—all ten of us wasn’t no Q-4. There was only three of us made Q-4.
[camera operator] Okay, go ahead.
Williams: We did have a trailer. I pulled it down there just for that short period of time, then I bought them the thing from the railroad.
Daniels: When you first moved to Pasco, you lived in a trailer --
Daniels:--and then from a trailer then you built--
Daniels: Okay, Mr. Williams, after you moved to Pasco, how did you live? Was it in a trailer, a house, or apartment?
Williams: When I first went there I pulled a trailer in there. We lived in there. And the railroad had a row of one room of I think about six, and then one that had two rooms in it, and I bought that from the railroad on Front Street. And then from Front Street, I started to go on east building something to live in decent.
Daniels: And when you left the Tri-Cities, did you own your own home when you finally relocated to Alaska?
Williams: You mean, did I own my home in Alaska?
Daniels: In Pasco.
Williams: Yeah, I had seven homes there.
Daniels: That’s what I’m trying to get out of you. And then you relocated in Alaska.
Fields: And built beautiful homes in—beautiful dream homes in Alaska. As well as in The Dalles, Oregon.
Daniels: Were you allowed to build on the west side of Pasco, or were you limited to the east side?
Williams: Limited to the east side, if I’m building them for myself. But if you wanted me to build you a house, I could build it over there. But I couldn’t build nothing on the east side of 4th Street. And I was stuck with what I was trying to do on the east side. And after I goofed up on putting in them foundations, they tore the playhouse down there and wouldn’t put in a grocery store. Because I wasn’t going to build no grocery store.
Moore: Ask him about—let’s hear the story about the grocery store. Was that a company wanted you to build out?
Williams: The company wanted me to put in a grocery store, kinda like the Eastside Market was, over there. But the guy was going to run it for me. And if I was going to borrow the money to build it, I wanted to run it for myself. And because I wouldn’t sign for him—me build the store, they supply the store and they run the store, they cut my funding off and told me they wasn’t going to lend me another nickel and I told him I didn’t give a damn.
Moore: [whispering] Where was it located?
Daniels: Where was it located at, Mr. Williams?
Daniels: The store that they wanted you to build.
Williams: It was over there off of--what street Velma stay on?
Williams: It was off of Sycamore.
Moore: All right.
Daniels: Okay, that just about concludes the questions and the interview. And we want to thank you, Mr. Joe Williams, and you, Dr. Fields for helping us out.
Williams: You’re welcome, and I appreciate you coming. I didn’t know nothing when you got here, and I don’t know nothing when you leaving. So, nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
Fields: The pleasure was ours.
Daniels: Thank you.