Oak Ridge and desegregation

I grew up in Oak Ridge TN, where the uranium was enriched for the Hiroshima bomb. There’s a recent piece on the NYT on Oak Ridge and desegregation. One of the local players at the time was Waldo Cohn, a chemist and symphony conductor, who was on the school board at the time. Here’s his account:

MR. COHN: So, this Advisory Town Council met every week, every second week with him. There were seven people. I was interested in not only community affairs, but I was also interested in politics, and I was not on the original one at all. Before one of the elections would come up, which was every two years, some of the people who were interested in who would run for it, asked me to run. I believe the person who asked me to run for it was Evelyn Snell, wife of Arthur Snell, now retired from the physics division. So I agreed to run and I think this was 1951, and I ran, and I was elected. I became secretary of the seven member council, not chairman. I forget who was chairman. And then came 1953, and I ran for re-election. Then again, they wanted a chairman, and no one wanted to be chairman. They said, “You’ve been secretary,” pointing at me, and, “You look like a person we could impress into being chairman. So we’ll elect you chairman.” So, I became chairman. Well, in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower, who was then President as you know, issued an edict, or an executive order it’s called, to all, through the Army, that all Army bases that had schools would henceforth desegregate those schools. This was unheard of in those days because this was well before anything like that happened nationally, but there had been pushes by the black community and those interested for a long time for desegregating the schools and other forms of desegregation. I should point out that in Oak Ridge, up until that time, no black could go to any but a certain, one barbershop, run by blacks for blacks. They couldn’t go to the movie theaters unless the movie theater had a special section in the back that they could go to. They couldn’t go to the laundromat, and there were a lot of things. The skating rinks, they were barred to blacks. It was a bleeding wound as far as those of us who were concerned about the rights of black citizens. It was a concern. To get back to Eisenhower and his edict, but I heard that. I said, “Perhaps we could petition Eisenhower to include the Atomic Energy Commission facilities,” which we were still one, “under that executive order to the Army.” So, I constructed a very simple petition to the President to consider doing this. Whereas, whereas, whereas, therefore, do this. I circulated it to all the members of the town council, advisory town council. I think it was Christmas week, as a matter of fact, at the end of ’53, and at the next meeting in January, we got together, and I said, “What do you think about this?” Five members said, “We think it’s a great idea.” Vote “aye” and two members said, “No.” So we considered it passed and I sent it off to the President. However, [inaudible 40:42] the President. Well, there was a reporter from The Oak Ridger present and he was usually the only person who attended these Advisory Town Council meetings. The next day, this hit the front page of The Oak Ridger. The day after that the egg really hit the fan. All sorts of organizations, Citizens for Better Government, Citizens for Action Council, and so forth were started, and the only thing they could think of doing was to recall me because I had started this whole thing and I was the chairman of the council. So they circulated a petition and they got lots and lots of signatures because anybody who could show any proof of residency, just a simple letter with his name and address could sign the petition and could vote. Well, they got enough to force, according to our rules of organization, a recall election. Well, in the meantime, I decided that council couldn’t do any business with 100 people sitting there glaring at me at every meeting, which is what happened at the first meeting after the January one. So, I said to the council, “I’ll step aside and let the vice chairman take over and resign my chairmanship.” That’s how Cliff Brill became the chairman, as it said in the recent obituary. Well, the recall election was set for a month’s end. That was the limit that the bylaws would allow, and it was quite a thing. There were letters to the editor back and forth, half a dozen every day, most of them cursing me and all kinds of anonymous and derogatory phone calls, even threatening ones. Several of the comic Valentines stressed my Jewish background, “Why don’t I go back to Israel?” “Why don’t I go back to Russia,” where I obviously came from. I mean some of them really curled your hair. Some of the phone calls at three o’clock in the morning would wake us up, and say, “You…” Well, I can’t say on that any kind of tape, the kind of language that was used. And I was advised by Frank Wilson and Gene Joyce, our most prominent lawyers to stay out of dark alleys because you don’t know the caliber of these people. So, my wife still says that’s where she got her grey hair. I was sort of amused a little bit by it. I used to go around to the public meetings of the Citizens Advisory Council, sneak in at the back so the speaker could see me there and throw him off his feet, so to speak. But any rate, finally it did come to a vote. We borrowed two voting machines from the county. They had not been used before in Oak Ridge. Anybody could vote who could present an envelope with a name and address on it, and the address was an Oak Ridge one. So, the opposition went up in the hills, distributed these envelopes, and brought people down by the car load who had never in their lives voted before, never seen a voting machine.

MR. AUERBACH: What year was that?

MR. COHN: This was 1954, in about… what a minute, yes, ’54. Early in the year, about February.


MR. COHN: Any rate, even with this kind of voting, they mustered 60 percent against 40. It took two-thirds to recall. It wasn’t quite recalled. I must continue this story with a little post-script. In 1954, later that year, the Supreme Court passed the famous desegregation opinion, which made the whole thing, as lawyers like to say, moot. Since the AEC was still running everything here, that settled the question of desegregating our schools. Later that year, my son, at that time, was getting a hair cut in one of our still segregated barber shops, right here near Pine Valley, and while he was getting his hair trimmed, people were sitting waiting, talking to the barber, “Well, what do you think of that Supreme Court decision?” “Oh, that’s terrible. They’ll never get that to stick. That Waldo Cohn, he’s responsible for all this.” [Laughter] This is what our 10-year-old son came home and told me. We said, “What did you say, Don, when you heard that?” He said, “Look, he was cutting close to my ears. I just made myself very small.” [Laughter]

MR. AUERBACH: Well, I think that’s a chapter in your life you ought to be very, very proud of.