More than 500,000 people were employed by the U.S. government’s secret program to build an atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project) during the second world war. There were not only engineers, scientists and chemists but also janitors and maids. African-American men and women were among these workers. Some could only serve as laborers, cooks and maids at the project’s rural production sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington.
However, the project’s urban research centers at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and at Columbia University in New York had Black scientists who helped developed the two atomic bombs that were released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, eventually bringing the war to an end, according to History.com.
William Knox was one of the about 12 Black scientists who worked as researchers with the team that came up with the technology behind the atomic bomb. He became the only Black supervisor in the Manhattan Project.
Today, he is not only remembered for his role in helping to develop the atomic bomb but for being among a few Black scientists who transferred their wartime experience into private industry, as reported by BlackPast. Knox worked as a research scientist for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York after his Manhattan project work.
He was taught the importance of education early on in life, coming from a humble background. Born in 1904 in Massachusetts, U.S., Knox was the eldest of five children. His grandfather had been a slave in North Carolina. His father, William Knox Sr, was a clerk at the U.S. Postal Service in New Bedford.
He and his brothers excelled academically, with all attending Harvard University. Knox graduated from Harvard in 1925 where he studied chemistry and was one of only six Black students in his year. He helped bring an end to discrimination on the grounds of race or religion at Harvard. Knox became a teacher after leaving Harvard. In 1928, he went for a master’s degree at MIT in chemical engineering and was at Howard University for a short time before going back to MIT to complete a Ph.D. with a focus on the absorption of light by nitrogen tetroxide.
Knox then became a lecturer at North Carolina A&T State University, before becoming head of chemistry at Talladega College in Alabama. His two brothers, Larry and Clinton, had also gained doctorates during this period, with Larry studying chemistry, and later joining Knox on the Manhattan Project. Clinton on the other hand became the first African-American secretary to the United States Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and former United States Ambassador to the countries of Dahomey (Benin) and Haiti. Clinton would make headlines in 1973 when he was held hostage for 17 hours by revolutionaries in Haiti who demanded cash and the release of some political prisoners.
In 1942, Knox contacted Willard Libby (who would become a Nobel laureate) and asked to join his war work at Columbia University in New York City. And that was how Knox joined the Manhattan Project the following year, working on “how to use uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a highly corrosive gas, to separate isotopes and obtain the U-235 isotope necessary for a nuclear weapon,” as stated by Chemistry World.
Knox became the supervisor of the corrosion division, making him the only Black supervisor in the project. Because of his work at the corrosion division, he was able to get a job as a research scientist for Eastman Kodak in 1945 where he received 21 patents in 25 years and became a coatings expert. In 1970, Knox retired from Kodak and went back to teaching at North Carolina A&T. He retired in 1973.
Before his death on July 9, 1995, leaving behind a wife and daughter, he fought for the rights of his fellow Blacks, even becoming an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been of immense help to him during his time at Harvard.