The Manhattan Project, 1941-1946, was one of the largest scientific undertakings in the history of the United States, ranking with the ten year effort to place an American astronaut on the moon between 1961 and 1969. It began with a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1939, from a number of prominent physicists including Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, which warned of Nazi Germany's efforts to produce "extremely powerful bombs of a new type, " and urged the United States government to engage in research that would produce the weapon first. The Roosevelt Administration heeded the warning and on October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt approved a crash research program to build an atomic bomb. Four years later this program produced the world's first atomic bombs. They were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945, instantly killing over 110, 000 people and forcing the Japanese government to surrender. This display of deadly power, heretofore unmatched in the history of humankind, ushered in the nuclear age.
Approximately 130, 000 Americans worked on the project with the vast majority serving as construction workers and plant operators at newly created communities such as Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington. Drawing on natural resources from around the world including critically important uranium from the Belgian Congo, scientists and technicians, plant operators, military personnel, and construction workers labored around the clock in secrecy to complete the project and build this weapon of mass destruction before Nazi Germany completed its own atomic bomb. Much of the initial research on the U.S. bomb was done in existing laboratory facilities at major universities including Columbia, Princeton, and the largest of the atomic research centers, the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago.
On August 13, 1942, the mission to produce the atomic bomb was officially named the Manhattan Engineer District in order to avoid calling attention to the scientific nature of the work. The working title eventually became the Manhattan Project. Several hundred scientists and technicians worked at various times and at numerous secret facilities across the United States and Canada that were engaged in the research that would produce the first atomic weapons. Scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller became legendary figures not only in the scientific community but among the general population when their crucial work on this project became generally known. Only through the efforts of African American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, and after 1945 Ebony Magazine, however, were people made aware of the handful of black scientists and technicians (all men) who worked on the project as well.
The fact that any African American scientists and technicians were available to be involved in the Manhattan Project is remarkable given the enormous limitations placed on the education of blacks in the South before World War II. As late as 1933 only 54% of Southern white students were attending high school and only 18% of Southern blacks were there at a time when the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived in the states of the former Confederacy. Also given the huge differential in the laboratory equipment and prepared teaching staff, even those in segregated black high schools got scant exposure to any type of science training. Students at historically black colleges at the time usually faced similar challenges.