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My pop-pop was a groundbreaking black chemist — who helped create the atomic bomb

Almost everything I know about my grandfather comes secondhand from newspaper clips, obituaries I've found on Google, books, and the stories I've heard of him in car rides home.

Pop-Pop broke barriers early and often. Born in July 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas, as the oldest son of two educators, Samuel P. Massie Jr. graduated high school at age 13 and began a PhD in organic chemistry when he was 21 in hopes of finding a cure for his father's asthma.

He didn't, but his award-winning research went on to be instrumental in the fight against malaria, meningitis, and gonorrhea. He was hand-picked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the first African-American professor at the United States Naval Academy in 1966, where he taught until his retirement in 1990.

In 1998, Chemistry and Engineering News announced he was one of the world's 75 most distinguished chemists of the 20th century. Also on the list: James Watson and Francis Crick — the biologist and physicist duo who discovered the double helix — Kodak founder George Eastman, and Marie Curie. Thirty-five were Nobel Prize winners. Only three of the honorees were African American, and of them, my grandfather was the only one still alive when the list came out.

I've had to grapple with a more complicated aspect of his legacy: the fact that the work he did contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people

Despite all these accomplishments and accolades, there's one detail from his résumé that always gets mentioned along with his name, from encyclopedia entries to published obituaries: For two years as a young man, he worked on the Manhattan Project, the $2 billion US government program that created the atomic bomb.

I grew up thinking of my grandfather as a trailblazer. But in the years since his death in 2005, I've also had to grapple with a more complicated aspect of his legacy: the fact that the work he did contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

I wrote about what this fact meant for me last summer for the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it is still not easy for me to reconcile the two sides of my grandfather's story. That has a lot to do with the things he never told me, and the things we rarely say about the moral complexities of the Manhattan Project itself.

What the Manhattan Project was — and how my grandfather got involved in it

The first detonation of a nuclear device, conducted by the United States Army on July 16, 1945, as a result of the Manhattan Project, in the Jornada del Muerto desert, New Mexico. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The seeds of the Manhattan Project were sown before the US entered World War II. In 1939, fearing Nazi Germany was developing a nuclear weapon, a small group of American scientists organized around the possibility of using the newly discovered technique of nuclear fission, or splitting the atom, for military purposes.

The bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, gave the research greater urgency. In 1942 the United States Army took charge of the project, and for the next three years it employed 130,000 of the country's top scientists and military officials working in research labs across the country in a concerted effort to harness the immensely intense and destructive energy emitted when uranium and plutonium isotopes are separated.

At the time, Pop-Pop was a graduate student at Iowa State University under the mentorship of Dr. Henry Gilman, a white chemist who actively recruited African-American students.

Though Gilman was known for championing black scientists, Pop-Pop did not have the exact same access to resources as his white peers at Iowa State.

"The laboratory for the white boys was on the second floor next to the library," he said. "My laboratory was in the basement next to the rats. Separate but equal."

For some scientists, mice were research subjects. For Pop-Pop, rats were more likely lab partners.

In 1943, at the end of his second year in the program, Pop-Pop made a trip home to Little Rock. His father had passed away days earlier. In the midst of tragedy, he took the opportunity to renew his war deferment papers.

Men ages 21 to 36 were required to sign up for military service. Black men like my grandfather were no exception. At the time, there were no formal occupational exemptions. Instead, most deferment decisions were at the discretion of the draft board, and for Pop-Pop, that was a problem.

When he went to file his paperwork, the officer at the local draft board denied his application. The reason, as my dad told me: The officer said Pop-Pop had "too much education for a ni**er."

Pop-Pop contacted Gilman for help. In response, Gilman offered to let him join the Manhattan Project. Gilman's laboratory happened to be one among the many around the country that were working on the project. And there was no military operation more important to national security at the time.

I don't know how my grandfather felt about Gilman's offer — whether it was difficult or easy for him to say yes. Even in a 1964 interview in the Gilman Papers, those details remain absent:

"[A]ll of us had to make a decision how we would serve the war efforts," Pop-Pop said. "I dropped out of school and went into the chemical warfare service with Dr. Gilman here at Ames."

Gilman and Iowa State sent papers to the draft board to confirm Pop-Pop's involvement in the project. Over and over again, the deferment office lost them. Nonetheless, Gilman persisted until the officer approved Pop-Pop's deferment request, with one caveat: "If this boy ever acts up, let us know and we'll put him in the Army."

From 1943 to 1945, Pop-Pop worked on the project. His conducted military research to make liquid compounds out of the uranium isotope. During this time, he developed keloids on his back from the radiation. He watched as colleagues in a lab next to him blew up before his eyes. After VJ Day, he went back to school and completed his PhD in May 1946.

"Everything in life doesn't have the same value. It depends on the circumstances."

The author, in a blue dress, in front of her grandfather's red Cadillac. Samuel Massie is on the far left of the photo. (Courtesy of Victoria Massie)

My family had just returned home to Kinston, North Carolina, from vacation when my grandmother called with the news that Pop-Pop had had a stroke while driving his beloved red Cadillac to the airport.

I was 7 years old. His body and his mind only got worse from that point. And so most things I know about my grandfather come from other people's nostalgic recollections of who he was.

And I held on to those stories. When my classmates gave presentations on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks for Black History Month, I talked about Pop-Pop. When I found out I was accepted to my state's science and math boarding school just hours after singing "Amazing Grace" at his funeral, I found solace in the idea that I was, at least, still carrying on his legacy. And I found sanctuary as an undergrad in Rochester, New York, knowing Pop-Pop had once walked the same city streets decades earlier while working for Eastman Kodak.

His memory has been like a lifeline in my most troubling hours. But neither I nor America as a whole gets to ignore the more complicated elements of his legacy.

What I know of what the Manhattan Project meant to Pop-Pop remains as opaque to me as the meaning of the Manhattan Project for America

"Everything in life doesn't have the same value," Pop-Pop said. "It depends on the circumstances." Pop-Pop used this statement to justify his unorthodox grading rubric as a teacher: He gave two points for every right answer and deducted 50 points for every wrong one. But it could also apply to his work on the Manhattan Project.

What I know of what the Manhattan Project meant to Pop-Pop remains as opaque to me as the meaning of the Manhattan Project for America.

"The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base," President Harry Truman told the nation by radio on August 9, 1945. "That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."

Three days earlier an estimated 135,000 people died in Hiroshima, 60,000 to 80,000 of whom were killed instantly from the intense heat of the bomb's blast. And hours before Truman's address, a second atomic bomb was unleashed on Nagasaki.

Truman made no mention of Nagasaki in his speech. And while Japanese soldiers were counted among the casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many more were civilian city residents.

Whether the atomic bombing was necessary remains contentious and unclear. Truman defended his decision as a necessary end to war. Still, some critics have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender and would have done so even without being bombed.

Without my grandfather here, I cannot ask him how he felt about the bomb. And based on the interviews I've seen with him, no answers are available. Perhaps no one ever asked him.

How I make sense of my grandfather's legacy — and the Manhattan Project's

The author in 1991 with her grandparents at a gala. (Courtesy of Victoria Massie)

More than 70 years after the bombings, no American politician has offered an apology for the lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Secretary of State John Kerry was the first US secretary of state to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial last month.

"It is a stunning display; it is a gut-wrenching display," Kerry said. "It tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being. It reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices of war and what war does to people, to communities, countries, the world."

Today, President Barack Obama is the first sitting president to make the visit. And again, the White House has made clear that no apology is expected, which has sparked a number of conflicting responses.

The head of the Hiroshima Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations stated: "Of course everyone wants to hear an apology. Our families were killed."

But a former United States Army staff sergeant who fought in World War II said the bomb was a matter of survival: "From my point of view, the fact that the war ended when it did and the way it did, it saved my life and it saved the life of those Americans and other allied POWs that were in Japan at the time."

For Arthur Ishimoto, a Japanese-American World War II veteran, an apology doesn't necessarily get to the complexity of the situation.

"War is hell," he said. " Nobody wins. There is no victor, really."

But World War II is one of the few wars that America continues defend as a righteous cause. Those who grew up in the midst of the Great Depression and fought in World War II are known as the Greatest Generation. It was one of the last moments before America found itself fighting wars that could not be won like the Vietnam War and the current global war on terror.

But the Manhattan Project, and my grandfather's involvement in it, is a reminder that even World War II was more complex than it appears. The United States unleashed a nuclear weapon on its path to victory.

My grandfather had to choose between challenging, morally ambiguous scientific research and possible death on the battlefield. These complexities get glossed over, both in the way we as a country discuss World War II and in the way my grandfather is remembered.

Rarely is there a news article about him that doesn't mention the Manhattan Project. None of the ambiguities of his story are ever acknowledged.

"In my field of Chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that makes chemical reactions take place faster," Pop-Pop wrote in his autobiography. "In a chemical reaction, it is a 'helping' chemical — aiding and facilitating the reaction. I have tried to be a human catalyst. Human catalysts motivate and help others to act more effectively."

He did this during his life as an educator, as a pioneer, as a friend, as a husband, as a father, and as my grandfather. And I hope that today his story can be a catalyst still: to motivate us to talk more frankly about the Manhattan Project and its complexities.

Victoria Massie is a Vox writing fellow.

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